Thinking Tech

Wind turbine explodes, generates controversy [video]

Wind turbine explodes, generates controversy [video]

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A 'freak' accident has once again stirred up doubts over the safety and long term viability of wind power.

Wind turbines, often depicted twirling benignly in against a serene hilly backdrop, has become somewhat of a poster child for renewable energy. But the technology received a bit of bad publicity recently when one of the massive structures exploded at wind farm in Ardrossan, Scotland.

The disaster was part of the widespread destruction left behind as a powerful Atlantic storm that packed high winds whipping at speeds of up to 165 mph ripped through the British Isles. In its wake, about a 150,000 homes were suddenly left without power partly because a wide network of the energy-generating sites were forced to shut down temporarily, a sequence of events that has once again stirred up doubts over the long term viability of wind power.

Seizing on the opportunity, the Country Guardian, an anti-wind power organization, released a statement to the Sunday Express:

“There is a general trend upward in accident numbers over the past 10 years. This is predicted to escalate unless the Health and Safety Executive makes some significant changes, in particular to protect the public by declaring a minimum safe distance between new turbine developments and occupied housing and buildings (currently 2km in Europe), and declaring ‘no-go’ areas to the public.”

Proponents on the other side of the debate have played down the explosion as a "freak accident.
Charles Anglin, of the trade organization RenewableUK, told the Press Association, "There's some pretty freak weather going on and any piece of large power generating equipment can be subject to freak accidents or mechanical faults.

"But there's an excellent health and safety record, and it was only a small fire in a field that was put out before the fire brigade got there, and no one was hurt. In stressful situations any power equipment may develop faults, and that's true of gas, nuclear, oil, and is also true of wind."

But what's especially troubling is that these types of malfunctions aren't supposed to happen since wind turbines are designed with safety features that kick in whenever there are excessively strong winds. This enables them to operate in places with consistent gusts such as offshore sites and rural swaths of land. The manufacturer, Vestas is planning a thorough investigaion and Infinis, which operates the turbines, has since suspended operation of the site.

In the meantime, a few in the media have speculated as to what might have have happened (or didn't happen) within that intricate interconnected patchwork of gears and safety mechanisms. Paul Marks over at New Scientist outlines the various possibilities of what might went wrong:

It's not yet clear what happened, but attention is likely to focus on the turbine's ability to shut itself down in high wind. A wind turbine normally shuts down when winds reach 55 mph - but something clearly went awry in Ardrossan, perhaps causing excess current in the generator windings, which may have led to the fire.

The shutdown is normally performed by 'feathering' the turbine blades so they do not turn. "In general the turbine blades will pitch out in high winds, keeping the turbines in idle mode," confirms a spokesman for the turbine's manufacturer, Vestas of Aarhus, Denmark.

Another source of the problem may be a fault in the turbine's gearbox, which ensures the rotor speed is adjusted so that the generator provides electricity that matches what is required by the grid it is feeding.

Even before the explosion, the industry already had its hands full convincing the public that the technology is worth pouring money and confidence into. Currently, it supplies about 2 percent of the world's energy needs. Critics like the Country Guardian have also derided the whole underlying concept as fruitless since, they claim, that the energy from wind isn't constant enough to be reliable. And of course, there's that well-known problem of accidental bird fatalities that has some environmentalists reticent about the technology.

It wasn't too long ago that Billionaire oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens announced plans to build the world's largest wind farm before eroding financial support caused him bail out on the whole idea. Now the industry would probably need a to deliver a sufficient way to address and fix the problem as the storm of doubt is brewing.

(via New Scientist)

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Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure