February 2009

The Answer is Blowin’ the Wind

Author: Jim McCaffrey

Wind is air convection currents caused by the sun’s uneven heating of the earth’s surface. Earth’s rotation, terrain and land/water mix all contribute to wind flows. For example, during the day, air over land warms quicker and rises, causing cooler marine air to rush in. At night, the process reverses.

Concerns about secure energy supplies and a clean environment have started a massive government effort to accelerate wind-powered electricity generation. Now the generation capacity is 1,075 gigawatts (GW=1 billion watts) and fossil fuels provide 78 percent of that. Although wind is only 1.5 percent of that, the Department of Energy has reported that by 2030, wind can supply 20 percent of our electricity. A secure, renewable environmentally friendly energy source: The answer may well be “blowin’ in the wind.”

The D.O.E. (Department of Energy) indicates Texas, Kansas, N. Dakota, S. Dakota and Montana present the best wind potential. Locating wind farms is tricky due to varying surface speeds, duration, gusts, direction and other variables. Mathematical computer models help experts select optimum locations. One of the best wind corridors lies between Amarillo and Dodge City. Excellent places exist in up to 30 states and in shallow off-shore waters, mostly off the Northeast coast. A recent wind-mapping project concluded that South Carolina marine winds are relatively good, but SC is seventh from last in total potential. Santee Cooper is partnered up to research winds offshore from Georgetown to Myrtle Beach. Onshore, SC has no potential. Since we have relatively cheap power here, extensive wind development is unlikely.

Europe leads in offshore wind farms, because land is scarce, population is near shallow water and winds are strong. Technology is advanced enough to put unique projects together like a 574 ft. giant wind turbine off Britain and a Norwegian floating-mast (tethered to the bottom) farm in 900 feet of water, 20 miles out.

Commercial turbines use 8-56 mile winds, craving near constant speed to avoid damage to parts from sudden lulls or bursts. Airplane-type blades rotate a shaft into the gearbox, where rpms are increased to spin the generator. A “yaw” controller keeps the spinning blades aligned into changing wind direction. Electricity flows down inside the structure, destined for a power grid—usually up to 35 percent of nameplate power rating. Utilities manage erratic generation, day/night cycles, transmission on power lines and temporary storage needs. A recent breakthrough is the sodium sulfur battery, whereby electro chemicals store incoming power for later energy release to meet heavy demands.

Newer turbine generators have dropped since 1980, but a recent uptick comes from parts shortages, construction costs, and dollar/euro exchange rates (many parts are made in Europe). Large wind farms produce electricity in the 3.0-6.5 cents/kwh range. To make wind power economically possible, subsidies in the forms of research funding, accelerated tax depreciation, tax credits (over 2 cents/kwh) and local incentives like property tax relief are available.

We have over 25,000 wind-turbines operating in 36 states. There are impressive installations like one 460 turbine farm sprawling over 50 square miles of high country in Oregon and Washington to serve over 70,000 homes, or a giant west Texas complex to generate power for urban areas such as Ft. Worth/ Dallas. After 10 years of political and environmental delays, our first off-shore farm, “Cape Cod Project” (130 turbines, five miles offshore), is approved. Wind-power companies are being purchased by utilities who want to own and control their own generation capacity. And some bigger utilities are planning their own brand new projects.

Conflicting opinions about wind power exist among environmentalists and the general public.

Advantages cited are:
Secure renewable domestic energy.
No drilling pollution or combustion pollution (fossil fuels emissions).
No radioactive wastes.
No water consumption—a precious commodity.
Rural winds supply farms, ranches and local utilities.
Wind creates more jobs/kwh than coal or gas.

Disadvantages mentioned:
Intermittent power—not blowing when needed.
Sources are remote from major population centers.
May not be cost-competitive with some fossil fuels.
Ugly to the eye in natural landscapes. Strobe flickers.
Noisy. Like a brick in a clothes dryer.
Dangerous—flinging “ice bullets,” separating or disintegrating blades.
Lethal—low flying aircraft, bird slaughter (hawks, eagles, migratory).

The DOE thinks wind power can expand from 17 Gigawatts to 300 GW to supply 20 percent of 2030’s electricity. Fossil fuel pollution will shrink by 25 percent and the four trillion gallons of water will be saved. DOE and six turbine manufacturers are sharing R&D siting strategy and technological advances. DOE has also contracted with G.E. for a new offshore wind-power system to better resist harsh marine environments and make electricity at half of current costs. Also coming soon is a “fast-track” marine leasing program for companies to build wind farms on the N. East Continental Shelf, in the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico. Wind is on the move!

Texas oil man T. Boone Pickens dreams of tapping Great Plains wind energy with hundreds of new wind farms to make electricity for urban areas. Natural gas power plants would be scaled back, and the displaced gas piped to thousands of new compressed-gas fueling stations. Personal and public CNG transportation would finally reduce U.S. gasoline and diesel fuel consumption to lower our dependence on imported oil. Whew!

Mr. Pickens does not say exactly how all this would happen, but he does envision only private capital and no new government regulations or taxes. Further, “it could all happen within 10 years,” because the government is to gear up, increase subsidies, and clear away all obstacles! Not sure what words properly describe this huge dream.

Others envision a souped-up national energy grid that would tap wind power to tie the entire U.S. together with 22,000 miles of new high-voltage transmission lines. Then, cheaper power could be called on to “chase demand” as the sun moves across the country. Now, utilities meet demands with widely differing power costs based on their individual variables and characteristics. For example, a huge new wind farm located in Lebanon, KS (center of lower 48 states) could generate cheap power for both the East and West Coasts and points in between. It could be managed to reduce demands on local utilities with higher costs. Again, the more wind power, the less demand for fossil fuels. Another massive concept.

The net advantages of wind power are already being acted on as part of the expanding “alternative fuel” initiative. There is no doubt that global energy demand and higher prices will surge again, bringing the United States energy crisis back to the national awareness of the need for a much improved energy strategy.

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