The Need for an International Small Wind Turbine Test Center

By Paul Gipe

There is a pressing need for an international center to test and demonstrate small wind turbines. In contrast to the medium-sized wind turbine industry, which is nearing technical maturity, small wind turbines are still plagued by high costs and poor reliability.

The reasons are many. Most significantly, small wind turbines are designed and manufactured by small companies with limited funds for product testing and improvement. As a result, nearly all small wind turbines have been introduced to the market with limited field testing.

Small wind turbine manufacturers have essentially used their customers to test their products. This system is extremely unsatisfactory and leads to dissatisfied customers and the widespread, but unfortunately well-deserved reputation that small wind turbines are unreliable. It is also retards the refinement of small wind turbine designs by limiting the feedback that manufacturers receive about how their products perform in the field.

A professionally administered international test center that could provide testing for free or only a nominal fee would offer small wind turbine manufacturers an opportunity to test their products and to gain useful feedback about performance and reliability, enabling them to improve their products.

The Small Wind Turbine Industry

There are more than 50 different manufacturers of small wind turbines worldwide, not including those in China. These manufacturers build more than 125 different models of small wind turbines. Most if not all of these products have had repeated problems with mechanical and electrical reliability in actual use. Nearly all of these manufacturers are small with limited financial resources. The industry is very unstable and product development is often simply a matter of trying to correct defects that have appeared after the product was introduced.

Small Wind Turbine Test Centers

There are several research sites in developed countries that test small wind turbines. At most of these sites the emphasis is on testing medium-sized wind turbines and the testing of small wind turbines is of little importance.

North Atlantic Wind Test Site: Tests medium-sized wind turbines for use in wind-diesel systems. NAWTS performs competent work but operates on a limited budget.

Alternative Energy Institute, West Texas A&M University: Tests both small wind medium-sized wind turbines mostly for private clients. The test field is only moderately active and AEI does not issue public reports for its private clients.

National Renewable Energy Laboratory‘s Rocky Flats test center: Well funded but cumbersome administration limits it usefulness. Tests mostly medium-sized wind turbines. The test center is a poor wind site and NREL is notorious for issuing reports years after tests are completed. NREL does not issue reports on tests for its private clients.

National Engineering Laboratory: Like NREL at Rocky Flats, NEL does not issue public reports on tests for its private clients. NEL has performed limited tests on small British and French wind turbines.

Deutsches Windenergie Institut: DEWI performs tests for private clients at is site near Wilhelmshaven. These reports are not public.

Chateau Lastours: The test field for French small wind turbine manufacturer Vergnet is in the foothills of the Pyrennes in Southern France. Like the national laboratories in Germany, Scotland, and the USA, test results from Lastours for private clients, such as Vergnet, are not published.

Folkecenter for Vedvarende Energi: Operates a number of small wind turbines at its test field in northwest Jutland. Like its counterparts elsewhere, the Folkecenter does not publish reports prepared for its private clients. Most of the Folkecenter’s turbines are in a poor state of repair and little or no data is being collected on their operation. However, the Folkecenter does encourage visitors and interns who can stay in their hostel-like dormitory. The test field is in a very windy location near the North Sea and is a good site for testing reliability. Some products survive for only a few months.

CIEMAT‘s Soria test field: Relatively new Spanish test field north of Madrid has yet to establish itself. However, initial work by Ignacio Cruz on the poor performance of small wind turbines relative to commercial medium-size turbines is promising. His presentation at the EWEC special topic conference in Kassel, Germany in September, 2000 was the most thorough — and critical — evaluation of the small turbine industry yet published.