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Largest wind turbine testing facility nears opening in Charlestown

Posted by Your Town  February 7, 2011 09:12 AM

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(Photo by Ilana Spath)

The largest wind turbine blade testing facility in the world is nearly ready to open its doors in Charlestown.

A tall warehouse-like building rises above the sea of cars in the back reaches of the Boston Autoport parking lot. In this building, engineers will be testing blades that could be 200 to 300 feet long, prototypes for blades that eventually will go on wind turbines constructed in ocean waters.

The blades are so big they often must be shipped by sea.

The project is a joint effort by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center. The Wind Technology Testing Center will be able to test two blades simultaneously.

The facility’s operators hope that with this accessible facility, they will be able to open up doors for further development of Massachusetts’ significant offshore wind energy resources.

The center’s officials also hope it will bring foreign investment into the region and the country. New blades need extensive testing at a facility like this one to be certified by the International Electrotechnical Commission, an international standard-setting organization that certifies technology using or producing electricity. Certification is necessary before companies can mass-produce the blades.

“Having a testing facility in America encourages other countries to build blades here,” where they also must test the blades for certification, said Derek Berry, the engineering supervisor, during a recent tour of the building. The facility is due to open in March.

There are eight to ten similar testing sites in the country, but none as big as the facility in Boston, according to facility representatives While the facility has the capacity to test 90-meter (295-foot) blades, blades today are a maximum of about 65 meters (213 feet) long.

Construction of the $60 million facility was funded by the Department of Energy, using, in part, 2009 federal stimulus money. Though the project could theoretically be a private initiative, Berry said a job this scale is too much for most companies to handle.

“Having a central testing center helps grow the renewable energy sector,” he said. “It creates a central repository for national expertise.”

Inside the testing facility, engineers will mount the blades horizontally on an enormous concrete test stand, then use steel cables to pull the blades in various directions, to simulate the stresses a blade might be under once it is under real operating conditions.

Static tests measure how well the blade is weighted and balanced, while fatigue tests measure if the blade can be expected to last for 20 years without breaking. The facility only does these structural tests, and does not measure the effects of other outside factors, such as lightning strikes or salt brine.

The facility only tests prototype blades, however. Once a type of blade has been certified, factory quality control measures are supposed to ensure that each individual blade will stand the test of time.

Still, blade testing is important because of the significant upfront costs in constructing the turbines, especially out at sea. Engineers don’t want to have to repair blades and would rather prevent breakage.

“Putting the blades up and taking them down costs lots of money,” said Berry.

This article was reported and written by Emerson College journalism student Aaron Orlowski, as part of a collaboration between The Boston Globe and Emerson.

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