When Lightning Strikes a Huge Wind Turbine

It's not pretty for the machine.
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A damaged wind turbine outside Ruthton, Minnesota. ( Tea Storm Chasers )

A team of storm chasers from Tea, South Dakota, spotted a wind turbine damaged by a lightning strike ear Ruthton, Minnesota. The Tea Storm Chasers gave me permission to post the image here. 

The only wind farm I can find in the area is relatively old. The Ruthton Wind Farm went online in 2001. It's operated by Xcel, a large utility.

One thing we do know: Lightning strikes on wind turbines happen frequently. A 2007 journal paper on lightning protection for wind turbines reported that lightning damage is the "the single largest cause of unplanned downtime in wind turbines." 

Here's a YouTube video of some British people ooohing over a lightning strike on a turbine:

It turns out there is considerable overlap between the places where there is a lot of wind and where there are a lot of lightning strikes. The other problem, of course, is that on a flat plain, the turbines are a tall piece of metal sticking up towards the sky.

Despite the complications, wind energy continues to grow in the United States. Wind generated 6 billion kilowatt hours in 2000, the year before the Ruthon Wind Farm went online. In 2012, turbines pulled 141 billion kilowatt hours from the movement of the air. 

And the bigger the industry, the more research into lightning protection is getting done.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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