GE's Wind Turbine Tester Puts Gigantic Drivetrains Through Hell

Modern multi-megawatt wind turbines are downright gargantuan, standing more than 700 feet tall with 260-foot blades spinning 190 mph at the tip. To make sure that these monolithic machines are up for 20 years of energy production, GE has created a tortuous test bed capable of sucking 20 years of life from a turbine in a matter of months.

GE recently teamed with Clemson University to build the facility in South Carolina. It houses what GE describes as "the world's most advanced rig for trying and validating wind turbine drivetrains". This machine attaches to a turbine's drivetrain—the bit that connects the spinning propeller to the energy-producing engine—and replicates the forces imparted by winds, from a gentle breeze to a hurricane-force gale.

Able to accommodate drivetrains up to 13 meters in diameter, the testing rig can also simulate the intense stress that spinning three 13-ton turbine blades imposes on a drivetrain. It can even simulate a 15 MW power grid to see how these turbines fare in varying grid conditions, while a smaller secondary rig can replicate a 7.5 MW system. More than 200 sensors mounted within the turbine capture performance data for later analysis.

"Imagine putting a seven-ton Mack truck on a lever arm that's more than a football field long," GE manager Mark Johnson said in a press statement. "That's how much torque we can deliver."

The $98 million testing facility is expected to begin operations later this summer in an effort to keep catastrophic failure—like this—confined to the lab. [Clemson University - General Electric 1, 2]