The Rush of Wind Power
By David Hodes
Renewable wind energy sources for electricity generation operations are on a fast-track to quicker development, even in light of developments in fracking technologies that allow more natural gas to be drawn from huge shale deposits in the mid-Atlantic and the northern plains.
Sources for wind generation in the United States are expanding from the base of the plains states (Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Nebraska) to others in the North and Southeast based on the advancement of new technologies in generating electricity from turbines, and the growing economic advantages of cheaper, more reliable energy from wind.
Findings from the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) point to new developments in taller towers, longer blades and lower speed turbine technologies — plus other studies by an independent grid operator serving 13 mid-Atlantic and Great Lakes states that found wind integration into the grid causes no reliability issues or any significant costs for grid updates.
As a result, new wind projects are in strong demand in areas of the country where it used to be uneconomical, such as Ohio and Michigan. The world view of wind power is even brighter.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), electricity generated from wind could rise from 2.6 percent to 18 percent of the world’s electricity by 2050. Technology Roadmap: Wind Energy says since 2008, wind power deployment has more than doubled, approaching 300 gigawatts installed capacities led by China (75 gigawatts), the United States (60 gigawatts), and Germany (31 gigawatts).
In an email response to questions, Lindsay North, manager of media relations and outreach for AWEA, stated that the wind industry is coming off the biggest year on record in 2012, installing more than 13 gigawatts across the country.
In addition, the cost of wind energy has been driven down by more than 40 percent in the last four years, North wrote, confirming the finding by the IEA that the cost of land-based wind power is close to competitive with other sources of electricity.
It’s a robust economic engine. The industry employs 80,000 in the United States in more than 550 manufacturing facilities, and has helped spur $25 billion in private investment in 2012 alone.
As more wind power become available through better transmission lines and grid updates, the spreading economic power of renewable wind energy has industry think tanks and simulation labs across the country stepping up their testing to the next stage: making wind a preferred cost-effective, readily available and reliable energy source in a diverse mix of electricity sources for the United States as the country innovates itself closer to the goal of energy independence.
Testing, Testing, Testing
The innovations in wind technology are coming fast and furious. Fairfield, Conn.-based General Electric, one of the world’s leading wind turbine suppliers, is working in a new partnership with Clemson University in Clemson, S.C., located 31 miles south of Greenville.
Here, what is being touted as one of the world’s most advanced energy testing and research centers for wind energy development recently broke ground, financed by one of the largest grants ever given to the university by the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE).
The $98 million, 82,000-square-foot wind turbine drivetrain testing facility was financed with $45 million from the DoE and matched by $53 million in private funds. The facility, the South Carolina Electric and Gas (SCE&G) Energy Innovation Center at the Clemson University Restoration Institute, houses an advanced wind-turbine drivetrain testing facility that allows GE to perform tests of full scale highly accelerated mechanical and electrical advanced drivetrain systems for wind turbines. The drivetrain is the critical component of a sustainable wind turbine, taking energy generated by the turbine’s blades and increasing the rotational speed to drive the turbine’s electrical generator.
Additionally the facility will be working on grid integration studies using the facility’s 15 megawatt test rig — an innovation which came from a Clemson student that is now backed by Duke Energy.
One aspect of the selection by GE for Clemson is the proximity of the facility. GE’s renewable energy business, which is part of GE Power & Water, has engineering headquarters in Greenville.
The engineering team has a great local relationship with Clemson, says Katelyn Buress, spokesperson, GE Power & Water. “The fact that the university has the ability to do the testing for larger scale machines is really helpful,” she says.
GE engineers will be using the simulator to test their drivetrain engine over a full range of transmissions to stress the machine and push it to its limits, Buress says, with the goal of understanding how the machine could withstand the environment and the winds that are out in the field. “To do advanced wind testing on large machines beforehand is a great opportunity because it enables engineers to know what it is they are getting into. Now they have a machine to duplicate what could be expected in a real world scenario. That helps us make machines that are more reliable and are as efficient as possible for our customers.”
Buress says that GE is also working with Clinton Community College in Plattsburgh, N.Y., in a collaboration to develop state-of-the-art training and create a hiring pool for their wind energy operations. Last year, GE gave the college $400,000 in training equipment for their wind energy program. “That work, and the Clemson partnership, are what we need to do to help move forward advanced technology in wind energy development,” she says.
Wind Farms and Transmission Lines
In regard to wind farm developments, Geronimo Energy, an Edina, Minn.-based utility-scale wind farm developer for the upper Midwest since 2005, began acquiring land and soliciting bids from companies in 2008 for another wind farm project.
Xcel Energy, the No. 1 retail seller of wind energy in the United States, responded with a proposal to buy power generated from a 200 megawatt Geronimo project slated to start construction in the spring of 2014 and be operational by the end of the year. The $350 million Prairie Rose Wind Farm will include 125 wind turbines on 25,000 acres of far southwest Rock County, Minn., where average wind speed is 18 miles per hour. Xcel is also set to buy power from another planned $350 million Geronimo wind farm near Jamestown, N.D.
Aside from a steady wind source, this area of the upper Midwest has advantages with getting the power source delivered across a number of new transmission lines.
The development of new transmission lines is the result of Minnesota’s aggressive policies to acquire renewable energy through the CapX2020 transmission lines project. CapX was created to study how much transmission investment will be needed by 2020 to keep up reliability and import sufficient renewable energy to meet the state’s policies.
CapX is a joint initiative of 11 transmission owning utilities in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin that includes four 345 kilovolt transmission lines and one 230 kilovolt line. The new lines are expected to cost more than $2 billion and cover nearly 800 miles when complete. “CapX actually resulted in the construction of several connecting 345 lines around Minnesota and in to neighboring states like North Dakota,” says Betsy Engelking, vice president of Geronimo Energy.
The result of cheaper, more reliable energy is more high-electricity use businesses coming to the state, such as data centers. Engelking says that they have seen a number of data centers located in Iowa, in part because that state has been very aggressive in wind power development. “We would expect to see some of that happening in eastern north and eastern South Dakota, and southwestern Minnesota, because of the electricity infrastructure and the generation that can go into those areas” she says.
Another line in the CapX project will go in an easterly direction, from Hampton, Minn. into LaCrosse, Wis., targeted to be in service by 2015. “The idea is to facilitate more energy from wind-rich states like North and South Dakota to facilitate export to Wisconsin where it is very weak between the western and eastern portions of that state,” Engelking says.
Tracking new transmission capabilities is also top of the agenda for the Wind Coalition, a nonprofit association representing eight so-called “wind corridor” states in the central United States — Kansas, Texas, Nebraska, Missouri, Arkansas, New Mexico, Louisiana and Oklahoma.
One example is the Competitive Renewable Energy Zone (CREZ) transmission line project in Texas, authorized by state’s public utility commission in 2009 and coming on line by the end of 2013, representing one of the biggest infrastructure projects the state has ever undertaken, says Jeff Clark, executive director of the coalition.
This is a $4.9 billion transmission line project constructed by seven transmission and distribution utilities that are expected to transmit 18.5 megawatts of electricity from west Texas and the panhandle to the more populated metropolitan areas of the state. “We are also looking to build new transmission lines for export,” Clark says. “Because one of the very promising areas for economic growth in this region is the ability to harness the wind power that we have, generate electricity, and move that electricity to other parts of the country that need it.”
Clark says the technological breakthroughs are also coming in the electrical side — with updated retrofitting of older turbines and better drivetrains added — and the mechanical side — with more advanced blade designs using composite materials and design advancements to improve the efficiency of the blade.
Advancements in meteorology and the ability to forecast wind are being fine-tuned, along with dramatic improvements in communications and computational abilities among turbines themselves.
It’s really a convergence of engineering and communications technologies that are making some really fascinating improvements, Clark says, citing the use of radar for to scan the wind before it even gets to the farm. “These were things that were unthinkable that are now becoming commonplace.”
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Illustration by nokhoog_buchachon at Free Digital Photos.net