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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.

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FLOWE (1)

Scientists erecting a VAWT at FLOWE

A group of CalTech researchers are looking to redesign our future wind farms by observing the way fish swim in schools.  Fluid dynamics expert, John Dabiri, recently purchased two acres of land north of Los Angeles, where he established the CalTech Field Laboratory for Optimized Wind Energy (FLOWE).  The project was inspired by the findings from a classroom research study conducted by graduate students, Robert Wittlesey and Sebastian Liska, supervised by Dabiri.  Their results suggest that there may be substantial benefits to placing vertical-axis wind turbines (VAWT) in a strategic array, and that some configurations may allow the turbines to work more efficiently as a result of their relationship to others around them.

These results go against the industry norm as the most commonly used wind turbine in today’s market is the horizontal-axis wind turbine (HAWT).  Unlike the HAWT, the VAWT has no propellers and uses a vertical rotor to generate electricity.  Because of this design, these devices can be placed on smaller plots of land in a denser pattern.

So what do schools of fish have to do with the placement of wind turbines?

“[T]here is constructive hydrodynamic interference between the wakes of neighboring fish,” says Dabiri. “It turns out that many of the same physical principles can be applied to the interaction of vertical-axis wind turbines.”

When fish swim in schools, they align themselves strategically to optimize their forward propulsion, conserving maximum energy.  While studying the vortices left behind by these fish, Dabiri observed some that rotated clockwise, while others rotated counterclockwise.

These observations contrast with current wind farm designs, where turbines sit neatly in rows, all spinning the same way.  Dabiri, along with his team, are applying the patterns of these vortices to the placement of their wind turbines in hopes of obtaining maximum energy extraction.  Most often, VAWTS are smaller in size and used in residential settings.  The results of FLOWE could potentially change this limitation. As the technology becomes more advanced and is tested further, utility-scale applications could be on the horizon.  Once the team identifies the optimal placement, Dabiri believes it may be possible to produce more than 10 times the amount of energy currently provided by a farm of horizontal turbines.  However, as with any technology, we will to wait and see how it evolves.

VAWTs have been around for thousands of years, yet they still have not made a significant dent in the modern, commercial wind market.  Many industry experts, such as Ian Woofenden, believe VAWTs to be in many ways inferior to the traditional HAWT.  Their main inferiority, according to Woofenden, lies in company overhype of underperforming technologies, leading the consumer to believe that VAWTs are superior to HAWTs.

To salvage the VAWT’s reputation, AWEA created the Small Wind Certification Council (SWCC), an independent certification body that certifies small wind turbines to meet or exceed AWEA’s Small Wind Turbine Performance and Safety Standard.  The Council started accepting applications in February and many small wind companies, such as Windspire Energy, are eager to get certified.  Windspire Energy has provided three turbines for FLOWE.  In exchange, Dabiri will share his research results with the company.

Currently, FLOWE is in its initial phase, but Dabiri has big goals for the project.  He purposely chose to place the turbines in a real-world condition, as opposed to a computer generated model or a laboratory wind tunnel.  Dabiri feels that a field demonstration can easily facilitate a future expansion from a basic science project into a power-generating facility.  If the results of the pilot program are significantly favorable, Dabiri and his team hope to transition to power-generation experiments, where the power can be put to use either locally or via grid connection.  This could allow us to build wind farms closer to urban centers and power centers, reducing the cost of power transmission.

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?

AWEA’s Into the Wind blog links to a story from Fox Toledo about how the residents of Fowler, Indiana have reacted to a nearby wind farm:

And when it comes to noise, nobody seems to take issue.

“I don’t hear them at all,” said Charlene Deckard.

“In the house I hear nothing,” Elmira Deckard said.

And from Don Clute: “If a train goes by a mile away it makes more noise than I’ve ever heard from a wind tower.”

The residents of Fowler appear to feel overwhelmingly positive about the turbines—one resident, Charlene Deckard, even calls them attractive—and the economic benefit that they provide.

If nothing else, this only goes to show that there’s nothing like spending time near a turbine to make one realize that noise isn’t much of an issue at all.

Amongst the small contingent of wind energy detractors, a recurring concern has been the risk imposed by turbines on various forms of wildlife, most specifically, avian wildlife. Some opposed to wind development have argued that spinning rotors of a wind turbine atop its tower pose a severe threat to wildlife. However, thanks in part to a new study addressing the subject, it appears that these arguments have been misguided at best and miss the bigger picture of the risks every human structure imposes on local wildlife populations. Conducted by the New York State Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), the “Comparison of Reported Effects and Risks to Vertebrate Wildlife from Six Electricity Generation Types in the New York/New England Region” broke the pattern of looking solely at the wildlife impacts of wind energy by examining six major power generation methods to compare and contrast the risks of each energy source. An important guiding procedure of the study involved analyzing the entire project life cycle of energy sources: resource extraction, fuel transportation, facility construction, power generation, transmission and delivery, and decommissioning of the facility. The results showed that the renewable sources – wind and hydro – posed the least significant wildlife impacts when compared to their nonrenewable counterparts – coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear. Coal was found to exhibit the largest impact.

Although wind’s most notable wildlife impact is on birds and bats, the study points out that during the transmission and delivery stage, all forms of electricity generation pose moderate risks to these and other animals. When the impacts of all phases of energy production are considered, wind’s overall risks decrease significantly relative to other modes of energy production. Rene Braud, Director of Permitting and Environmental Affairs for Houston-based Horizon Wind Energy, notes that much of the talk surrounding wind energy’s bird and bat impacts have been “fear-based.” The negative hype “hasn’t been based on science. The study gave us some objective, good research into what we’ve thought all along,” she adds.
Still, in spite of wind’s minimal comparable wildlife impacts, the wind industry continues to look at ways to minimize those moderate risks. “For every project National Wind works on, we notify and consult with Fish and Wildlife officials early in the development process, which improves a project’s compatibility with wildlife considerations. We conduct the necessary vegetation and endangered species studies in order to avoid negative environmental impacts as much as possible,” said Chuck Burdick, Wind Developer at National Wind.

With the Senate looking at possible national renewable electricity standards, the NYSERDA study helps to clarify important information and set the story straight on another wind energy myth.

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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