Texas Center Eyes Building A Better Wind Farm

On the wind-swept plain of the Texas panhandle, government, academic and industry researchers are now taking on the challenge of making wind power better, with a particular focus on the hugely important question of how turbines arrayed in a group affect each other.

“Some estimates show that 10 to 40 percent of wind energy production and revenue is lost due to complex wind plant interaction,” said Jon White, Sandia National Laboratory’s technical lead for the just-commissioned research center at Texas TechUniversity, dubbed SWiFT, for Scaled Wind Farm Technology.

The new SWiFT research facility (image via Texas Tech University)

The new SWiFT research facility (image via Texas Tech University)

Wake energy loss and wake-induced loads are the kinds of thing that can be simulated and studied with sophisticated computer programs. But at SWiFT, reseachers have actually turbines installed in the field, three to start with more possibly to come, to work with. There are also two 60-meter weather towers. Here’s how the turbines are arrayed:

SWiFT will initially consist of three research-scale wind turbines (modified Vestas V27s) with the first two turbines spaced three diameters apart, perpendicular to the oncoming wind, and the third turbine five diameters downwind. (The turbines form a 3-, 5-, and 6-rotor-diameter-length triangle.) The site has been prepared to add seven additional research-scale wind turbines in the future. The V27 turbine was chosen as the test bed due to its proven history of high reliability. It will be capable of full variable-speed variable-pitch operation with rotational speeds ranging from 0–55 rpm, rotor blades of 9–15 meter lengths, and a maximum power rating of 300 kW.

Two of the turbines were paid for by the U.S. Department of Energy, and a third came courtesy of Vestas.

“For Vestas, the commissioning of SWiFT marks the realization of a technology-acceleration vehicle,” Anurag Gupta, who works for Vestas Wind Systems’ product integration team, said in a statement. “With its intersection of scale and design, this vehicle provides both cost-effective accuracy as well as the ability to bridge fundamental and applied research at the power plant level. This will help Vestas to quickly drive organic and partner innovations to market.”

The three turbines won’t just spin for science’s benefit; they’ll also produce power, which means revenue. According to the center:

Revenue generated from the energy produced by the Vestas turbine will be directed toward a Vestas Wind Research Program through Texas Tech’s National Wind Institute (NWI). Revenue generated from the energy produced by the Sandia turbines will be directed towards supporting NWI graduate students conducting Sandia wind research projects.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.