Tiny Turbines Yield Data On Hilly Terrain

Forget computer models and wind farm “simulations.” Researchers at Iowa State University are taking a more hands-on approach to studying wind power production – by building a tiny wind farm and testing it in the university’s real-life, state-of-the-art wind tunnel. The project will help Iowa State’s aerospace engineers better understand how hills, valleys and the placement of turbines affect wind farm production.

At 10 inches tall, with 10-inch blade diameters, the turbines are perfect 1:320 scale reproductions of the countless 80-meter diameter wind turbines dotting the Iowa landscape. The team, led by associate professor of aerospace engineering Hui Hu, will mount tiny generators inside the turbines to measure power production and sensors at the base of the turbines to measure wind loads. The team will also use a method called particle image velocimetry, which uses a laser and a camera to show the movement and velocity of individual air particles as they move over hills and across turbines.

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According to Hu, the team’s preliminary results show that hilly terrain results in higher wind loads, and a quicker recovery in power potential as the wind moves from turbine to turbine. Turbines can also be placed closer together on hilly terrain than flat terrain, without suffering a significant loss in production. The study is supported by a three-year, $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation and a two-year, $100,000 grant from the Iowa Alliance for Wind Innovation and Novel Development.

“These studies are telling us things we didn’t know before,” Hu said. “And this will help optimize the design of wind turbine layouts with consideration of the terrain. We want to work with the wind turbine industry to transfer some of our findings. We can help boost total energy capture, and we can lengthen the lifetimes of wind turbines, making them more efficient.”

Lauren Craig is a writer and consultant living in Seattle, WA. She holds an M.S. in International Development from Tulane University, and is co-founder of Sustainable Systems Integrators, LLC., an employee-owned solar energy design and installation firm in New Orleans, LA. She is also certified in PV design and installation by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP).