Answer Man: Why were wind turbines shut down on a windy day?

News-DemocratFebruary 11, 2014 

A couple of months ago, I was driving by one of those wind farms in northern Illinois, where they have those huge, rotating turbines out in the fields to generate electricity. Yet on this particular day, the turbines were dead still even though there was wind. Why? -- H.C., of Belleville

With all the stories you hear about our voracious energy appetite, you'd think they'd have those babies constantly spinning their hearts out.

After all, the turbine is likely controlled by a computer, which monitors the conditions and rotates the blade mechanism around the tower so it can utilize wind from any direction.

Yet there are times you just can't have those things blowin' in the wind, according to Frank Fuselier, a spokesman for Gamesa, one of the world's leading wind turbine manufacturers.

The most obvious reason is the weather. Just as you don't like to ride your bike in rain and wind, extreme conditions can pose a risk to the turbines.

"Turbines are designed to operate correctly within certain wind and temperature parameters," Fuselier said. "If the wind is too light or too strong, the turbines will be taken off-line. Similarly, turbines might be taken off-line during very hot or cold temperatures. In winter, sometimes ice can form on the blades and the turbines might be shut down until it melts."

If you want to see a dramatic example, go to YouTube and search for "Danish wind turbine." The first two videos that pop up are short films of a wind turbine in Arhus, Denmark, destroyed in February 2008 by a powerful gale. (It is not a Gamesa turbine, Fuselier stressed.)

But in your case there are two more likely possibilities. First, they could have been stopped for maintenance.

"Turbines usually are shut down one at a time for routine maintenance, like changing the lubricants or servicing the electrical components," Fuselier said. "But you might need to shut down the whole wind farm if, for example, you were updating the computer systems or doing a larger maintenance project."

The final reason may be the hardest to understand. Despite those summer days when we use massive amounts of power for air conditioning, there are times when not all the electricity we could generate is actually needed.

"Wind farms, like any electrical generator, are connected to a regional grid," Fuselier explained. "That grid is controlled by regulators to ensure reliability, and the demand for electricity changes constantly. Occasionally, the output from a particular wind farm might not be needed by the grid at that moment so the turbines are stopped."

Some estimate that an average turbine produces energy 70 percent to 85 percent of the time and produces about 25 percent of its theoretical maximum output. Illinois' installed wind capacity has climbed from about 50 megawatts in 2003 to more than 3.5 gigawatts last year, a 70-fold increase.

I'm hearing radio ads about how we can increase our Social Security by $1,000 a month. It says the information is free and endorsed by Newsmax.com, but is this some scam? -- W.M, of New Athens

Of course, it's endorsed by Newsmax -- they're the ones responsible for the offer. And, it is free (or almost, at least), but you could wind up paying a whole lot more than you bargained for.

Here's the deal: If you call that phone number, you'll be sent a copy of "Free Stuff and Great Bargain Adventures for People Over 50" along with eight other booklets, including "Pay Zero Taxes!" and the like. All you pay initially is $1.97 for processing, according to www.newsmaxstore.com.

However, if you don't call an 800 number within 30 days, you automatically will be sent -- and billed for -- an ongoing subscription to "The Franklin Prosperity Report" and "The Dividend Machine." I've seen numerous Internet complaints of people having difficulties trying to cancel these subscriptions that can cost you $20 a month and more.

Besides, there's no "weird secret" to collecting an extra $1,000 in Social Security -- although the vast majority of people will not qualify. Let's say you took Social Security at age 62 and regretted that decision because the benefits were much lower. You can change your mind later by filling out Form SSA 521. You have to pay back all the money you've received, but if you then reapply at 65 or 70, your monthly check likely will be hundreds more.

I'm not telling you not to try their offer, but if something sounds too good to be true ...

Today's trivia

Who was the oldest athlete to be awarded a Winter Olympics medal (trick question)? The youngest?

Answer to Tuesday's trivia: The 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, N.Y., was the site of the so-called Miracle on Ice when an unheralded team of American college students beat the perennial champion USSR 4-3 in the semifinals before topping Finland 4-2 for the gold. But the 1980 games also boasted a kind of miracle on the slopes: It was the first time man-made snow was used at an Olympics.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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