November 3, 2005

The gearbox: wind power's Achilles' heel

This month's Windpower Monthly examines a little-known twist in the "mature technology" of large-scale wind turbines:

Gearboxes have been failing in wind turbines since the early 1990s. Barely a turbine make has escaped. Six years ago the problem reached epidemic proportions, culminating in a massive series failure of gearboxes in NEG Micon machines. At the time, the NEG Micon brand was the most sold wind turbine in the world. The disaster brought the company to its knees as it struggled to retrofit well over one thousand machines. It has since been taken over by Vestas, the world's largest wind turbine manufacturer. Vestas is still grappling with the aftermath of the gearbox catastrophe.

The wind power industry and its component suppliers now believe that such major series failure of gearboxes is a thing of the past. Today's far larger and more sophisticated turbines, they say, are safe from mistakes encountered in early phases of technology development.

Bigger turbines, however, are proving to be far from immune to gearbox failure, as Windpower Monthly reports in its November issue. ...

The wind industry's gearbox problem has for years been shrouded in secrecy. While blame for the failures has been spread far and wide, questions outnumber the answers by far. At Windpower Monthly we set ourselves the task of finding out the true scale of the problem. Why is it that gearboxes in wind turbines have so massively failed? What is the solution? ...

The good news is that understanding of the highly complex loads that gearboxes -- and particularly their bearings -- are subject to is being helped by a new industry willingness to co-operate and face up to the challenges of wind power's rapid technological evolution. But only time will tell whether a definitive solution has been found -- and whether it will stay the course as wind turbines get ever bigger and more demanding of engineering ingenuity.

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