Fact Check: Do Wind Turbines Really Fail in Cold Weather?

It's time to debunk the rumors.
Brad Bergan

Crisis breeds confusion and the recent string of record-low temperatures amid this week's cold and frosty weather conditions in Texas are no exception. But when the state's power grid fell short of energy demands, misinformation spread like wildfire — arguing that frozen wind turbines are to blame for the blackout.

However, wind turbine installations don't go up without substantial investment — which means planning for the kind of volatile weather much of the world is already seeing for the first time. The question is raised, then: Can wind turbines really fail in cold weather?

Wind turbines in cold environments typically 'winterized'

Misinformation sparked when an image showing an Alpine helicopter de-icing wind turbines covered in frost or ice surfaced on social media. The implication was that frozen wind turbines were the cause of Texas' series of power outages.

What's worse — the posters intimated — was how the image of a fossil fuel vehicle like a helicopter called-in to "rescue" a prominent source of sustainable energy made it appear as if sustainable energy isn't very sustainable, after all.

Roughly half of the wind turbines in Texas did fail amid the power shortage crisis, according to a Forbes report. But when wind turbines are placed in colder environments (like Sweden, Canada, and the American Midwest) they're usually equipped with de-icing and other warming devices — like integrated heating.

Winter-ready equipment can keep wind turbines running in very cold conditions

In Texas, it's rarely cold — which means these heating features are typically not installed. "Cold weather kits can keep [wind turbines] operating when temperatures plunge," said Spokesman Samuel Brock of the American Clean Power Association to Forbes. "This is the norm in colder states and in Europe."

"Historically in Texas, given the warm climate, it hasn't been necessary," added Brock.

Crucially, not all environments present the same challenges to wind turbines. In Canada, wind turbines may spend up to 20% of their time weathering winter months — so specialized "cold weather packages" are installed to keep crucial turbine components like the pitch and yaw motors, the gearbox, and battery warm, according to the Canadian government.

These additions can keep wind turbines going in bone-chillingly cold temperatures, down to -22ºF (-30ºC).

Blade icing can reduce efficiency and power output

Technically, this means wind turbines may fail if temperatures fall to extremely cold weather — even with proper warming equipment installed. But this doesn't appear to be the case in Texas, where temperatures fell to 4ºF on Monday — with a wind-chill plummeting to -16ºF. Even with the wind chill, installing "cold weather packages" could keep wind turbines from failing, should the state experience record lows again.

However, wind turbines face other perils in extremely cold weather, besides a need for internal heating. Blade icing can reduce the blades' ability to catch air efficiently (which reduces power output) — and in this case, helicopters may be called in to de-ice the blades. Water-resistant coatings are also applied to create a boundary between water ice and the blades.

De-icing wind turbines 'better than doing nothing at all'

Those who trade in memes more than research may be tempted to buy into the viral image of a helicopter running on fossil fuel as "proof" that wind turbines aren't sustainable — but the carbon emissions used to de-ice a turbine via helicopter are minor compared to the carbon emissions we see from gas- and coal-intensive power plants, according to a Renew Economy report.

In fact, carbon emissions generated from de-icing a turbine — like in the Alpine Helicopter video and image — saves two days' worth of emissions, relative to coal power. De-icing a 3-megawatt wind turbine is a "better option than not doing anything at all," said Alpine Helicopters CEO Mats Widgren This is both from a financial and environmental perspective."

Fossil fuel reliance will worsen climate change events

And, perhaps most debunking of the anti-wind power arguments from the image is simply stating the fact that the Alpine Helicopters video was recorded in 2014 — in Sweden — and has nothing to do with Texas.

Cold, wintry temperatures can interfere with wind turbines lacking the proper heating equipment, which was generally the case with some of the wind turbine units in Texas because of this week. If we need to blame Texas' power generation for the black-outs, it makes more sense to cite the state's overwhelming reliance on fossil fuels — which underperformed substantially during the record lows.

So the choice for Texas, it seems, is simple: pivot to sustainable forms of energy like wind turbines, and reduce the state's production of carbon emissions — or continue to rely on fossil fuels, and prepare for even wilder weather as climate change intensifies.

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