Types of Wind Energy Systems

There are three main types of wind energy systems.  These are:-

  1. grid-connected,
  2. grid-connected with battery backup, and
  3. off-grid.

Types of Wind Energy Systems

In this article, we’ll examine each  system and discuss the pros and cons of each. We’ll also examine hybrid systems,  consisting of a wind turbine plus another form of renewable energy. This information will help you decide which system suits your needs and lifestyle.

To begin,  let’s take a look at two of the main components of wind systems, wind turbines  and towers. Subsequent articles contain more detailed discussions of these and  other components. 

Wind Turbines: Most wind turbines in use today are horizontal axis units, or HAWTs, (explained  shortly) with three blades attached to a central hub. Together, the blades and the  hub form the rotor. In many wind turbines, the rotor is connected to a shaft that  runs horizontal to the ground, hence the name. It is connected to an electrical  generator. When the winds blow, the rotor turns and the generator produces alternating current (AC) electricity.   

One of the key components of a successful wind generator is the blades. They  capture the wind’s kinetic energy and convert it into mechanical energy (rotation).  It is then converted into electrical energy by the generator.   

The generators of wind turbines are often protected from the elements by a  durable housing made from fiberglass or aluminum.

Towers: Another vital component of all wind systems is the tower. Towers are as important as the wind turbine itself. Unfortunately, many wind turbines are mounted on towers that are much too short. This occurs out of ignorance and misguided frugality. Installing a turbine on a short tower is a common  and costly mistake. Properly sized towers place wind turbines in the path of more  powerful winds and raise turbines above turbulence created by ground clutter,  which severely diminishes the quality and quantity of wind. Don’t let anyone talk  you into a short tower!   

Electricity produced by a wind turbine runs down wires attached to the tower.  The wires typically run externally — for example, alongside a tower leg of a lattice  tower — to a junction box at the base of the tower. From there, they typically run  underground in conduit to the point of use.   

As you shall soon see, wind-electric systems involve a number of additional  components. We’ll describe them as we explore the three main types of wind energy system. 

Grid-Connected Wind Energy Systems   

Grid-connected systems are so named because they connect directly to the electrical grid. They are also referred to as batteryless grid-connected or batteryless utility-tied systems because they do not employ batteries to store surplus electricity.   

In batteryless grid-tie systems, the electrical grid accepts surplus electricity —  electricity produced by the turbine in excess of demand. When a wind system is  inactive, the grid supplies electricity to the home or business. The grid therefore  serves as the storage medium. 

A batteryless grid-connected system consists of six main  components:

  1. a wind generator specifically designed for grid connection,
  2. a  tower,
  3. an inverter/power conditioner,
  4. a main service panel
  5. meters, and 
  6. safety disconnects.   

In most batteryless grid-connected systems, the wind generator produces “wild  AC” electricity. Wild AC is alternating current electricity the frequency and voltage  of which vary with wind speed.

Wild AC, produced by wind turbines, is not directly usable. Appliances and electronic devices require a tamer version of electricity — alternating current with a  fairly constant frequency and voltage, like that available from the grid.

In a grid-connected system, the wild voltage must first be “tamed.” That is, its frequency  and voltage must be converted to standard values. This occurs in two additional  components, the controller and inverter.

Types of Wind Energy Systems
Fig: Grid-connected system.

The inverter converts the electricity to grid-compatible AC — 60 cycle per second, 120-volt (or 240-volt) electricity. Because the inverter produces electricity in sync with the grid, it’s often referred to as a synchronous inverter. 

While grid-compatible wind generators typically produce wild AC, another type of  wind generator is also found in the small wind market. It is an induction generator.  An induction generator produces grid-compatible AC electricity without a controller or inverter.   

The 120-volt or 240-volt AC produced by the inverter (or directly by an induction  generator) flows to the breaker box, which is where the circuit breakers are found.  From here, the electricity flows along wires in a house or business to electrical devices drawing power. If the wind machine is producing more electricity than is  needed, the excess is fed onto the grid.   

Surplus electricity backfed onto the grid travels from the main service panel  through the utility’s electric meter, typically mounted on the outside of the building. It then flows through the wires that connect to the grid. The surplus electricity  then travels along the power lines where it flows into neighboring homes or businesses.   

A utility electric meter monitors the electricity fed onto the grid so the utility can  credit the producer for its contribution. The meter also keeps track of electricity the  power company supplies to homes and businesses when their wind systems are  not generating.

In addition to the electric meter — or meters (some utilities require two or more  meters) — that monitor the flow of electricity onto and off the local utility grid,  grid-connected wind energy systems often contain safety disconnects.

These are  manually operated switches that enable service personnel to disconnect at a couple  of key points in the system to prevent electrical shock if service is required.

The AC disconnect must be mounted outside  so that it is accessible to utility company personnel so they can isolate the wind  system from the grid when working on the electric lines in your area without fear of  shock — for instance, if a line goes down in an ice storm.

The AC disconnect must  also contain a switch that can be locked in the off position by the utility worker so  that the homeowner or a family member doesn’t accidentally turn the system back  on prior to the completion of repairs. 

However, many experienced electric companies have come to realize that they’re simply not needed. That’s because grid-compatible inverters automatically shut off when the utility power goes down. As a  result, no electricity can flow onto the grid. A properly installed grid-connected  wind-electric system will not backfeed a dead grid.

 The Pros and Cons of Grid-Connected Systems   

Batteryless grid-connected systems are relatively simple  and typically the least expensive option — often 25% cheaper than battery-based  systems. They also require less maintenance than battery-based systems.   

Another substantial advantage of these systems is that they can store an unlimited amount of electricity on the grid (so long as the grid is operational).

Although  grid-connected systems don’t physically store excess electricity on site like a battery-based system for later use, they “store” surplus electricity on the grid in the  form of a credit on your utility bill. When winds fail to blow — or a wind turbine  isn’t producing enough electricity to meet demand — electricity is drawn from the  grid, using up the credit. Unlike a battery bank, you can never “fill up” the grid. It  will accept as much electricity as you can feed it.   

By crediting a producer for electricity fed onto the grid, a utility says, “You’ve  supplied us with xkilowatt-hours of electricity. When you need electricity, we’ll  supply you with an equal amount at no cost. If at the end of the month you’ve supplied more than you consume, we’ll either pay you for it or carry the surplus over to  the next month.”   

Another advantage of grid storage is utility storage of electricity is not subject to  losses that occur when electricity is stored in a battery. As  much as 20 to 30 percent of the electrical energy fed into a battery bank is lost due  to conversion inefficiencies and other factors.

In sharp contrast, electricity stored  on the grid comes back in full. If you deliver 100 kilowatt-hours of electricity, you  can draw off 100 kilowatt-hours. (The grid has losses too, however, net metered  customers get 100 percent return on their stored electricity.)   

Another advantage of grid-tie systems is that they are greener than battery-based  systems. Although utilities aren’t the greenest entities in the world, they are arguably greener than battery-based systems.

Grid-tie systems, when net metered, can provide some income. In windy sites,  they may produce surpluses month after month. If the local utility pays for surpluses at retail rates, the surpluses can generate income that helps reduce the cost  of the system and the annual cost of producing electricity.   

On the downside, grid-connected systems may require extensive negotiations  with local utilities. This, though, may become a thing of the past. Although some  utilities may throw up roadblocks, more and more are becoming cooperative as  they become more comfortable with these systems. 

Another downside of these systems is that when the grid goes down, so does a  batteryless grid-connected wind system. Even when winds are blowing, batteryless  grid-tied wind energy systems shut down if an electric line comes crashing down in  an ice storm or lightning strikes a nearby transformer, both of which result in a  power outage. Even though the winds are blowing, you’ll get no power from your  system. 

If power outages are a recurring problem and outages occur for long periods,  you may want to consider installing a standby gas or diesel generator that switches  on automatically when the grid goes down.

Another alternative is to install a grid-connected system with battery backup. In these systems batteries  provide backup power to a home or business when the grid goes down.   

Grid-Connected Systems with Battery Backup   

Grid-connected systems with battery backup are also known as battery-based utility-tied systems. These systems ensure a continuous supply of electricity, even  when freezing rain wipes out the electrical supply to your home or business. Main components of these systems are:-

  1. a wind turbine on a tower,
  2. a  charge controller,
  3. a battery bank,
  4. an inverter,
  5. safety disconnects,
  6. breaker box or main  service panel, and
  7. meters to keep track of electricity delivered to and drawn from the grid.   

Although grid-connected systems with battery backup are similar to batteryless  grid-connected systems, they differ in several ways. The most obvious difference is  that battery-based grid-connected systems contain a bank of batteries. They also require a different type of inverter. These systems also contain a meter that monitors  the flow of electricity into and out of the battery bank and a device known as a  charge controller.   

Fig. Grid-connected system with battery backup.

Battery banks in grid-connected systems are typically smaller than those in off-grid systems because they are usually  sized to provide sufficient storage to run a handful of critical loads for a day or two  until the utility company restores electrical service.

Keeping batteries fully charged is a high priority in these systems. Battery banks  are maintained at full charge day in and day out to ensure a ready supply of  electricity should the grid go down. It’s only when the batteries are topped off and  a household’s demands are being met that excess electricity is backfed onto the  grid.   

Batteries are called into duty only when the grid goes down. They’re a backup  power source. They’re not there to supply additional power to run loads that exceed the wind system’s output. When demand exceeds supply, electricity is supplied by the electrical grid, not the batteries. When the winds are dead, the grid, not  the battery bank, becomes the power source.   

Maintaining a fully charged battery bank requires a fair amount of electricity.  That’s because batteries self-discharge when sitting idly by. Thus, a good portion  of the surplus electricity a wind system generates may be devoted to keeping bat-  teries full. Keeping batteries topped off consumes 5 to 10 percent of a system’s  daily output. (In systems with a low-efficiency and technologically unsophisticated  inverter and a large or older battery bank, consumption can be as high as 25 to 50  percent.)   

Battery banks in grid-connected systems don’t require careful monitoring like  those in off-grid systems, but it is a very good idea to keep a close eye on them —  just to be sure they’ll be functional when the grid goes down. Owners can monitor  batteries through a meter that indicates the total amount of electricity stored in the  battery bank at any one time.

Another component found in wind energy systems with battery backup is the  charge controller, (not shown in Figure). Charge controllers contain a component  known as a rectifier. It converts AC from the wind generator to DC electricity. It is  then fed into the batteries.   

Charge controllers also monitor battery voltage. They use this information to  protect batteries from being overcharged — having too much electricity driven into  them. Overcharging can permanently damage the lead plates in batteries, dramatically reducing battery life.   

When the charge controller sees that the batteries are fully charged, it terminates  the flow of electricity to them. Surplus electricity is then fed onto the grid, or if the  grid is not operational, to a diversion or dump load. Diversion loads are typically  resistance-type devices that convert surplus electricity into heat. They are installed  in water heaters or as separate space heaters in the basement or a nearby utility  room and help put to use the surplus electricity.

Pros and Cons of Grid-Connected Systems with Battery Backup 

Grid-connected systems with backup power protect against utility failures, although typically only a handful of critical loads can be run from a battery bank.  Grid-connected systems with battery backup do have some drawbacks.

They cost  more to install and operate than batteryless grid-connect systems. Flooded lead- acid batteries used in these systems require periodic maintenance and replacement  every five to ten years, whether they’re used or not. Keeping batteries topped off  can also consume a fair amount of a system’s daily electrical output. 

When contemplating a battery-based grid-tie system, ask yourself three questions:

  1. How frequently does the grid fail in your utility’s service area?
  2. What  are your critical loads and how important is it to keep them running?
  3. How do  you react when the grid fails?   

If the local grid is extremely reliable, you don’t have medical support equipment  to run or need computers for critical financial transactions, and you don’t mind  using candles on the rare occasions when the grid goes down, why buy, maintain,  and replace costly batteries?

Off-Grid (Stand-Alone) Systems   

Those who want to or must supply all of their needs through wind energy or a  combination of wind and solar and don’t want to be connected to the grid install  off-grid systems. This system bears a remarkable resemblance to a grid-connected system with battery backup.   

The main source of electricity in an off-grid system is a battery-charging wind turbine. These turbines produce wild AC electricity that is converted (rectified) to DC  electricity by rectifiers located in the charge controller. The controller delivers DC electricity to the battery bank.

When electricity is  needed, it is drawn from the battery bank via the inverter. The inverter converts the  DC electricity from the battery bank, typically 24 or 48 volts, to higher-voltage AC,  either 120 or 240 volts, required by households and businesses. The AC then flows  to active circuits in the house via the breaker box.   

Fig. Off-Grid (Stand-Alone) System

Although off-grid systems resemble grid-connected systems with battery banks,  there are some noticeable differences. The first and most obvious is that there are  no power lines running from the house or business to the grid. In these systems,  then, the wind turbine produces all of the electricity required to meet the owner’s  needs. Surplus generated during windy periods is stored in batteries for use during  low- or no-wind periods. If the batteries are full, the surplus is typically sent to the  diversion load.   

Off-grid systems are also typically equipped with another source of electricity,  often a PV array or a gasoline or diesel generator (gen-set). They help make up for  shortfalls.   

Off-grid systems also require safety disconnects to permit servicing. A DC disconnect is located between the charge controller and inverter. These systems also  contain charge controllers to protect the batteries from overcharging and a low-voltage disconnect to prevent deep discharge of the battery bank.   

Off-grid wind energy systems are the most complex of all options. Some systems  contain DC circuits. These circuits are fed directly from the battery bank, bypassing  the inverter, to power DC lights or refrigerators. Bypassing the inverter saves energy, because inverters are not 100 percent efficient. It takes a little energy to convert DC to AC — usually about 5 to 10 percent.   

DC appliances are generally small, difficult to find, expensive, and not always  that reliable or as fully equipped as AC appliances. DC circuits also require larger, more costly wires and special  receptacles. Moreover, the energy lost as low-voltage DC electricity flows through  wires is about the same as the losses in an inverter. 

Pros and Cons of Off-Grid Systems   

Off-grid systems provide freedom from power outages, energy independence, and  total emancipation from the electric utility. If designed and operated  correctly, they will provide sufficient energy to meet your needs for many years.   

Although, they do free you from utilities, you will still very likely need to buy a  generator (gen-set) and fuel to power it. Gen-sets produce pollution and cost money to maintain and operate.

Off-grid systems are also the most expensive of all  systems because of the need for batteries and backup power (via PV systems and/  or gen-sets), which add substantially to the cost.

They also require more wiring and  additional space to house battery banks and generators. They require more maintenance, too, thanks to the batteries and generators.

Batteries require replacement  every five to ten years, depending on the quality of batteries you buy and how well  you maintain them. Battery production and recycling also exact a toll on the environment. 

Although cost is a major downside, there are times when off-grid systems cost  the same or less than grid-connected systems — for example, if a home or business is located more than a few tenths of a mile from the utility lines. Under such  circumstances, it can cost more to run electric lines to a home than to install an  off-grid wind system.     

Hybrid Systems   

Many homeowners and business owners, especially in rural areas, install hybrid  systems to meet their needs. For most of the world, wind turbines and  PVs are a marriage made in heaven because winds vary throughout the year.

They  tend to be strongest in the fall, winter and spring. During  these months, a properly sized wind generator can meet most of a family or business’s needs.  Winds continue to blow, but less frequently and less forcefully through the rest  of the year.

Fortunately, though, sunshine is more abundant during this less-windy  period. In such instances, a solar electric system can supplement a wind energy  system, providing the bulk of the electricity while the wind turbine plays a backup  role.   

Because solar and wind resources are often complementary, hybrid systems provide a more consistent year-round output than either wind-only or PV-only systems. Sized correctly, in areas with a sufficient solar and wind resource, hybrid  wind/PV systems can provide 100 percent of one’s electricity.A hybrid wind/PV system may even eliminate the need for a backup generator. 

Moreover, hybrid systems often require smaller solar electric arrays and smaller  wind generators than if either were the sole source of electricity.

However, if the  combined output of a solar and wind system is not sufficient throughout the year,  you will either need to cut back on consumption or run a backup generator. A  generator is useful because it is used to maintain batteries in peak condition, and it may allow installation of a smaller battery bank. 

Choosing a Wind Energy System   

By far the cheapest and simplest wind energy option is a batteryless grid-connected  system. The occasional power outage will shut your system down, but in most  places these are rare and short-lived events.

Grid-connected systems are usually  cheaper than going off-grid. Moreover, if you are installing a wind system on an  existing home that is already connected to the grid, it’s best to stay connected. Use  the grid as your batteries.   

Grid-connected systems with battery banks are suitable for those who want to  stay connected to the grid, but want protection against occasional blackouts or  brownouts. They cost more, but provide peace of mind and security.   

However, if you are building a new home and you are more than a few tenths of a  mile from existing power lines, connecting to the grid can be expensive. If you  live more than half a mile from the closest electric lines, be sure to check with  your local utility when considering which system you should install. In some locations, a quarter-mile grid connection is costly enough to justify an off-grid system. 

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