Melinda (Cormier) Harnden Wind Energy


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The written report on wind as an alternative energy source, for my Diversity of Life class

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Melinda (Cormier) Harnden Wind Energy

  1. 1. In an ever changing world, we have reached a time where the energy resources necessary to sustain our existence are quickly becoming depleted. One endless resource that can counter this problem is wind. Wind powered energy is fast becoming the new energy source for many nations around the world, considering it was the second largest electricity source added to the U.S. last year according to the American Wind Energy Association. The wind energy contribution accounts for approximately 1% of all the electricity in the country (Ball, 2008, ¶ 6) but experts estimate it could reach 20% (Wald, 2008, ¶ 6).<br />There are some disadvantages to wind power. The cost to build wind turbines for consumer use has not yet reached an affordable level. The average cost of investment to the consumer for installing a single wind turbine to provide electricity to one home is $13,000. This investment takes more than a decade to recoup its value according to Jeffery Ball (2008) of the Wall Street Journal. These small scale wind turbines produce between 30% and 70% of the typical electricity needs of one home with production at two kilowatts (kW) of power at most. These numbers also vary greatly depending on the installation location and amount of wind present in the area (Ball, 2008, ¶ 10).<br />Many companies are exploring the idea of producing their own electricity with the use of wind turbines installed at the company’s location. One such company is a Texas based grocery store chain, HEB Inc., who recently installed a 20 foot tall by 12 feet wide wind turbine at their distribution center atop a 100 foot tall tower. The wind turbine will only produce approximately 5% to 8% of the energy needs for the distribution center, but the giant wind turbine creates an impressive advertising statement for the company and their commitment to environmental awareness (Ball, 2008, ¶ 15, 16).<br />While personal wind turbines are still an expensive route to explore for most home owners, cities and towns are now beginning to invest in more environmentally friendly energy resources for their needs. One such town is Rock Port, Missouri where earlier this year the town made U.S. history as the first town to use wind energy as the sole source for its electricity. Rock Port, with a population of 1,300 citizens, installed four wind turbines to provide electricity to all its residents. The wind farm responsible for these turbines is the Loess Hills Wind Farm, who projected that the turbines will produce 16 million kW hours per year. The town itself only requires 13 million kW hours per year, so they will sell the addition 3 million kW hours per year to the areas surrounding the town (Hyden, 2008).<br />Another problem with the increase in the number of wind turbine farms being built across the U.S. is their affects on the existing electrical grid system currently zigzagging across the country. This electrical grid was designed over 100 years ago, which at the time was sufficient what was needed, however now the grid is fast becoming inadequate for current use (Wald, 2008, ¶ 2, 4). The problem is that the existing lines are too small to handle a large increase in carrying capacity for long distances, and can cause problems at distances of just over a few hundred miles (Wald, 2008, ¶ 10). <br />This is a large problem for the Maple Ridge Wind Farm in upstate New York, near Lowville (Wald, 2008, ¶ 11) who recently installed just under 200 wind turbines for an investment cost of $320 million. The initial idea was to produce more electricity so they could sell it to be used on the existing regional system; however the increased volume on existing lines was never taken into consideration. Due to the large amount of electricity produced by these wind turbines, the Maple Ridge Wind farm has been forced to shut down the windmills because of congested lines (Wald, 2008, ¶ 1).<br />The electrical grid problem has slowed many wind turbine companies from pursuing wind farms in the mid-west due to the lack of means by which to transport the electricity over long distances. The mid-west would be the most effective place to develop wind farms; however no current gridlines exist to handle the expected output. The chief development officer of Horizon Wind Energy, which is the company that operates Maple Ridge, estimates that a turbine installed in parts of Wyoming could produce more electricity than the exact same model built in Texas or New York (Wald, 2008, ¶ 8).<br />The government has known about the problems with the existing electricity lines, but has refused to act, due to the politics behind state and local government policies which traditionally have had authority over the grid. The state governments have little incentive to push new advancements through to provide more electricity which would benefit adjacent states (Wald, 2008, ¶ 12). <br />The existing gridlines consist of approximately 200,000 miles of lines which are divided between 500 owners, so large changes in structure and carrying capacity would have to go through multiple companies and many state governments, not to mention the permits. Any change made to the gridlines always causes problems for either the company holding ownership to the lines, or to the property owners whose land the gridlines cross (Wald, 2008, ¶ 17).<br />According to a 2005 energy law, the Energy Department was given authority, by Congress, to approve changes if the state governments refused to act. The two areas that the department deemed as national priorities were in the Middle Atlantic States and the Southwest (Wald, 2008, ¶ 19). The local concerns over the advancement of the system is a problem that can not interfere with the “modernizing of the electric infrastructure, as this is an urgent national problem,” according to Kevin M. Kolevar, assistant secretary for electricity delivery and energy reliability (Wald, 2008, ¶ 20).<br />The answer to the electricity gridline problem is not as drastic as many people suspect, as it requires no new technology. The Energy Department’s plan is to establish a high voltage infrastructure similar to 2,100 miles of existing lines currently operated by American Electric Power (Wald, 2008, ¶ 21). The initial cost would of course be high, at $60 billion or more, but this cost could be spread over the tens of millions of electric customers and over many years. It is not yet clear as to how multiple states will work together on generation and transmission of power (Wald, 2008, ¶ 22).<br />Wind power advocates speculate that half of the U.S.’s electricity could be generated from turbines located in North and South Dakota, which are the two windiest states; however without improving and reconfiguring the current electricity grid system, that theory is impossible (Wald, 2008, ¶ 28). According to a statement by Bill Richardson, the governor of New Mexico and former energy secretary under former President Clinton, the current grid system is that of a third-world country’s, where the government is not investing and setting regulatory mechanisms that actually work, and focusing on drilling rather than alternative energy sources (Wald, 2008, ¶ 27, 29).<br />Unlike the U.S. government, China is taking giant leaps in the development of wind energy, where they are actually making wind energy a priority, in an effort to reduce their dependency on coal and oil. Not only is China adamant about exploring wind technology, but they also understand the value of wind turbine development in global markets. Wind farm operators are not only enticed by the ability to expand their produce in a global market, but the Chinese government is compelling companies to purchase electricity produced from wind farms rather than oil and coal (Maughan, 2008, ¶ 1).<br />Vestas, Gamesa, Winenergy, and Suslon are the four largest windmill and wind power organizations in the world, and they all have offices in the city of Tianjin, located in northern China. The second largest wind turbine manufacturer Gamesa employs 1,000 people at its Tianjin location where they manufacture the company’s two 850 kW models, the G52 and the G58 (Maughan, 2008, ¶ 2). Both models have proven to be substantial components to wind turbine manufactures in the global market, with more than 10,000 units currently operational worldwide (Maughan, 2008, ¶ 6). Other companies produce their generators, nacelles, and hubs at their Tianjin facilities (Maughan, 2008, ¶ 2).<br />Tianjin’s location makes it an ideal place for wind turbine manufacturers, due to its proximity to the wind farms located in Northern China. The Indian-owned company Suslon claims an 8% market share in China by producing 220megawatts (MW) of per-annum manufacturing capacity, which they recently sold 100MW of turbine capacity to Jingneng, a Chinese power generator. Suslon’s goal is to produce turbines with a yearly output capacity of 600MW. Given China’s current energy needs, 1MW of electricity is sufficient to provide electricity for 900 households (Maughan, 2008, ¶ 4).<br />Currently the country with the title of top producer for wind energy is Germany, holding at 20.62 million kW installed capacity, with China quickly catching up. In 2007, China’s installed capacity was at 6.05 million kW, which increased from 2.67 million kW in 2006. It is estimated that by the end of 2008, China will be producing 10.25 million kW of installed capacity produced by wind energy, with a future goal for 2020 at 30 million kW (Maughen, 2008, ¶ 5).<br />The Chinese government has been encouraging domestic wind turbine manufacturing by requiring that at least 70% of the components used to build these turbines must be produced locally. This requirement not only promotes locally produced components, but allows for more jobs (Maughan, 2008, ¶ 6). Chinese manufacturing also allows for cheaper labor costs which create more incentive for companies to produce their wind turbines in China versus other countries. Cheap labor is indeed an incentive to produce in China, but their products must compete with foreign manufacturing from countries such as Germany, where quality is just as important as price, so Chinese manufactured products can not lack quality if they wish to maintain market share (Maughan, 2008, ¶ 8, 9). The Chinese manufacturers have yet to conquer the large scale wind turbine industry due to turbine power output, but have excelled in smaller scale turbine production; they are however catching up (Maughan, 2008, ¶ 12).<br />Today’s wind turbine designs have greatly improved from their early 1970’s predecessors, both in efficiency and size. Early blades were 10-meters in length versus today’s 60-meter blades. This increase in size allows for a greater increase in power generation which enables wind powered energy to be less cost prohibitive (Maughan, 2008, ¶ 11). <br />China has begun to explore new techniques in wind turbine infrastructure by using magnetic levitation instead of the traditional bearings used. This new technology allows the blades to turn in much slower wind speeds than conventional blades, though they will not compare to the power output of traditional wind turbines (Maughan, 2008, ¶ 13). The great advantage of the magnetic levitating wind turbines is that it’s estimated these machines will be able to increase “wind energy generating capacity by as much as 20%” because they operate more often, according to the marketing manager Du Hainan of Guangzhou Zhongke Hengyuan Energy Science and Technology Co., Ltd, which is the firm responsible for building the prototype. Du Hainan also added that the Maglev turbines will be 20% more expensive than the traditional wind turbines currently in use (Maughan, 2008, ¶ 14).<br />Chinese developers are not the only ones exploring new technologies and concepts for wind turbines. Two British companies Llumarlite Energy Systems and Quietrevolution are designing new wind turbines which offer many benefits to the traditional wind mill style. These companies are producing vertical-axis wind turbines which rotate in whichever direction it needs to face the wind instead of the traditional horizontal-axis wind turbines which have to change direction. This ability makes these vertical-axis wind turbines ideal for urban locations where wind speeds and direction are constantly changing (Reidy, 2008, ¶ 2, 3).<br />Llumarlite’s vertical axis wind turbine called the Big Star Wind Rotor produces 20kW of power by placing three to five vertical blades that spin around a mast (Reidy, 2008, ¶ 3). There are some downfalls to the vertical-axis design which includes more steel arm supports. This means the turbine is heavier than horizontal-axis wind turbines; therefore they can not rotate as fast as traditional turbines do in high winds, but they do not require braking systems like the horizontal-axis turbines do, which makes them quieter and requires less maintenance (Reidy, 2008, ¶ 4).<br />Vertical-axis wind turbines are initially more expensive than traditional wind turbines, averaging around £3,500, but horizontal-axis wind turbines require more maintenance, so over a period of years the costs of each design will even out (Reidy, 2008, ¶ 6). Llumarlite’s managing director Steve Palmer states that horizontal-axis wind turbines are probably better than vertical-axis ones in “clean” wind, which is 12 to 14 mph winds in a wide open space, however vertical-axis turbines are best suited for urban environments where wind speeds and direction change frequently (Reidy, 2008, ¶ 7).<br />The other British company Quietrevolution has also developed a vertical-axis wind turbine with a slightly different structure. Their qr5 is a 5m tall (Reidy, 2008, ¶ 13) vertical-axis wind turbine which consists of five s-shaped carbon fiber blades that spin around the mast, which holds the generator. This design allows the blades to capture varying wind speeds and eliminate the vibration caused by high speeds. The carbon-fiber blades allow the turbine to remain relatively light when compared to traditional steel structures, which also allows for faster reaction to changes in wind speed (Reidy, 2008, ¶ 10). According to Stephen Crosher, the company’s project design director, their twisted s-shape blades allows them to sweep through the wind, no matter which direction the wind is coming from which keeps the power constant (Reidy, 2008, ¶ 11). Both British companies are looking to expand their market share by exploring different sizes for a variety of applications but both designs are intended for use in urban areas, where horizontal-axis wind turbines are unable to operate due to their limitations.<br />Other advancements in wind turbine technology include looking not only at the design of the turbine but the location of use. Engineering professor Bryan Roberts at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia has teamed up with San Diego based company Sky WindPower to explore the potential wind power at 10,000 feet. Based on the research performed by atmospheric scientists Cristina Archer and Mark Jacobson of Stanford University, Roberts has been exploring the theory that as altitude increases, so does wind speed, which would create great possibility for capturing that wind speed and converting it to electricity. Archer approximated that wind turbines at the typical height of 80 meters above ground should produce 72 trillion watts of power with perfect conditions. She estimated that a few miles above land, wind turbine blades could generate up to 250 times more energy than an identical blade on the ground (Hapgood, 2008, ¶ 1, 2, 3).<br />Roberts’s team is developing high altitude capable kites with rotors similar to helicopters in order to capture high altitude wind speeds and generate electricity. The current is then sent down the kite line, which could be miles long. If the wind direction changes, the kites referred to as flying electric generators, or FEG’s, simply follow the current (Hapgood, 2008, ¶ 3). There are of course many challenges as with any new design which includes adverse weather conditions, the threat of tangled kite lines, and others which must be addressed (Hapgood, 2008, ¶ 4).<br />Although there are many different designs and concepts for wind turbines, the basic concept of how they work is the same. Wind spins the turbine blades and turns the gearbox shaft which turns the shaft of the generator. The generator connects to converter boxes which change the electricity from ac to dc, and then back to ac which is synchronized with the grid frequency. Finally a transformer increases the output to approximately 30kV to be inserted into the grid (Teschler, 2008, ¶ 7). The above described wind turbine system does however have its drawbacks, which include large mechanical components that break or deteriorate over time. These maintenance issues require the use of large cranes to remove and replace damaged parts, which means more down time for that windmill (Teschler, 2008, ¶ 8). The constant maintenance on these wind turbines has many investors hesitant to invest in such a maintenance intensive machine.<br />One wind turbine company Clipper Windpower has developed a wind turbine system that reduces these problems. The Liberty wind turbine employs not just one generator, but four smaller individual generators driven by the gearbox. These generators are much lighter and easier to replace than traditional generators, and because they are operated independent of each other, if one malfunctions or needs maintenance, the whole windmill does not become inoperable (Teschler, 2008, ¶ 4). Other improvements include the patented design of the gearbox which reduces the number of required bearings and gearboxes to keep costs down (Teschler, 2008, ¶ 9-18).<br />Demand for the Liberty turbine has had companies such as BP Alternative Energy, Edison Mission and UPC Wind placing orders since the first prototype went live in 2005. Orders for 612 units with total capacity of 1,530MW have already been placed with a joint development/contingent sales agreement for up to 4,000MW (Teschler, 2008, ¶ 29).<br />Increased demand for alternative energy sources has peaked interest not only wind power, but also solar and wind power systems. Basic hybrid systems include the use of photovoltaic cells, a wind turbine and battery bank. The use of both wind and solar powered systems helps to eliminate the unpredictable nature of both forms. By combining the two resources, the strengths of one overcome the weaknesses of the other to form a system which can be used in a variety of locations (Yang, Wei & Chengzhi, 2008, ¶1).<br />There are always pro’s and con’s to any energy source, but as we deplete our natural resources for energy consumption, one must consider alternative energy as a solution to the problems we currently face. The cost of production and power output could be greatly reduced if more companies and governments focused efforts on alternative sources instead of the existing ones which would decrease the negative impacts on the environment. Wind energy can provide a tremendous decrease in the amount of oil consumed by countries across the globe, however it’s just a matter of time before politicians realize its potential and push forward.<br />