The end of the line for today’s wind turbines

 By Robin Wylie

Time could be running out for today’s wind farms, according to two researchers from the United Kingdom. “We need to start thinking today about the future of our wind turbines”, says Dr Athanasios Kolios and María Martínez-Luengo from Cranfield University. Robin Wylie looks at a recent article published in the journal “Renewable Energy Focus” by these authors, discussing the importance to wind energy…

Governments around the world must act now to safeguard the health of their aging wind turbines, according to a UK-based expert.

Dr Athanasios Kolios, a senior lecturer in Risk Management and Reliability Engineering at Cranfield University, says that countries must start to more carefully monitor the health of their wind turbines in order to protect against decreasing efficiency and increasing maintenance costs which can affect turbines as they reach the end of their operational lifespans.

In a recent op-ed for the journal Renewable Energy Focus co-authored with his doctoral student María Martínez-Luengo, Dr Kolios wrote that in order to best extend the life of our wind turbines, “the industry needs to invest time and money on identifying at-risk components” in order to protect against declining performance in later life.

Most of today’s large wind turbines are designed to operate for around 25 years, although this lifetime can potentially be extended with appropriate maintenance.

More than 90% of the world’s current wind power capacity was installed after 2005. However, most of the rest was installed in the mid-1990s, meaning that that a small but significant percentage of wind turbines will reach the end of their 25-year lifespans within the next five years.

Credit: Nick Cross

The majority of wind turbines operating today may be relatively new. But, the industry cannot afford to ignore the matter until then — in order to safeguard future performance, governments will need to keep tabs on the (relatively few) turbines which are nearing the end of their stated lifespan to avoid any nasty surprises further down the line.

According to Kolios and Martínez-Luengo, the best way to do this would be for governments to integrate “Structural Health Monitoring and Condition Monitoring Systems” into wind turbines. These include the use of remote sensors on the turbine, for example, strain gauges or accelerometers, to provide useful data about the condition of the structure and components.

Such maintenance could be even more important than people assume. A 2014 study found that the UK’s first wind turbines deployed in the 1990s have already dropped to about 75% of their ideal production, despite being well within their assumed 25-year lifespan.

The cost of maintaining and inspecting wind turbines can be high (for example, spare parts such as rotor blades can be up to 20% of the cost of a whole turbine). But with wind energy so vital to curbing CO2 emissions, it’s time to start keeping a closer eye on the health of our turbines.


SEE MORE: The 2,000-year-old turbine by Robin Wylie


about the author
Robin Wylie
Freelance earth/space science journalist. Currently finishing off a PhD in volcanology at University College London.