Wind energy production in the U.S. is projected to increase to 35% of our nation’s energy by 2050. This substantial increase in the U.S. is only a portion of the global wind industry growth, as many countries strive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A major environmental concern and potential market barrier for expansion of wind energy is bird and bat mortality from impacts with turbine blades, towers, and nacelles. Carcass surveys are the standard protocol for quantifying mortality at onshore sites. This method is imperfect, however, due to survey frequency at remote sites, removal of carcasses by scavengers between surveys, searcher efficiency, and other biases as well as delays of days to weeks or more in obtaining information on collision events. Furthermore, carcass surveys are not feasible at offshore wind energy sites. Near-real-time detection and quantification of interaction rates is possible at both onshore and offshore wind facilities using an onboard, integrated sensor package with data transmitted to central processing centers.
We developed and experimentally tested an array of sensors that continuously monitors for interactions (including impacts) of birds and bats with wind turbines. The synchronized array includes three sensor nodes: 1) vibration (accelerometers and contact microphones), 2) optical (visual and infrared spectrum cameras), and 3) bioacoustics (acoustic and ultrasonic microphones). Accelerometers and contact acoustic microphones are placed at the root of each blade to detect impact vibrations and sound waves propagating through the structure. On-board data processing algorithms using wavelet analysis detect impact signals exceeding background vibration. Stereo-visual and infrared cameras were placed on the nacelle to allow target tracking, distance, and size calculations. On-board image processing and target detection algorithms identify moving targets within the camera field of view. Bioacoustic recorders monitor vocalizations and echolocations to aid in identifying organisms involved in interactions. Data from all sensors are temporarily stored in ring (i.e., circular) buffers with a duration varying by sensor type. Detection of target presence or impact by any of the sensors can trigger the archiving of data from all buffers for transmission to a central data processing center for evaluation and post-processing. This mitigates the risk of “data mortgages” posed by continual recording and minimizes personnel time required to manually review event data.
We first conducted individual component tests at laboratories and field sites in Corvallis and Newport, Oregon, and Seattle and Sequim, Washington. We conducted additional component tests on research wind turbines at the North American Wind Research and Training Center, Mesalands Community College (MCC; General Electric 1.5 MW turbine), New Mexico, and the National Wind Technology Center, National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL; Controls Advanced Research Turbines 3 [CART 3] 600 kW Westinghouse turbine), Colorado. We conducted fully integrated system tests at NREL in October 2014 and April 2015. We used only research wind turbines so that we could conduct controlled, experimentally generated impacts using empty and water-filled tennis balls shot from a compressed air cannon on the ground. The ~57 - 140 g tennis balls (depending on water content) were at the upper mass range for bats, but lower mass range for marine birds. Therefore, the ability to detect collisions of most seabirds is likely greater than our experiments demonstrate, but possibly lower for some bats depending on the background signal of a given turbine. Vibration data demonstrated that background signals of operating turbines varied markedly among the CART 3 under normal operation (greatest), GE (moderate), and CART 3 during idle rotation (generator not engaged; least). In total, we measured 63 experimental blade impacts on the two research turbines. Impaction detection was dependent on background signals, position of impact on the blade (a tip strike resulted in the strongest impact signal), and impact kinetics (velocity of ball and whether the ball struck the surface of the blade or the leading edge of the blade struck the ball). Overall detection percentage ranged from 100% for the “quietest” conditions (CART 3 idle rotation), down to 35% for the noisiest (CART 3 normal operation). Impact signals were detected from sensors on more than one blade (i.e., blades other than the blade struck) 50% - 75% of the time. Stereo imaging provided valuable metrics, but increased data processing and equipment cost. Given the cost of cameras with sufficient resolution for target identification, we suggest mounting cameras directly on the blades to continuously view the entire rotor swept area with the fewest number of cameras. Bioacoustic microphones provide taxonomic identification, as well as information on ambient noise levels. They also assist in identifying environmental conditions such as hail storms, high winds, thunder, lightning, etc., that may contribute to a collision or a false positive detection.
We demonstrated a proof of concept for an integrated sensor array to detect and identify bird and bat collisions with wind turbines. The next phase of research and development for this system will miniaturize and integrate sensors from all three nodes into a single wireless package that can be attached directly to the blade. This next generation system would use all “smart” sensors capable of onboard data processing to drastically reduce data streams and processing time on a central computer. A provisional patent for the blade mounted system was submitted by Oregon State University and recorded by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (application no. 62313028). Eventually, technology and industry advances will allow this low cost monitoring system to be designed into materials during manufacturing so that all turbines could be monitored with either a subset or full suite of sensors. As standard equipment on all commercial turbines, the sensor suite would allow the industry to effectively monitor whether individual turbines were causing mortalities or not and under what circumstances. It would also provide real-time evaluation of mechanical and structural integrity of a turbine via vibration, image, and acoustic data streams, thereby permitting modifications in operation to limit environmental or mechanical damage.