Wind Energy is for the Birds

No, really – GE Wind Energy, the world’s 2nd largest wind turbine supplier, has come up with a way to make its giant spinning rotor blades more visible to our feathered friends. Freelance journalist Steve Brachmann highlighted this patent-pending design, along with several other wind energy innovations out of GE, in a recent series of tech articles honoring Earth Day 2013. Admittedly, Steve beat me to the punch with the Earth Day blog theme. One piece in particular, GE Wind Patents Focus on Blade Design, Protecting Birds, stood out to me because, well, I’m a nerd when it comes to rotor technology (I’m a former rotorcraft engineer) and green energy generally. So without further ado, here’s my take on a couple of GE’s recent innovations:

Wind Turbine Rotor Blades with Ultraviolet Light-Reflective Substances:

Ten bucks says an aviation enthusiast, or maybe even a waterfowl hunter, came up with this idea. I’m both. Essentially, GE proposes using UV-reflective tape or similar materials on the surface of its wind turbine blades to improve their visibility to birds while in motion. While airplane propellers, helicopter rotors, and engine fan blades have long sported stripes or other visual indicators to improve visibility in the face of a phenomena called “motion smear,” GE took the concept one step further by applying UV-reflective coatings as these are highly visible to avian eyes. The fact that GE endorses the science makes this duck hunter feel a little better about spending an extra 20% for decoys with UV paint.

Wind turbine blades with twisted and tapered tips:

Have you ever looked out the window of an airliner and noticed a swirling cloud of air trailing from the wingtip on a humid day? That’s called a tip vortex, and the drag it induces kills aerodynamic efficiency. Over the years, aeronautical engineers have come up with ways to minimize these tip vortices, including winglets (those curled or folded up wingtips) and tapered wing tips. The latter solution minimizes the amount of disturbance created by the wing tip – thereby reducing the vortex drag – but this also cuts back the amount of lift generated by that portion of the wing. This is often referred to as tip unloading. That’s not a big deal for airplanes, but is a problem for spinning rotors as they generate most of their lift/thrust on the outboard sections of the blade.

GE Wind’s solution? Introduce positive, or backwards, twist at the blade tip. By twisting the leading edge of the blade up, the angle of attack of that section is increased in a manner that increases lift, or loading, while inhibiting vortex development. High-five to the engineer that made it work (but maybe not from the manufacturing guy who has to figure out a way to build it in real life).


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