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Do Wind Turbines Really Fail in Cold Weather?

Updated: Mar 16, 2021

Let's debunk the rumours circulating in Texas and help Americans get back to fact-based news.

You have no doubt heard that Texas is experiencing rediculously cold, snowy weather at the moment. And may be aware that the usual culprits - Republicans and oil executives - have been spreading misinformation (why don't they just call it lies?) about the unreliability of wind energy versus dependable oil or coal powered energey.

When the power grid in Texas fell short of energy demands, misinformation spread like wildfire - arguing that frozen wind turbines are to blame for the blackout. This was spurred on by 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.

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).

Technically, this means wind turbines may fail if temperatures fall to extremely cold weather, but this was not the case in Texas, where temperatures fell to 4ºF last week.

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.

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 (below) - 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."

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.

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. Oh, and don't immediately trust anyone with an obvious alternative agenda!


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