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Learning About Wind Turbines

So you want to learn about wind turbines? Last month, Idaho Energy Freedom Advisory Council member, Eli Bowles, spoke at our monthly meeting about the nuts and bolts (no pun intended) of wind turbines and the clean energy they can produce.  

Eli Bowles serves as an Associate Professor at the College of Southern Idaho. Read on to learn more about what his students are learning about clean energy.

Starting with the Basics

As you know, wind turbines are simply a way to produce electricity. Therefore, you are going to have to learn about electricity first. You will need to learn about AC power and DC power, what a series is, a parallel, a combination circuit, and more. You’ll need to learn how electricity flows, how a circuit board works, and how you can direct the flow of electricity efficiently and safely. 

From there, you’ll graduate in complexity to a motor control trainer. You’ll learn how to read and draw schematics, learn the schematic symbols on boards and what they mean and what physical part they represent. You’ll need to be able to take a bundle of wires that looks like a plate of spaghetti to the untrained eye and turn it into something that can power a small motor. There’s a lot of complexity using three-phase power, then you’re using the transformer to get it down to single phase AC power and control voltages.

Solving Puzzles

After you’ve mastered that, then comes the fun and frustrating part: Troubleshooting. You will need to know how to look at a system and figure out why it isn’t working. Just one faulted piece will throw an entire system off, and you’ll need to figure out what’s wrong and how to fix it. You can spend hours trying to figure out there was a small connector in a complex system that was faulty, which can be frustrating but so satisfying once you fix it. Such is the process of learning how to solve puzzles, how to understand meter readings, and whether your readings are telling you what should be happening. 

While this may sound easy, too often systems have more than one small faulty piece. It may be you replace one short in the system, and you’ll find it’s created an entirely new problem. Not only will you be getting into the complexities of electricity, but also pulling wires, terminating sequences, labeling and organizing, and deep problem solving. Like solving a Rubik’s cube, but slightly less colorful. 

Getting Mechanical

So now that you understand electricity, you’ll need to get into the other side of wind turbines: Mechanics. Now you’ll need to learn about the different aspects of mechanical drives, gear ratios, backlash, alignment, and more. And you must value precision. Wind turbines are measured using a laser alignment tool that gets down to 0.05 millimeters. If you’re aligning the gearbox in the generator, you need to be spot on to get them to truly align properly, otherwise you’ll get off balance and you’re likely going to destroy components. You’ll need to know how to mount motors, chain drives, and pulleys — and these are just the basics.

Next, you’ll need to know how hydraulic systems work. Wind turbines can utilize pitch rams that are 3.5 feet long by 8 inches wide in diameter, which are too large to fit inside a classroom, but if you understand the basic principles of hydraulics, you can scale up quickly.

So far, this is simply first year learning. We have not even gotten to renewable energy production, yet. 

Clean Learning and Clean Living

Now, we take the electric knowledge and the mechanical knowledge you’ve gained and we start giving them more practical applications. Can you fix a broken down moped? Can you make a small turbine? Can you make a go-kart go? Here’s where you will begin taking apart complex motors, vehicles, clean energy pieces, and putting them back together again. Throughout this, you’ll learn the importance of safety, cleanliness, and well-greased machinery — all vital knowledge when working on a wind turbine. 

This is where you’ll start learning about how this applies to clean energy. In come the simulations, and you’ll likely be working on a wind/solar trainer to learn the balances of systems with solar panels and simulated sunlight, or small-scale wind turbines. You’ll probably 3D print the blades of a wind turbines and use them in a simulated wind tunnel to see how the wind affects different blade profiles and different airfoils.

You’ll learn how to wire the systems to harness the energy produced and convert it to electricity on increasingly larger scales. You’ll come to understand the power grid and how it interacts with small-scale and large-scale solar panels and wind turbines, where and how the energy is stored, and learning how to build on those schematics. And of course, there’s more troubleshooting.

The Ups and Downs of Graduation

After two to three years, if you’ve done well, you’ll get to learn how to do all of this on an actual wind turbine, which means you’ll learn how to climb hundreds of feet into the air and do this kind of work in a harness. 

You’ll start with high ladders that use either a glide lock system or a cable system to secure you up 293 steps to work 300 feet in the air. Of course, there is plenty of safety equipment and training before you get to an actual turbine, so you’re prepared and the height isn’t daunting. 

As you can imagine, you have to be in fairly decent shape to be able to climb these lengths and work. In practice, you’ll have to climb 300 feet in 10 minutes — that test is no joke!

From there, you’ll be able to get fancy with the climbing harnesses, even going completely inverted! This part is also fun, but you will already know safety is always your number one priority. 

Once you’ve completed this learning and training, you are guaranteed a job building turbines. The job placement rate is nearly 100% because of the high demand of new wind farms and builders, and there aren’t enough laborers to fill the increasing demand. It pays well, and you will have job security. Congratulations on your knowledge of wind turbines!

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