By Peter Murphy
Published September 27, 2023
Solar panels produce renewable energy, and solar trackers give panels the ability to follow the sun’s path, increasing energy production throughout the day. When these trackers are damaged during storms, solar panels miss out on significant sunlight. One UB engineer is developing technology that could allow trackers to withstand hurricane-force winds.
“Windstorm, hurricane and thunderstorm events may cause damage to solar tracker systems,” says Teng Wu, associate professor in the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering. “This project will develop new wind hardening technologies, including new aerodynamic hardening measure combinations and optimized emergency response and maintenance protocols.”
Most solar tracker systems need to be stowed under moderate wind speeds—about 30 mph. These new technologies allow the systems to withstand stronger wind speeds, cutting back the frequency of wind stowing. Wind hardening technologies will also decrease wind-induced damage and maintenance costs. According to Wu, the increased power production and optimized maintenance will drive down the cost of solar energy production in a holistic way.
The project is part of the United States Department of Energy’s (DOE) Renewables Advancing Community Energy Resilience (RACER) program and is led by Colorado State University assistant professor Yanlin Guo. According to the DOE, the RACER program supports “projects that enable communities to use solar and solar-plus-storage to prevent disruptions in power caused by extreme weather and other events, and to rapidly restore electricity if it goes down.”
Wu has worked to address the effects of extreme winds on the built environment for most of his academic career. He has produced award-winning research on real-time aerodynamic hybrid simulation and its impact on flexible bridges and has investigated the impact extreme winds have on different buildings. His efforts have shifted in recent years due to a focus on the climate and climate change.
“My traditional topics involve buildings and bridges, which generally produce significant portions of CO2, making the climate worse,” Wu says. “I started to investigate climate mitigation approaches, including facilitating the use of solar, wind and other forms of renewable energy, by enhancing the resilience of energy generation devices under extreme events.”
One type of wind-hardening technology the team hopes to develop is cost-effective flow modifiers like stabilizers or guide vanes—similar to those in wind turbines—to reduce the wind-induced loads on the tracker system. Wu will utilize UB’s wind tunnel to determine which flow modifiers provide the most resilience.
Wu will also develop computational models to facilitate the design of effective aerodynamic measures and build a digital twin of solar tracker systems to deploy those models. These efforts, along with the wind tunnel, allow researchers to test the wind hardening technologies before any fieldwork begins. Wu will receive $1.07 million to contribute to the project.
“Climate change is a real and big deal for our world, and I’m a fan of renewable energy, especially from wind. My research is heavily related to climate change,” Wu says. “We actually have developed a UB climate-dependent simulation framework to quantify climate change impacts on hurricane wind, rain and surge hazards. I’m currently chair of the American Society of Civil Engineers technical committee on future weather and climate extremes.”