The wind industry is a whole lot more than meets the eye. Behind those turbine towers serenely dotting the skyline is the bustle of manufacturing, construction, and maintenance work which goes into building and operating them. Throughout the Great Plains’ wind corridor, these jobs are helping revitalize small towns that have been hurt economically by the migration of traditional kinds of manufacturing overseas.  Nowhere is this process more noticeably transformative than in the state of Iowa, where the manufacturing of turbines and nacelles (the box on the turbine which contains the generator), account for 2,300 jobs.

Iowa has a rich history of manufacturing in areas that you might expect for such an agricultural powerhouse—its specialties  included farm equipment and food processing machinery. It also had plants devoted to products such as printing presses and coal trucks. This history meant that even though the state had to endure manufacturing slowdowns and concurrent job losses over the past 30 years, it always possessed human capital with knowledge of how to build things.  Components of wind turbines, such as blades which can weigh up to 15,000 lbs, fit into the same class of heavy machinery as much farm equipment. Thus, Iowa was in a great position to supply its wind industry with parts as homegrown as its corn.

Many wind manufacturing companies have chosen to locate in Iowa, including industry giants such as Germany’s Siemens and Spains’ Acciona.  This makes sense given the state’s abundant wind resources and reputation for being on the progressive edge of wind development. Iowa is known for passing one of the country’s first Renewable Energy Standards back in the day when this type of legislation wasn’t yet the norm. The state also offers tax incentives for wind companies who build plants there. All of this has resulted in small town success stories such as those profiled here and here.

The growth of wind manufacturing in Iowa makes it an interesting model for the wind industry as a whole. For one thing, it proves that wind has grown out of any possible classification as a “niche” industry. It powers job growth not just in manufacturing but also in the technical field (installing turbines) and the development field (planning wind farms). Although each field is highly specialized, Iowa shows that when brought together, these jobs can provide a dynamic boost across the whole economy.

Finally, Iowa’s prowess in all things wind is leading to some unforeseen benefits. First, the state has become a leader in wind research and education. Programs at the state’s colleges which train students to become wind technicians consistently find employers swooping in to hire students before they even graduate, and Iowa State recently established a Wind Energy Manufacturing Laboratory to focus on improving productivity and reducing costs at turbine factories. Also, another sign that Iowa’s proactive stance on renewable energy is paying off came July 20th when Google inked a 20-year contract to purchase 114MW of power from a wind farm in Story County.

All of this shows that wind energy’s benefits are constituted not just in the electricity it produces but also in the activity behind the scenes. Iowa (which produces a higher percentage of its energy from wind than any other state) is a great example of wind having a far-reaching positive impact on a region.

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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.

Note: As of July 22, 2010, reports indicate that the energy bill no longer includes an RPS.  We encourage you to call your Senators and tell them to urge the inclusion of a renewable electricity standard in the bill. See the American Wind Energy Association’s website for information on who to call.

One of the most commonly tossed-around acronyms in the renewable energy industry is the RPS, which in this case doesn’t stand for “rock-paper-scissors”. Instead, as many readers may already know, it stands for “Renewable Portfolio Standard”. To those not familiar with the concept, a Renewable Portfolio Standard is a government mandate which requires a certain amount of a state or country’s energy to come from renewable sources.

A national RPS—one which applies to the whole United States— is prominent on our radar right now because it plays a large role in the proposed energy legislation making its way through the Senate. It’s one of several energy reform measures being considered, along with a cap-and-trade system for limiting carbon emissions and other pollution restrictions targeted at utilities. The problem is that with the curtain about to fall on the current legislative session, there’s a lot of uncertainty in the Senate about which path to take.The case for a national RPS has been made by several groups hoping to get a last-minute bill to the table. Senators Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Tim Johnson of South Dakota introduced a bill known as SAFEST (Securing America’s Future with Energy and Sustainable Technologies), which calls for a 25% RPS by 2025. Another effort was made by Senators Bryan Dorgan of North Dakota, Tom Udall of Colorado, and Mark Udall of New Mexico, who called for a suggested RPS of 15% proposed by the Energy and Natural Resources Committee last year to be strengthened and signed into law. However, with the time crunch, it is possible that a bill will not be ready to vote on before the August Recess.

If passed, a national RPS would provide the wind industry and country with many benefits. Let’s cross our fingers that the Senate will find a way to take action on this!

  1. Job creation.  We like to think about wind energy as a harmonious pairing of environmental sense and economic sense, and a study released by the Pew Charitable Trusts last year backs that up. According to the study, over the 10-year period from 1998-2007 the number of jobs in renewable energy increased 9.1%, compared to 3.7% for the economy as a whole. In the wind industry, the job increase over that same span was 23.5%. Also, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a 25% by 2025 RPS would create 297,000 jobs over the next 15 years.
  2. Economic Development. According to the AWEA’s briefing on National Renewable Energy Portfolio Standards, each wind turbine installed generates $1.5 million in economic activity. In addition, the UCS predicts that enacting an RPS would produce more than three times as many jobs as continuing on our current, more fossil-fueled approach.
  3. Consumer Savings . The UCS’s Clean Power, Green Jobs report found that a national RPS would reduce electricity prices up to 7.6%.
  4. Global warming prevention. Climate change continues to receive lots of attention in the media, and we probably don’t have to tell you about the effectiveness of renewable sources in cutting emissions. However, it’s interesting to note that 2010 has featured the warmest January-June period on record. And that wasn’t all from the New York Times’ “Green” blog; here’s an instance of two pictures speaking a thousand words.  
  5. Energy independence.  Passing a national RPS has the nifty side-effect of reducing our dependence on foreign oil. In addition, it should promote economic security by helping keep clean energy jobs in the US, instead of ceding the upper hand to countries such as China (read all about China in our blog below).  According to Senator Klobuchar, “The strength of our nation is tied to the strength of our energy economy. Not only are we still dependent on foreign oil, but other countries are making great strides in developing clean energy technologies.”

China Wind Farm

Photo by: Mike Locke

The United States wind industry gained a new competitor as China surpasses Germany last year to reach the world’s #2 spot for total installed capacity.  Currently, the US sits in a comfortable lead with 35,159 MW of total installed capacity;but with China’s exponential installation growth, our hold may not be very strong.  According to the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC), in 2004, there were only 764 MW of wind capacity installed in China.  That number has been doubling almost every year, reaching 25,805 MW by the end of 2009.

Goals for wind turbine installations have been growing as well.  In 2007, China announced a national target of 5,000 MW installed by 2010.  Only a year later, that number increased to 10,000 MW.  After a whopping 13,785 MW growth in 2009, China set a new target of 35,000 MW installed by 2011, and 150,000 MW installed by 2020—a fivefold jump from the original 30,000 MW goal in 2007 and 50,000 MW more ambitious than the US goal of 100,000 MW installed by 2020.

The push behind China’s renewable energy boom lies in their National Renewable Energy Legislation.  First effective in 2006, the legislation states a national preference for the development and utilization of alternative energy resources.  This meant setting a national commitment of 15% renewable energy use by 2020 and providing increased government funding for green energy research and projects.  The legislation also requires power grid operators to purchase all energy generated from renewable sources, with a penalty for those who do not abide.

wind turbine production

Engineers work on a wind turbine part.

Despite our difference in governing styles, the United States could stand to learn a thing or two from China’s National REL—especially in the economic success it has created.  According to the Chinese Renewable Energy Industries Association (CREIA), renewable energy accounted for 1.12 million jobs in 2008 and is climbing by 100,000 each year.  The majority of these jobs come from manufacturing companies.  China is currently the leading producer of wind turbines and solar panels.  In the wind industry, that success was facilitated by the adoption of the “70% domestic” rule in 2004 which states that all turbines in Chinese wind farms must have at least 70% of its parts made in Chinese factories.  The impact was phenomenal.  The Chinese turbine production industry has grown from only six manufacturers in 2004 to nearly 90 at the end of 2009.  The government recently abolished this requirement to allow for more participation in the international market.  According to GWEC, only 17 Chinese-made wind turbines were exported in 2009.

The American market has the potential to grow at such an electrifying pace as well if we adopt a National RES.  The “Job Impacts of a National Renewable Energy Standard” study, conducted in 2009 and published by the RES Alliance for Jobs, found that a 25% by 2025 national standard would support an additional 274,000 jobs than an industry without a public policy.  The American Solar Energy Society’s (ASES) Green Jobs Report also forecasts more favorable outcomes for implementing an RES.  In the “business as usual” scenario, which means no changes in policy or major initiatives, the report only predicts a 130% increase in revenue and a 160% increase in jobs created in the next two decades.  The alternative scenario, which calls for a sustained public policy commitment, predicts a potential revenue growth of 1,200% and a 1,300% increase in jobs in the next two decades.  These are astounding differences for the adoption of one piece of legislation.

Figure 1

Change in Renewable Electricity Supported Jobs in 2025 With a 25% RES by 2025.

Every other summer, my parents and I take a trip back to China to visit our family.  I will never forget how my homeland greets me as I step onto its streets.  Outside, the sun burns earnestly on a cloudless horizon.  Its light is obscured by a permanent layer of smog, causing the sky to remain a dusty gray-blue hue and trapping in the oppressive heat.  Take a breath, and the summer’s fever invades the lungs, infecting the veins within milliseconds.  “Sauna days,” my uncle chuckles as he lifts my last suitcase into the car, “do you miss them?”

I don’t.  I really don’t.  Sauna days are the worst part of my Eastern adventures.  Hopefully, these muggy summers become more bearable with the help of a strong national commitment to greener energy, making my future vacations a lot more enjoyable.  As for the rest of the seasons I spend in the good old US of A, here’s hoping we are headed in the same direction.

Much to our excitement, wind energy continues to grow as a way of meeting U.S. demand for electricity, now accounting for about 40% of the new yearly additions to the country’s electrical capacity. However, as the industry continues to grow, one of the challenges it continually faces is transmitting electricity from rural wind farms to the urban areas that need it.  To put this issue into perspective, the US transmission system is like a highway system with many local roads but few interstates; a fine system on a local level but not as good over long distances. To overcome this barrier, the federal government and the American Wind Energy Association are advocating for the creation of an intrastate electrical superhighway that would connect the country with a spider web of high-voltage transmission lines. The only question is deciding who pays for it — an especially tricky question since long-distance power lines would benefit many people over a large geographic area. The oil- and coal-based power plants that have the lions’ share of US energy production don’t have this problem: luckily for them, they can be built near cities, limiting the need for long-distance transmission.

Luckily, solutions have begun to arrive from the grassroots level. A recent breakthrough was made by the Southwest Power Pool (SPP), a regional association of power companies which helps manage the transmission grid in the American Southwest. Several weeks ago, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved their new cost allocation plan which creates a “highway/byway” system of paying for transmission. Basically, the cost to build power lines that carry large amounts of power (300+kV) are distributed among many utilities in the region because the lines will serve wide areas. Smaller transmission lines (less than 100kV) are paid for entirely by local utilities since they are intended mostly for local use. For lines of intermediate size (100-300kV), local utilities pay much of the cost but other utilities around the region chip in too. FERC’s acceptance of this plan clears the way for SPP and other utilities to start building longer transmission lines, especially in the wind-rich Heartland, which is SPP’s primary area of service.

This newly approved highway/byway system will allow transmission lines to be built between Wichita, KS, Spearhead, KS, and Hitchland, TX. Once completed, these lines will span much of southern Kansas and the Oklahoma Panhandle, one of the most wind-abundant regions in the country. The construction of these power lines will likely be a huge boost to area wind projects whose electricity will now become accessible to new population centers.

New interstate transmission lines on a national scale would help consumers save billions of dollars. For instance, according to one study done by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), a $4.9 billion dollar investment in new transmission would pay for itself in less than three years and save ratepayers about $1.7 billion per year for each year after that. Not bad. Further investment in transmission would also act as a huge incentive for the wind industry to expand into more wind-rich locations, bringing all the benefits of new jobs, local income, reduced emissions, and fewer “natural” catastrophes (ie, oil spills) with it.

Federal efforts to plan new interstate transmission lines have been repeatedly thwarted in the past by one question: who pays for the updates? SPP’s cost allocation plan could be the revelation that finally marks the genesis of a nation-wide interstate transmission overhaul. What we need now is for more regional transmission operators to adopt “highway/byway” plans similar to SPP’s. The adoption of such policies would be a good first step toward a much-needed update to our national grid.

According to the famous musical which bears the state’s name, Oklahoma is “where the wind comes sweeping down the plain”. With the passage of a new law in the Sooner State, it looks like the state’s energy providers will soon be making more use of it. The law, called the Oklahoma Energy Securities Act (OESA), sets a goal that by 2015, 15% of the state’s electricity should come from clean sources.

Wind projects under development in Oklahoma.

Given that Oklahoma is located right in the middle of Tornado Alley, you’d expect the law to have especially strong effects on the state’s wind industry. And sure enough, Oklahoma is one of the most wind-abundant states in the country. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) classifies the vast majority of the state as a Class 3 or Class 4 Wind Power Density area, which is a medium rating. However, most of the places that have high (class 5-7) ratings are difficult-to-access locations such as the crest of the Rocky Mountains. When you look at wind power potential and feasibility together, Oklahoma is about as promising a place for wind development as you can find.

As with all energy legislation, there was considerable debate over the exact terms of the law. The 15% clean energy level was set as a goal rather than a mandate, so companies are encouraged to comply, but not required. However, the law clears the way for Oklahoma to possibly match the “20% renewable energy by 2020” standard of neighbors Missouri and New Mexico. (For a complete look at various states’ renewable energy goals and mandates, click here). It also passed with overwhelming bipartisan support (91-2 in the House) in a state with a senator famous for declaring “global warming is a hoax”.

It is particularly encouraging that the OESA was passed with input and support from Oklahoma’s leading utility companies. One of the companies, Oklahoma Gas and Electric Co., plans to have its energy from wind production jump from 270MW to 750MW by 2012. That’s basically a tripling of wind capacity in just two years.  Hopefully, developments like this point toward a future where popular support for Oklahoma’s wind industry hits a critical mass.

The expected changes accompanying the passage of the OESA also show that wind energy offers environmental and economic benefits at the same time, as the law is expected to create jobs by encouraging wind and other alternative energy companies to locate in Oklahoma. It should also increase the profits of Oklahoma’s already multi-billion dollar wind industry, according to the Tulsa World newspaper.

With much of the industry at this week’s WINDPOWER Expo in Dallas—including National Wind, check us out at booth #407—we thought this might be a good time to run down a variety of recent wind energy stories.

  • First up, a new study has been released by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory that adds to their 2008 study, 20% Wind by 2030. On the surface, this new study isn’t quite as sexy—it’s title, after all, is the Western Wind and Solar Integration Study—but it’s conclusions are just as promising.

    A bit of background: The WWSIS study was conducted to investigate the potential impact of a significant addition of wind and solar energy to the power system of West Connect, a series of affiliated utilities throughout Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Wyoming. Specifically, the study focused on the feasibility of the group generating 30% of its load from wind energy and 5% from solar. The study concluded that achieving such a high penetration is feasible and would require only a few key change to current practices. Chief among these changes would be creating better systems for aggregating renewable energy over large geographic areas—thus reducing overall variability—and scheduling energy disbursements at more frequent intervals.

    The study mentions a number of the benefits to the Western states should they implement West Connect’s plan. Most strikingly,”operating costs drop by $20 billion/yr, resulting in a 40% savings due to offset fuel and
    emissions.” While this drop in operating costs does not include the cost of constructing a wind farm, it illustrates how much money a wind farm can save over fossil fuels while operating.

  • In other news, “Ontario’s chief medical officer of health says there’s no evidence that the noise from wind turbines leads to adverse health effects.” While Dr. Arlene King offers that some people living near turbines may experience headaches or sleep disturbances, she concludes that wind turbine noise is not sufficient to cause hearing loss or other health effects. While this shouldn’t come as a surprise to regular readers, it’s always nice to receive validation from someone with Dr. King’s credentials.

  • Former President George W. Bush was the keynote speaker at this week’s WINDPOWER conference. He was apparently well received—”The audience welcomed Mr. Bush enthusiastically, giving him standing ovations at the beginning and end of his speech,” the article states—and spent much of the talk discussing signing Texas’ renewable portfolio standard in 1999 when he was governor, and about the country’s need to transition to renewable forms of energy. He said he’s enjoying retired life, living back on his ranch and being out of the limelight.

Well that about wraps it up. Keep your eye on AWEA Into the Wind blog for more updates on the WINDPOWER expo.

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.

Wind farms are good stewards to the environment and procedures are in place to protect wildlife populations.  In fact, wind farms can save as much as 600 gallons of water per megawatt of energy generated when compared to fossil fuel generation. Turbines also take up only a 1/2 -1 acre of land permanently and they emit no harmful C02 emissions.

On the contrary,  fossil-fuel generation disturbs the environment greatly. It wastes water, emits harmful CO2 gasses, and destroys the land through continuous mining.

In fact, 39% of today’s 6 billion metric tons of CO2 emissions originate from electricity generation.  Electricity generation accounts for 48% of our nation’s water withdrawals, amounting to nearly 738 billion liters per day. Coal mining is expected to destroy nearly 988,000 acres of land annually.   Also, coal mining, oil spills, acid rain, and oil platforms built along the Gulf Coast are all known causes of wildlife mortality in the U.S. A 2004 study in Nature forecast that a mid-range estimate of climate warming could cause 19% to 45% of global species to become extinct.

( Facts from the Department  of Energy’s 20% Wind Energy by 2030 Report)

Although concerns have been raised about the potential risk wind turbines have on wildlife, most notably bird and bat populations, the facts reveal that wind turbines today have little impact on wildlife if developers follow stringent siting standards.  The chart below shows that bird fatalities range from 100 million to 1 billion annually and it is estimated that for every 10,000 bird deaths, less than one death is caused by a wind turbine.

Out of 10,000 bird deaths, less than one is caused by a wind turbine.

The wind industry has taken this issue very seriously and mitigated problems related to the country’s earliest turbine installations. Improvements in technology and industry siting standards have drastically reduced impacts on bird and bat populations.

Standard industry siting standards have evolved over the last decade to steer clear of local migratory bird populations and topography, such as ridges, where birds frequent. The Bats and Wind Energy Cooperative, a coalition formed by the Bat Conservation International (BCI), the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory of the US Department of Energy (NREL), conducts research that has helped change siting standards to avoid migratory paths.

Technological improvements have also helped protect bird populations. In fact, a new radar system, called the MERLIN SCADA system, uses advanced radar technology to detect bird migratory flight paths. This technology provides real-time bird mortality risk mitigation and is the first of its kind in the world. Most often, a bird’s flight path is well above the hub height of a turbine, meaning it will not be harmed. However, sometimes flight paths are lowered due to storms and high winds.  The MERLIN SCADA system can detect avian flight patterns in these instances and automatically activate mitigation reactions, including idling the turbines when appropriate. Scientists at Pattern Energy Group developed the MERLIN SCADA radar system and its first implementation occurred on a 283 megawatt wind farm along the Texas Gulf Coast.

The MERLIN SCADA system uses advanced radar technology to protect migratory birds.

Enhancements in turbine technology design have also helped significantly reduce the potential impact turbines may have on wildlife. Turbine towers are no longer designed as lattice structures that encourage bird nesting. Today’s turbine towers are sleek, steel mono-tubes and turbine blades are larger and spin slower.

Overall, the industry is very proactive in developing preventative measures to protect wildlife populations. Wind energy was established on ecological principles and values and its goal is to uphold these ideals in all aspects of its development.

Technological improvements, research, and stringent siting methodology speak to the industry’s commitment to environmental protection and safety.

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?

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