Not Cool: Another Reason to Reject Unreliable Wind Power – Iced Up Blades Totally Disables Turbines

Ice covered blade

During the recent Big Freeze, thousands of Texan wind turbines were frozen solid, incapacitated by burst of frigid winter conditions. Dead calm weather meant that those that weren’t frozen stiff, added practically nothing to the grid.

While the internal workings of wind turbines (gearboxes, generators, yaw and blade pitch controls) can be kept operable with on-board heating systems (chewing up electricity from the grid all the while), the 50-60m long blades are a different story.

This recent study from the Iowa State University shows that the phenomenon will knock – an already ephemeral energy source – completely out of action. As it did in Texas, last month.

Field study shows icing can cost wind turbines up to 80% of power production
Iowa State University
Hui Ha and Mike Krapil
4 March 2021

AMES, Iowa – Wind turbine blades spinning through cold, wet conditions can collect ice nearly a foot thick on the yard-wide tips of their blades.

This drone photo from a field study of icing on wind turbines shows how ice accumulated at the tip of a turbine blade during a winter storm. The study found ice accumulation can be nearly a foot thick on the blade tips.

That disrupts blade aerodynamics. That disrupts the balance of the entire turbine. And that can disrupt energy production by up to 80 percent, according to a recently published field study led by Hui Hu, Iowa State University’s Martin C. Jischke Professor in Aerospace Engineering and director of the university’s Aircraft Icing Physics and Anti-/De-icing Technology Laboratory.

Hu has been doing laboratory studies of turbine-blade icing for about 10 years, including performing experiments in the unique ISU Icing Research Tunnel. Much of that work has been supported by grants from the Iowa Energy Center and the National Science Foundation.

“But we always have questions about whether what we do in the lab represents what happens in the field,” Hu said. “What happens over the blade surfaces of large, utility-scale wind turbines?”

We all know about one thing that recently happened in the field. Wind power and other energy sources froze and failed in Texas during last month’s winter storm.

Searching for a Field Site 
Hu wanted to quantify what happens on wind farms during winter weather and so several years ago began organizing a field study. But that was more complicated than he expected. Even in Iowa, where some 5,100 wind turbines produce more than 40% of the state’s electricity (according to the U.S. Energy Information Association), he wasn’t given access to turbines. Energy companies usually don’t want their turbine performance data to go public.

So Hu – who had made connections with researchers at the School of Renewable Energy at North China Electric Power University in Beijing as part of an International Research Experiences for Students program funded by the National Science Foundation – asked if Chinese wind farms would cooperate.

Operators of a 34-turbine, 50-megawatt wind farm on a mountain ridgetop in eastern China agreed to a field study in January 2019. Hu said most of the turbines generate 1.5 megawatts of electricity and are very similar to the utility-scale turbines that operate in the United States.

Because the wind farm the researchers studied is not far from the East China Sea, Hu said the wind turbines there face icing conditions more like those in Texas than in Iowa. Iowa wind farms are exposed to colder, drier winter conditions; when winter cold drops to Texas, wind farms there are exposed to more moisture because of the nearby Gulf of Mexico.

Measuring the ice 
As part of their field work, the researchers used drones to take photos of 50-meter-long turbine blades after exposure to up to 30 hours of icy winter conditions, including freezing rain, freezing drizzle, wet snow and freezing fog.

The photographs allowed detailed measurement and analyses of how and where ice collected on the turbine blades. Hu said the photos also allowed researchers to compare natural icing to laboratory icing and largely validated their experimental findings, theories and predictions.

The photos showed, “While ice accreted over entire blade spans, more ice was found to accrete on outboard blades with the ice thickness reaching up to 0.3 meters (nearly 1 foot) near the blade tips,” the researchers wrote in a paper recently published online by the journal Renewable Energy

The researchers used the turbines’ built-in control and data-acquisition systems to compare operation status and power production with ice on the blades against more typical, ice-free conditions.

“That tells us what’s the big deal, what’s the effect on power production,” Hu said.

The researchers found that icing had a major effect:

“Despite the high wind, iced wind turbines were found to rotate much slower and even shut down frequently during the icing event, with the icing-induced power loss being up to 80%,” the researchers wrote.

That means Hu will continue to work on another area of wind-turbine research – finding effective ways to de-ice the blades so they keep spinning, and the electricity keeps flowing, all winter long.
Iowa State University

turbine ice

Not cool: never reliable & hopeless in icy winter weather.

About stopthesethings

We are a group of citizens concerned about the rapid spread of industrial wind power generation installations across Australia.


  1. Rafe Champion says:

    South Australia is demonstrating the failure of wind power. Victoria is heading in the same direction as fast as they can.

  2. Rafe Champion says:

    Surely the fundamental problem with wind power is wind droughts, no amount of improvements to performance in cold weather or other conditions makes any difference to the real flaw in the system. Until we have explained that to everyone the politicians will keep inventing technological fixes and spend billions going nowhere, like subsidising the hydrogen obsession.

  3. Maybe it’s time to go back to basics of attaching wind energy producing systems direct to their source rather than using a more complex grid management system. These systems seem to have gone off course. Christopher Columbus ships that discovered America were powered by the wind, there was no need to keep the sails warm using electricity from a grid or back up batteries, he just avoided wind power during these cold months. Attach propellers to automobiles. Only drive to work when there’s wind. Only deliver milk when there’s wind. Attach them direct to heating and air conditioning to move those parts without electricity. Obviously this electricity thing is the problem. It’s like there’s too many different moving parts. Costs always go up and that is more energy parts being used. It’s like someone trying to build a bridge using things that they make fit found in a junkyard. Direct drive is the answer.

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