There was a time not so long ago that seeing a single wind turbine spinning in the distance was a novel experience for most people.
Not so much any more. There are now hundreds of wind turbines scattered across the province, representing 1,700 megawatts of wind capacity in Ontario alone — or just over a third of all capacity in Canada.
Hundreds more are in the queue waiting to be installed. Most are large turbines, about 2 megawatts or more in size, and between 80 and 100 metres high. All look pretty much the same: a big tall white tower with three spinning blades attached by rotor to a massive nacelle, which houses the generator and gearbox.
But as researchers continue to improve the efficiency of wind power generation it’s quite possible that the turbine of tomorrow will look dramatically different.
There are proposals for two-bladed turbines. There are vertical-axis turbines that look and spin like egg beaters. One company called FloDesign has a turbine that looks like a jet engine on an airplane, while Toronto-based WhalePower wants future turbine blades to resemble humpback whale flippers.
Over at the University of Ottawa, a group of students and professors who dub themselves the “Green Engineer” have come up with their own creative approach — a wind turbine with two sets of blades each spinning in opposite directions.
They call it the contra-rotating small wind energy converter. Wind tunnel tests on a prototype have shown that the design is up to 40 per cent more efficient and far less noisy than a conventional single-rotor system.
The benefits of having contra-rotating blades are well known. In fact, the design has existed for more than a century and is widely used, for example, in propeller systems of submarine torpedoes. The concept is also used in airplane and boat propulsion systems, not to mention those remote-controlled toy helicopters you can fly inside your house.
Riadh Habash, professor of technology and engineering at the University of Ottawa, says his team decided three years to apply the same approach to wind turbines and are encouraged so far with the results — so much so that they’re busy building a second prototype that will be mounted next summer atop a building on the Ottawa U campus.
Why is having two blade systems spinning in opposite directions more efficient?
When the wind blows into a conventional three-bladed, single-rotor wind turbine less than 40 per cent of its energy is converted into electricity. The rest escapes, much of it in the air wake that’s created behind the blades. That wake spins in the opposite direction (i.e. counter-clockwise) to those blades.
If a second rotor with another set of blades is right behind the first rotor, and if it is designed to also spin counter-clockwise, it can capture energy from that wake. The end result is a turbine system that harnesses much more energy from the initial flow of wind.
Experiments to date also suggest that a turbine with such a design can operate at lower wind speeds, allowing it to tap into a broader range of wind resources.
Habash says an added, but just as important, benefit is that the design is also quieter. “We have observed that when you have two sets of blades that are contra-rotating they achieve a kind of vibration cancellation. There is a clear reduction in vibration.”
This is good news, as one of the biggest issues hindering the deployment of wind energy - particularly in Ontario, for some reason — is concerns related to noise and inaudible vibrations reportedly experienced by nearby residents.
The Green Engineers and their industry partners, including Ottawa-based TRIAS Innovations, have some other tricks up their sleeves. All of them are aimed at producing a superior wind turbine with all parts — blades, generator, power electronics, drive train and tower - manufactured in Canada.
They’re even chatting with WhalePower about incorporating its whale-inspired blade design, further adding to turbine efficiency and noise reduction.
“Our target market for now is small wind turbines,” says Habash, who leads the team. “We are aiming at 10 kilowatts. But in the future that could go up to 100 kilowatts, and if we can prove the concept it could then be applied to much larger turbines.”
The project has been funded by the university, Ontario Power Authority, Ontario Centres of Excellence and Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.
Habash hopes to be able to demonstrate the second machine in a number of locations. One would be part of a combined wind and energy storage project in an aboriginal community. “We have some investors who are very interested in using this for community power,” he says.
It’s still early days, but it’s an example of how wind power design could evolve over the coming years, based on innovation coming directly out of Ontario.
By. Tyler Hamilton of Clean Break
Tyler Hamilton is a business columnist for the Toronto Star, Canada's largest daily newspaper. In addition to this Clean Break blog, Tyler writes a weekly column of the same name that discusses trends, happenings and innovators in the clean technology and green energy market.