Monday, March 17, 2008

Wind Energy---How Does It Fit Into Our Future?

by Paul Calhoun

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I saw a posting on Facebook this week that asked, “Is wind energy for real? I have been told that it is just hype”. My thoughts were that if you lived in the Southwest you would witness daily the progress of wind energy. We in the Southeast and Northeast see occasional wind generators and do not relate to the future of wind energy. If we visited the European countries, especially Germany, we would see a major growth in wind energy generation. The progression of harvesting energy from moving air can no longer be thought of as tilting at windmills. Wind energy will be a major player in the replacement of fossil fuels.

The key reason for the acceptance of wind energy is its dropping cost for electrical energy. Over the past three decades, the cost of a watt of electricity generated by wind has dropped to equal the cost of fossil fuel. During the 1970s, turbine blades were 32 feet long and wind power cost $2.00 per kilowatt (kW-hr). Today, wind turbines with blades 130 feet long have cut the cost to around .05 cents per kW-hr. with federal subsidies to build the installation. In the future, the cost of wind energy will continue to decease while fossil fuels will continue to increase.

As noted above, the larger blades are more efficient in producing electricity. This is because more wind is caught by a blade with a larger surface area. A town of 8,000 needed 40 turbines to meet its power needs in the mid-1990s, while just one larger model is needed today to produce the same amount of energy.

There is a great deal of ongoing research around the world to continue to improve the efficiency of the wind turbine. On the drawing boards are turbines with blades almost 300 feet across. This size blade will drive the cost of wind energy down to less than fossil fuel generation. To take advantage of the larger blade, Energy Unlimited in West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania has patented the variable length blade or blade with a blade. This innovation extends or contracts depending on wind conditions. A controller in the base of the tower responds to changes in wind speed, extending the inside blade in lighter winds and retracting it in heavier winds. Conventional turbines have to be shut off when the wind is too strong. The variable blade is claimed to be 25% more efficient and is operating as a prototype since 2002 near Palm Springs, California. For those who are technically curious, there is a lot more research occurring in universities and research laboratories on the components of the turbine, the shapes of blades and predictions of the winds. This research will continue to improve the wind turbine efficiency and further reduce the cost of wind energy.

By almost any measure, wind generated energy is exploding. The growth is primarily limited by turbine availability as the higher efficiency turbines are introduced. The global wind-power industry has grown from $11.8 billion in 2005 to $17.9 billion in 2006. Clean Edge Research projects the market will triple to $60.8 billion by 2016. In the United States in 2006 wind was the second-largest source of new generating capacity, trailing only natural gas. More than 2.4 GW of new capacity was installed, a 27% increase that brought total U.S. wind generating capacity to 11.6 GW, enough to power about 2.9 million homes , according to the American Energy Association. Over the past 20 years, a strong DOE-funded R&D effort combined with private partnerships has lowered the base cost of wind energy from around 80 cents/kWh to as low as 4 cents/kWh. When combined with the government tax incentives which provide an incentive of 1.9 cents/kWh for the first 10 years of a project, and other tax considerations, the cost of wind energy becomes very competitive, and is sometimes lower than conventional generation sources.

In Canada the wind generating capacity nearly doubled in 2006, .adding 657 new MW for a total of more than 1.3 GW. The Canadian Wind Energy Association's goal is for 10,000 MW of installed wind energy in Canada by the year 2010, enough to supply 5% of Canada's electricity needs. Denmark currently generates over 20% of its power from the wind, an attainable goal for Canada. If wind energy were to generate 20% of Canada's electricity, it would be the second largest source of electricity behind hydro and ahead of nuclear, natural gas and coal.

European countries are leading U.S. and Canada in the adoption of wind energy. The total capacity of new wind turbines brought on line across the European Union last year was 8,554 MW, an increase of 935 MW on the 2006 total. Total wind power capacity installed by the end of 2007 will avoid about 90 million tones of CO2 annually and produce 119 Terawatt hours in an average wind year, equal to 3.7% of EU power demand. In 2000, less than 0.9% of EU electricity demand was met by wind power. The European countries have resolved that wind energy will be 20% of their generating capacity by 2020.

The Asian nations are also quickly adopting wind energy. India added 1.8GW of wind energy in 2006. Suzlon Energy, based in Pune, is the world most consistently profitable wind turbine maker. Meanwhile, China, which had installed capacity of 2.6 GW in 2006, plans to install more than 30 GW, enough to power 30 million average Chinese homes by 2020.

The common hurdles to Acceptance of Wind Energy are:

Not in my backyard

People do not like the sight or the sounds of windmills in their backyards. This seems especially true for ocean views. This is a major hurdle to conquer. It may be that the wind energy generating platform needs to go further out which brings energy transmission problems.

Kills Birds and Bats

This concern is becoming less each day. A few studies to date have shown that the location of the wind turbine(s) is the major problem. Those turbines in migration paths cause the most problems. Thus the location of future turbines recognizes the concern for birds and bats. Also, different colors for the blades and warning noises are being studied to remove this hazard.

Hurts Tourism

There are small studies on this opinion, but there are no statistical conclusions. If the turbines can be put out of sight everyone is happy, but we may not always have this luxury...

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