| hands-on news and information the trade
the Quagmire of electrical system grounding
The subject is complex. NEC article 694 tries to clarify it.
By MICK SAGRILLO with technical review by Roy Butler, Four Winds Renewable Energy
mick sagrillo (msagrillo@
sagrillo Power & light is
a small-wind consultant
As originally envisioned, grounding electrical systems in the United States was quite simple. Over the years, however, grounding has become increasingly
complex and more confusing.
The rules for grounding electrical equipment are laid
out in Article 250 of the National Electrical Code (NEC).
In addition, the new Article 694 on small wind turbines in
the 2011 NEC covers a few of the differences unique to
wind systems and clarifies a few additional considerations
about grounding and lightning protection.
Before delving into these, we need to differentiate
between grounding for electrical faults and grounding for
Imagine this: It’s a cold, snowy Sunday morning, and,
with a fire going in the woodstove, you head over to your
favorite chair with cup of coffee in hand and the Sunday
paper under your arm. But wait! That darned cat has
already settled into your chair. Shuffling your feet on the
carpet as you approach the chair, you stick your finger out
toward the cat’s nose and ZAP! A spark flies and the cat
flees. You have the chair all to yourself.
What happened during the ZAP portion of this
We all remember from grade school science the “
experiment” where we rubbed rabbit fur on a piece of plastic and
created some static electricity that we could discharge on
the ear of an unsuspecting classmate. That same experiment was just conducted with your cat. Stocking feet on
the carpet, dissimilar materials, static buildup: It’s got to
equalize somehow. All you did was simply provide a discharge path through the cat’s nose.
The same thing happens as the air masses roll across
the planet: A static charge builds between ground and
atmosphere, creating a giant capacitor (not unlike the
capacitor in the flash on your camera). At some point,
that static builds to a point where it has to discharge to
equalize itself. This is what we call lightning, and it occurs
several thousand times a minute at locations scattered
around the planet.
Understanding how to dissipate that static buildup
between the atmosphere (with winds blowing across your
wind turbine blades) and the earth (what your tower is
attached to) will go a long way toward understanding how
to minimize the attraction between lightning and your
tower, and subsequent damage. By connecting wires from
the tower structure to ground rods in the earth, you are
able to dissipate the static charge that builds up on the
30 May 2011 SOLAR TODA Y
tower and turbine, thereby making the tower less attractive
to lightning strikes.
In addition, should it strike, ground wires and rods give
lightning a quick route to get from the tower to the earth.
Although your tower is built on a concrete foundation
embedded in the earth, the concrete is not necessarily a
desirable path for lightning to get to the earth. Imagine
the problem that would occur if lightning came down your
tower and into the metal anchors embedded in the concrete. Depending on the conductivity and moisture content of the concrete, the lightning could shatter the foundation. However, the damage would remain completely
unseen, buried below the ground, until a high wind event
toppled the system over. Not good.
ground rods … dissipate the static
charge that builds up on the tower
and turbine … making the tower
less attractive to lightning strikes.
A second type of grounding, called bonding, includes
connecting all metal components together electrically. This
is required by the NEC so that no one component is isolated in such a way that it might carry a fault current that
could harm someone. More importantly to a small wind
system is the fact that bonding assures that all components
of the system are at the same electrical potential should
lightning strike and set up transient voltage on the wiring
from the tower to the controls in the house. Equalizing
such voltage potentials by bonding all metal components
together will not eliminate lightning damage, but it often
Grounding plays another role with wind systems. Just
as with any electrical generating device, the metal components of a wind system need to be grounded to protect
service personnel and the public from a shock caused by an
electrical fault. Since alternators and wires carry an electrical current, and since they can short to the tower or wind
turbine, it is prudent to make sure that this equipment is
protected by proper grounding.
Copyright © 2011 by the American Solar Energy Society Inc. All rights reserved.