The Northeast’s energy infrastructure took a beating from Superstorm Sandy, with power grids, refineries, gas stations, and critical supply lines all knocked out of service for days, sometimes weeks (and in a few places, perhaps even months). But you know what survived the hurricane-force wind gusts just fine?
A live view of the Jersey Atlantic Wind Project outside Atlantic City.
On the afternoon of October 28, the Jersey Atlantic Wind Project stood right in Sandy’s projected path, and authorities at Infigen, which operates the five turbines just outside Atlantic City, weren’t quite sure what to expect. No other U.S. wind turbine project has taken a direct hit from a tropical storm of Sandy’s strength.
But the operators punched a few keystrokes on their computers, put the turbines into “hurricane mode,” and hoped for the best. They got it. Sandy’s wind speeds dropped below hurricane status just before landfall, but the Infigen turbines still withstood sustained winds of 65 mph or so, with gusts reaching much higher, as the center of Sandy passed right over them. The turbines were undamaged, said Matthew McGowan of Infigen, and were soon generating 1.5 megawatts of electricity again.
That’s only one data point for researchers who are studying the potential of wind turbines to withstand tropical storms, but considering the dearth of evidence so far, it’s an important one. After all, if we’re going to line the Atlantic seaboard with wind turbines, we need to make sure they can survive strong storms like Sandy (which we know there will be more of in a warming world).
Results elsewhere have been mixed. In 2003, seven turbines near Okinawa, Japan, were destroyed by a typhoon (as hurricanes are called in that part of the world), and that same year China saw several turbines warped by a strong storm. On the other hand, the World Wind Energy Association says two Cuban wind farms endured sustained winds of 110 mph during Sandy with no damage and were able to provide power to the local grid as soon as the storm passed.
A study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon released in February found that offshore wind farms built in vulnerable parts of the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico could expect to lose up to half their turbines to hurricanes over a 20-year period if designed to current standards. But researchers also recommended design changes that could make the turbines tougher. Ellen Carey from the American Wind Energy Association told me in an e-mail that by using a combination of automatic brakes, strong foundations, and other adaptations, modern turbines can survive wind speeds of 120-135 mph, though, she added, “some manufacturers make turbines that can withstand even higher winds for deployment in hurricane-prone areas.”
Looking at the wind speed data from the National Hurricane Center, it appears that turbines engineered to withstand 120 mph winds would have held up just fine in Sandy’s path. If global warming conspires to produce more instances of even stronger hurricanes, however, then the East Coast's best hope for a steady supply of clean, renewable energy could be vulnerable. And that's some unfortunate irony.