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Watch out everybody, turbines are growing. According to the 2009 Wind Technologies Market Report (WTMR) released this August by the US Department of Energy, a turbine’s average nameplate capacity (the maximum output a turbine can produce), hub height (distance from the ground to the spot where the blades converge), and rotor diameter (diameter of the circle traced by the blades as they rotate) have all increased during the past year. The average turbine now stands 258 feet tall with a rotor diameter of 268 ft. It can also produce 1.74 megawatts (MW) of power under near-ideal conditions, up from 1.66 MW in 2008. These are encouraging signs; the larger the turbine, the more efficient it will be at low wind speeds. Turbines that can produce at low wind speeds are more reliable and thus make it easier to integrate wind into the electrical grid. The manufacturing and engineering skill needed to build big is also indicative of wind becoming more deeply entrenched in the American energy industry.

Furthermore, it’s not just the turbines themselves that are scaling up; the size of an average wind farm is increasing as well. The WTMR finds that the average wind farm constructed in the US in 2009 had a capacity of 91 MW, higher than any other year on record except for 2007. The larger the average capacity of a US wind farm, the more viable wind becomes as a major factor in the country’s energy mix. Also, larger wind farms are more affordable because of associated economies of scale, and more reliable because they have a lower variability of electricity production from high-wind to low-wind periods.

According to the WTMR, the total installed wind capacity in the United States is growing all the time, at an exponentially faster rate as time goes on. An especially exciting statistic is that the U.S. has the potential to install 300 gigawatts (GW) of wind capacity if we build an interstate transmission network. Even though the vast majority of that capacity is undeveloped, it’s still a promising number. It means the Department of Energy’s goal of producing 300GW from wind by 2030 is firmly within reach. It also means that 2011 and 2012 are primed to be huge years for bringing more wind energy on line. All of this points to a reassuring bottom line: our energy future is looking much cleaner.

Even though wind energy is a clean and cost-effective source of energy, it does have one slight drawback: no one can control when the wind blows. This occasionally leads to difficulties in matching consumers’ demand for energy with the available supply. For instance, when the wind is strong but demand for electricity is low (i.e., late at night), wind farm operators may have to turn turbines away from the wind to avoid overwhelming the electrical grid. Of course, the opposite scenario can also occur, in which the wind is not strong enough to meet demand for electricity during a peak period.

One potential solution for this problem has been the subject of much attention and research lately, and that solution is the use of batteries. Really, really, big batteries, that is. Batteries could help by allowing wind farms to store energy during periods of low demand and then transfer it to the grid when demand is high. These batteries would also come equipped with computers that could ensure the electricity is released at a fixed rate, making wind power similar to natural gas and other power sources which can start or stop production at a moment’s notice. Such a system would allow utility operators to schedule the supply of wind energy precisely according to need, increasing dependability.

Now, when I think of batteries, I inevitably imagine a sleek-looking pair of AA’s. However, it turns out batteries can come in all sorts of shapes and sizes if you look in the right places. A team at the University of Minnesota recently completed a study in partnership with Xcel Energy to determine whether a battery system could, in fact, be effective at transferring energy from off-peak to on-peak availability. Sure enough, the experiment was a success, but the battery they used (manufactured by NaS) was the size of two 18-wheelers and weighed a whopping 80 tons! And this is just one kind of exotic battery that may eventually be used in conjunction with wind farms; another is a flywheel system in which energy is transferred to a free-spinning rotor on an axis and stored kinetically. Pretty cool, if you ask me.

As you might expect for such bulky batteries (even the flywheels are the size of water heaters, and you need lots of them), the main drawback is that they’re not yet cost-effective. But as the American Wind Energy Association’s (AWEA) Into the Wind blog reminds us, that’s okay, because grid operators can account for the variability of wind by utilizing other sources of flexibility in the grid:

“Every day, grid operators constantly accommodate variability in electricity demand and supply by increasing and decreasing the output of flexible generators – power plants like hydroelectric dams or natural gas plants that can rapidly change their level of generation.”

In fact, AWEA estimates that the US could increase its wind capacity tenfold before battery storage would really be necessary.

In the meantime though, battery storage is a neat trick that would have its uses. For instance, many small towns in isolated areas are not well-served by transmission lines. If the transmission were to fail for some reason, batteries could allow the town to keep an emergency center open until power was restored. It’s safe to say the Energizer Bunny would be proud.

Cover of the May 10th issue of The New Yorker magazine. Cover by Bob Staake.

Last week’s issue of The New Yorker magazine featured one of my favorite recent covers. As displayed on the left, the cover depicts the morass of Cape Wind, the oft-covered wind farm proposed off the coast of Massachusetts: a pilgrim sails out from the colony of Cape Cod, joust in hand, prepared for a duel with the turbines in front of him. I’ll try and contain the English major side of my personality that really wants to textually analyze the illustration, except to say that I think the allusions to Don Quixote are apt and ferociously clever, as Cape Wind’s journey over the past decade has been nothing if not quixotic.

The last few weeks have provided a veritable flood of news about Cape Wind, and since we haven’t talked about the project in a little while, we wanted to fill you in and ensure that you’re up to date on all the latest developments:

  • First, and perhaps most importantly, on April 27th the US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that Cape Wind had been given regulatory approval to proceed. Hurdles still remain, however. Groups opposed to the project, including the Wampanoag tribe–who believe the wind farm would violate their tribal rights to unobstructed views of the sunrise for sacred ceremonies–are likely to file lawsuits that could delay the project for years. Having said that, Mr. Salazar stated that he does not believe the lawsuits will ultimately derail the project. Another hurdled faced by the project is that when its approval was announced, no agreement had been reached with a utility company to offtake the electricity produced by the turbines. However…
  • …on May 7th, utility company National Grid announced that they would buy half of the project’s output, or a nameplate capacity of 150 MW. That electricity would make up about 3% of the load that National Grid generates or buys. While the electricity produced by Cape Wind will cost more per kilowatt hour than electricity generated by other sources, Jim Gordon, the President of Cape Wind Associates, says National Grid’s customers will see their rates rise by only five cents a day as a result of the purchase. While Cape Wind will need to find an off taker for the second half of their output before securing financing and beginning construction can begin, Gordon said their deal with National Grid will provide a helpful framework when working with other utilities.

So there’s your Cape Wind update in a nutshell. We’ll continue to keep you posted on updates to the project and other cool New Yorker covers.

Here’s a question: what’s better than generating electricity that is cheap, renewable, and clean using wind turbines? Think about that for a moment. The answer: generating electricity that is cheap, renewable, and clean using wind turbines equipped with lasers.

Laser equipped turbines may sound like a far-fetched sci-fi concept that Dr. Evil would concoct, but the technology is real. It is receiving financial support from the Danish National Advanced Technology Foundation and is becoming known as “wind LIDAR,” an acronym for LIght Detection And Ranging. Similar to how radar technology uses radio waves, lidar uses laser pulses to measure atmospheric qualities such as wind direction and velocity.

In a joint venture between two Danish companies, Risø DTU, a sustainable energy research organization, and NKT Photonics, an optical sensor specialist, researchers are developing a laser-based wind sensing system that will be integrated into a wind turbine’s blades and nacelle. The system will predict wind direction, turbulence and shear and will use that information to help turbines make adjustments to it’s blades. In real time, the turbines will be able to “see” the changing qualities of the wind and match them, thereby increasing turbine efficiency.

The old aside the new: An old windmill sits next to a modern turbine.

The wind industry has made leaps and bounds in terms of technical advances over the years. These advances have increased the electrical generating capacity of wind turbines, making the modern windmill into a sleek, efficient, and safe structure. Before, buzzwords like “nameplate capacity” and “hub height” helped to qualify technical progress. Now, terms like “laser providence” and “smart blades” are entering into wind linguistics. Aside from sounding really cool, the effect of these new characteristics will allow turbines to operate better and last longer by approximately 5%. In terms of longevity, average turbine lifespan would increase by a year. Fiscally speaking, a 4 MW class wind turbine would gain roughly $38,000 in increased annual productivity.

The Danish research program will conclude in 2012 and the first lidar-incorporated smart blades could be available by 2014. What other renewable has lasers in its future?

We’ve got a couple exciting bits of news for you today about offshore wind power.

First up: the nation’s first offshore wind farm is slowly moving closer to reality. Cape Wind, a proposed 400+ MW wind farm off the coast of the Nantucket Sound, has entered into power purchase talks with National Grid, a major utility in New England. This is an important step for the troubled project and signals that progress is being made, however slowly.

The project is hoping to qualify for the Depart of Energy cash grants offered in President Obama’s stimulus bill. In order to receive the grant—equal to 30% of a project’s costs—the wind farm will need to begin operating in 2012. Ian Bowles, Massachusetts’ energy and environment secretary, describes Cape Wind as “the only offshore wind project that has any possibility of being built in President Obama’s first term.”

Switching focus to a different part of the world where offshore wind is more than just a vision of the future, nine European nations have banded together to create a “supergrid” in the North Sea to aid transmission from offshore wind farms and supply electricity to the mainland. According to the European Wind Energy Association, 100 GW (yes, gigawatts) of offshore wind in the North Sea are in the planning stages. That would be enough electricity to power roughly 10% of the entire European Union.

The agreement to build the supergrid took place at the Copenhagen climate summit yesterday in Denmark. Coincidentally, Denmark already gets 4.5% of its electricity from offshore wind farms. The Danes know how to get it done.

A new study released by the UC Berkeley Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology found that electric cars could account for up to 64% of light vehicle sales by the year 2030. However, for this growth in electric cars sales to occur, the car batteries must be owned separately from the car itself, the study found. This subscription model is roughly equivalent to a cell phone contract, where users own their car but lease their batteries from a third party on a pay-per-mile basis. Because customers do not have to own the batteries, the upfront costs of purchasing electric cars are reduced, making them more attractive investments.

Better Place, a leading electric vehicle service provider, is developing a business model similar to this system. In their model, Better Place owns the car batteries, and the customer pays a subscription to use and charge the batteries. The subscription gives drivers access to Better Place’s system of charging stations. This system makes battery charging easily accessible, both in the customer’s home and public places. Better Place’s service further includes battery swapping stations to make long distance travel possible with current battery technology.

The UC Berkeley study’s author, Thomas Becker, predicts that such a change in car ownership could create 350,000 new jobs and reduce total emissions to 62% of 2005 levels—assuming electric vehicles are powered by clean sources of energy—while saving $205 billion in health care costs related to harmful emissions pollution from combustion engines. Furthermore, the estimated total cost of owning such a car is 10¢ to 13¢ a mile cheaper than a gasoline powered car, saving consumers thousands of dollars over the lifetime of their vehicle.

This report nicely compliments a recent study conducted by Professor Mark Jacobson at Stanford. In his report, Jacobson found that wind power is the energy source best suited to power the U.S. vehicle fleet. His research showed that a country-wide fleet of electric vehicles powered by wind energy would reduce carbon and pollutant emissions from the auto fleet by 99%, saving 15,000 lives a year from vehicle-exhaust-related deaths.

Even with excitement about upcoming plug-in hybrids like the Chevy Volt and Toyota Prius, sales of plug-ins and hybrid plug-ins are expected to make up significantly less than one percent of total vehicle sales for the next few years. It’s clear that the country has a long way to go to achieve energy independence, but it’s no less clear that a country-wide fleet of electric vehicle would be an incredible step forward toward that goal. If only 24% of light vehicles in the United States were battery-powered, oil demands would be reduced by 3.7 million barrels a day, equivalent to the amount of oil imported from Venezuela and the Persian Gulf every day. Were wind power to provide the energy for every American vehicle, our oil demands would again drop many times over.

The processes at work behind harnessing wind and converting it into electric power are more complex than a quick surface glance might reveal. It isn’t simply placing a wind turbine in a windy area and letting the wind do its job, although that is the gist of it. Other factors are taken into account that dictate how fast and when the rotors of a turbine will spin so that wind is used as efficiently as possible.

One of the biggest recurring issues behind maximizing wind’s potential is working around one of the wind’s inherent qualities: namely, its intermittency. Since wind speeds fluctuate over the course of the day, researchers are investigating methods to help turbines generate a consistent flow of electricity that doesn’t vary as wildly as the wind speeds. A recent study from a team at Iran’s University of Science and Technology, for instance, takes a more detailed look at the “exergy” of wind power at various wind speeds. For those without a doctorate in thermodynamics, exergy is simply the available energy to do work within a system. By taking a more nuanced look at the wind potential at various wind speeds through improved exergy analysis, the Iranian researchers hope to better define a wind turbine’s cut-in, rated, and furling wind speeds, so that usable energy is maximized at any given wind speed. Based on exergy analyses at two Iranian wind sites, one in Tehran that experiences slower wind speeds and one in the windier town of Manjil, the Iran University of Science and Technology researchers formulated optimized values for wind turbine rotation speed, which can be altered depending on wind speed. Utilizing these values to manage rotation speed would theoretically yield a 20% increase in efficiency and an 80% recover of otherwise “wasted” energy.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science are also working to improve wind turbines’ handling of intermittency. The Milwaukee researchers have taken a similar “exergistic” approach in addressing how to maximize a turbine’s energy output, in this case, using the inertia of the spinning rotor as an energy storage component. Using a braking control algorithm that adjusts the rotor speed, the rotor is allowed to speed up when incoming wind power is greater than average so that it can store the excess energy as kinetic energy rather than generating a surplus of electricity. This energy is released when wind power output falls below average, helping combat inefficiency by keeping the power produced steady and usable on the electric grid.

Of course, an updated and modernized transmission network would go even further in combating inefficiency and creating a more robust energy market. However, advances in technology that help turbines harness the variable wind energy in a more consistent fashion further show that the problem of intermittency isn’t insurmountable. We just haven’t been thinking “exergistically” enough.

Last weekend, the world’s first floating wind turbine was launched to sea off the coast of Norway. Known as the Hywind, the 2.3 megawatt turbine is a test venture that could eventually lead to wind farms further off shore, where the winds are stronger and there are fewer disruptions to shipping and fisheries. Like an iceberg much of the turbine is hidden underwater, where it floats on top of a 100 meter base and is tethered to the sea floor by three cables up to 700 meters long. A floating wind farm using similar technology has been proposed off the coast of Maine, where the rising cost of heating oil could force an evacuation of the state if its residents become unable to pay for heat.

Although there’s no timeline for when the Hywind might become commercially available, it serves as one of the many examples of innovation occurring in the next generation of turbines, and underscores how much innovation has already occurred since the first modern wind turbines were built in the 1980s. Here are a couple of other designs that may (or may not) offer a glimpse into the future of turbine design.

Last month, turbine manufacturer REpower finished installing three 6MW turbines in Hamburg, Germany. These large turbines (each rotor blade is over 200 feet long) are set for eventual offshore deployment. To get a sense at just how large the turbine is, look for the workers standing in the holes where the rotor blades are about to be attached to the hub.

Meanwhile, as innovations in the next generation of wind technology continue, Vestas, the world’s largest turbine manufacturer is taking time to innovate education measures for the next generation of wind developers, turbine manufacturers, and Operations & Maintenance staff. Last July the company announced a contract with Lego to build a limited-edition Vestas wind turbine set. Standing over two feet tall after construction, the set runs on its own internal battery and does not generate any electricity of its own.

Over the next 20 years, the wind industry will continue to see innovation and evolution in turbine design. Rotor blades will grow larger and towers higher, transmission lines will increase capacity and the grid will become smarter, and materials and construction will decrease in cost as mass production of turbines swells. With technological advancements charging full steam ahead, the future appears bright for wind energy.

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