Shutterstock.com

They can be hit by bolts every three seconds for hours-long periods, even if thunderstorms are not nearby.

There are many surprising things about wind turbines: the way they can morph into immense fireballs, their ability to fly, the huge number of bats they kill. Perhaps it's not so astonishing, then, to learn that they can act like giant lightning-firing machine guns, too.

Turbines's hidden lives as lightning factories was investigated recently by Spanish and American researchers who monitored the massive structures with high-speed video and a "3-D Lightning Mapping Array." They found that in certain cases, the turbines would get hit as frequently as a bolt every three seconds, and that this crackling fusillade could last anywhere between a couple minutes to hours. Here's some of their footage:

So what's causing this barrage? One clue is that the lightning didn't strike when the turbines were not rotating. That led the scientists to speculate that the huge blades were gathering a friction-generated charge as they whirled through the air. That in turn made them so well primed for an electric discharge that they were sometimes hit by lightning even when the thunderstorms were "tens of kilometers away," they write in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres.

The repeated zapping of turbines does not bode well for the health of these green machines. As Sandrine Ceurstemont at New Scientist reports:

The frequent lightning bolts could be damaging turbine blades, which are made of carbon-reinforced plastic. They are designed to resist occasional electrical discharges, but regular bolts could degrade them faster. "Wind turbines are exposed to a lot of electrical discharges and can easily be stressed," says [researcher Joan] Montanyà....

Another reason that lightning bolts pose a bigger problem for wind turbines is that they are hard to inspect and repair. Their blades sit on a tall structure, making them difficult to access. By contrast, when an aircraft is struck by lightning, it is checked and repaired the next time it lands.

Though this research might provide the best-yet documentation of this electrical interaction, people have known for a while that turbines are magnets for the blazing fury of Thor. Here's some footage of strikes floating around on YouTube:

Top image: Igor Kovalenko / Shutterstock.com

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Life

    The Cities Americans Want to Flee, and Where They Want to Go

    An Apartment List report reveals the cities apartment-hunters are targeting for their next move—and shows that tales of a California exodus may be overstated.

  2. photo: Dominque Walker, founder of Moms 4 Housing, n the kitchen of the vacant house in West Oakland that the group occupied to draw attention to fair housing issues.
    Equity

    A Group of Mothers, a Vacant Home, and a Win for Fair Housing

    The activist group Moms 4 Housing occupied a vacant home in Oakland to draw attention to the city’s affordability crisis. They ended up launching a movement.

  3. photo: A Lyft scooter on the streets of Oakland in July.
    Transportation

    4 Predictions for the Electric Scooter Industry

    Dockless e-scooters swept cities worldwide in 2018 and 2019. In 2020, expect the battery-powered micromobility revolution to take a new direction.

  4. photo: a pair of homes in Pittsburgh
    Equity

    The House Flippers of Pittsburgh Try a New Tactic

    As the city’s real estate market heats up, neighborhood groups say that cash investors use building code violations to encourage homeowners to sell.  

  5. A photo of a police officer in El Paso, Texas.
    Equity

    What New Research Says About Race and Police Shootings

    Two new studies have revived the long-running debate over how police respond to white criminal suspects versus African Americans.

×