To improve the efficiency of Darrieus wind turbines, which still lacks from that of horizontal-axis rotors, computational fluid dynamics (CFD) techniques are now extensively applied, since they only provide a detailed and comprehensive flow representation. Their computational cost makes them, however, still prohibitive for routine application in the industrial context, which still makes large use of low-order simulation models like the blade element momentum (BEM) theory. These models have been shown to provide relatively accurate estimations of the overall turbine performance; conversely, the description of the flow field suffers from the strong approximations introduced in the modeling of the flow physics. In this study, the effectiveness of the simplified BEM approach was critically benchmarked against a comprehensive description of the flow field past the rotating blades coming from the combination of a two-dimensional (2D) unsteady CFD model and experimental wind tunnel tests; for both data sets, the overall performance and the wake characteristics on the midplane of a small-scale H-shaped Darrieus turbine were available. Upon examination of the flow field, the validity of the ubiquitous use of induction factors is discussed, together with the resulting velocity profiles upstream and downstream the rotor. Particular attention is paid on the actual flow conditions (i.e., incidence angle and relative speed) experienced by the airfoils in motion at different azimuthal angles, for which a new procedure for the postprocessing of CFD data is here proposed. Based on this model, the actual lift and drag coefficients produced by the airfoils in motion are analyzed and discussed, with particular focus on dynamic stall. The analysis highlights the main critical issues and flaws of the low-order BEM approach, but also sheds new light on the physical reasons why the overall performance prediction of these models is often acceptable for a first-design analysis.

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