Recently I had occaision to discuss the merits of wind power with a colleague. In particular there is a controversy between horizontal axis wind turbines, the giant propeller driven systems you see in advertisements, and vertical wind, which does not have much presence in the marketplace. The premise is that horizontal systems can take advantage of the large swept area of the propeller blades to generate a great deal of force. I’m not sure if this is supposed to imply that large swept areas intrinsically convert more kinetic energy from the wind into electricity. And it is easy to conclude that this is the benefit of horizontal wind turbines.
Except that there is a fundamental mechatronic system at work. The large propeller turns at low speeds, typically around 18 rpm on average, and there is a massive gearbox that is used to increase the speed of the output to turn a generator at high speed, which is typically where generators are most efficient. The gear increaser has the effect of also increasing the amount of torque required at the input (propeller) by the gear ratio. So if the gear increase is 100:1, then the propeller must be size 100 times larger in swept area in order to produce the needed torque to turn the generator.
This actually gets a bit worse since the mass, and it is very substantial, of the gear box itself represnts inertia that is resisting the turning of the blades. And there is a generator rotor at the end of the gearbox whose mass (massive mass) is now resisting the turning of the propeller by the square of the ratio. So if the ratio is 100:1, the inertia is increased by 10,000 times. Even magnetic drag, or the residual attraction of the rotor to the stator, will get amplified in the same fashion, making it a significant force to contend with.
Add to this situaion a list of systems losses for overall fricitional loss of the bearings and gearbox, parasitic losses for steering and blade pitch adjustments. Efficiency losses due to long distance transmission of power, that is a by-product of the remote sites that have favorable wind conditions. It’s a pretty difficult situation to engineer. And they keep proposing to build them bigger and bigger, hoping that the scale effect will overcome the problems.
All of the vertical wind systems I have seen so far are much smaller due to the fact that smaller rotors can turn at higher speed and power electric generators directly. The flax axial generator is very popular in do-it-yourself designs that people are experimenting with in their back yards.
But vertical wind can also scale up. And there are a few companies doing it. With convertional wind power costing $2/watt, vertical systems could bring that price down very quickly and allow systems that can be installed close to the point of use or in offshore arrays where generation takes place almost 100% of the time. Unlike the average 31% on the large land based systems.
Now that’s progress, 300% increase in energy generation at lower cost. Hope it comes to market soon.