March 18, 2011 • Electricity, Emerging Technology, Energy Generation, Energy Innovation, Perspectives

Winding Up Wind

by Dominic Barbato

I start this blog post from the proverbial “30,000 foot view,” namely because I am at cruising altitude in an Airbus A320 headed west toward the Pacific — Seattle bound, to be specific (whoa, that rhymed). The Rocky Mountains outside Denver litter the landscape below me like autumn leaves on a forest floor, countless and undeniable in beauty. My headphones just blasted out two of my favorite Journey songs, “Wheel in the Sky” and “Edge of the Blade,” Neal Schon’s fanatical guitar riffs outdone only by Steve Perry’s insane vocal prowess. So, with blades and turning wheels in the sky on my mind, I decided to dedicate this post to … drum roll, please … wind power!

I cannot help but feel a bit nostalgic on this flight, as memories of my last expedition to the Pacific coast flood my mind. It was on that rather long but enjoyable cross-country road trip, that I got my first look at the wind farms of west Texas. Perhaps it was the rugged landscape of the American Southwest as we drove across Interstate 40, or the vast number of turbines scattered across the seemingly infinite horizon of the pancake-flat land, but it occurred to me that wind turbines epitomize the intersection of art and science, form and function, in the electric power industry. They are striking in appearance, yet also a very practical and viable solution to increasing our renewable energy portfolio domestically.

The Wildorado Wind Farm, as viewed from I-40, is located between Amarillo and Vega, Texas.

I have been fascinated by wind energy for several years now. I suppose it started when I first drove past a semi truck carrying one of the behemoth turbine blades down the highway. It is difficult to appreciate how large these blades are if you have never had the opportunity to get close to one. In fact, typical modern wind turbines have blades up to 150 feet long, making the total diameter of some rotors as wide as 300 feet, the length of a football field!

My awe of wind turbines increased while on a recent fly-fishing excursion to the southwestern part of my home state, Pennsylvania. As my Dad, brother, and I drove the back country roads in search of the next great trout stream, we spotted numerous wind farms in the distance, each stark white turbine contrasting with the lush green foothills of the Appalachians like pepper flakes on mashed potatoes. Finally, curiosity got the better of us, and we decided to give the trout a brief respite in order to get up close and personal with one of the turbines. After a few misguided turns, we finally made our way atop a grassy hillside and down a small gravel access road that led to a plot of turbines located just outside of Stoystown. This particular array of turbines, as I learned later, comprised the Forward Wind Farm, which is operated by the Edison Mission Group and consists of 14 Suzlon S88 turbines with a combined nameplate capacity of 29.4 MW. Unfortunately, the wind was rather lethargic that day, so the 44-meter blades were moving at the speed of molasses in January. Nevertheless, the only thought going through my mind at that moment was, “this is so darn cool!”

A partial view of the Forward Wind Farm located just outside Stoystown, PA.

Wind energy is one of the oldest methods for generating electricity, and long before coal or nuclear plants energized the majority of our electric grid, windmills sited at farms and locales across the country were used to convert the wind into useful energy to do work. The concept of harnessing the kinetic energy of the wind to generate electricity is relatively simple.  It applies the principles of lift and drag to create turbine rotation, each blade behaving similarly to the wings of an airplane during flight.

Today’s modern turbines come in two varieties often referred to as horizontal axis wind turbines (HAWT) and vertical axis wind turbines (VAWT). Modern windmill turbines (HAWT style), such as GE’s 2.5/3.0 MW Series, are rather sophisticated in design and even have blades that can be adjusted for pitch and yaw to maximize efficiency in shifting air currents. Further, the turbine rotors are positioned high off the ground to take advantage of swifter, less turbulent airflow, while at the same time lessening impacts to life below. Continued technological advances, in conjunction with a few other good reasons, should solidify wind’s position as a rapidly growing renewable energy source in the future.

First, when compared to other renewable energy options, wind generation is relatively cheap to build and quick to construct. According to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), “wind energy is now one of the most cost-effective sources of new electricity generation, competing with new installations of natural gas and costing less than either coal or nuclear power.”

Second, wind energy is good for the economy. Not only has there been an increase in the number of turbine manufacturing facilities located in the United States, but landowners who allow turbines to be sited on their property could see an economic benefit in the form of lease payments from turbine operators. Typically, those same landowners are still able to use their land for other purposes, as the turbines do not interfere with activity on the ground.

Third, wind energy is environmentally friendly and helps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which in today’s carbon-constrained world is of increasing valuable. In fact, if you are interested in offsetting your carbon footprint, you might even consider the purchase of some renewable energy credits from a wind farm.

Your favorite WaterCooler author standing in the shadows of the Suzlon S88's. If you are jealous of my boonie hat, I cannot blame you. It is definitely awesome.

In the spirit of full disclosure, there are some drawbacks to wind energy, specifically, it is “unit contingent,” a fancy way to say the wind does not always blow. No wind equals no electricity. Furthermore, many of the optimum locations for wind installations are away from population centers (for example, offshore), which often means increased costs for the construction of transmission lines to move the electricity from the wind farms to consumers. Noise pollution is another concern, specifically for homes and businesses located nearby. And finally, wind turbines do have some effect on aviary life, although studies have shown turbine collisions comprise less than 0.003% (that’s 30,000 out of one billion) of human-related bird deaths each year.

Despite some of its shortcomings, wind energy remains one of the most attractive options for the future diversification of our generation portfolio and ongoing energy sustainability efforts in the United States. Unfortunately, in the interest of space and time (somewhere, Einstein just smiled), I must draw this post to a close. The next time you see a wind farm off in the distance, I encourage you to take a little detour, go find your gravel access road, and see for yourself what makes these things so darn cool.

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