Windpower on the Verge
By Bill Moore
Once upon a time a "big" wind turbine generated a modest 55kW of peak power. Hundreds of such machines where erected in California and elsewhere in the world in the wake of the '70s oil embargoes. But these would soon be eclipsed by 100kW, then 265kW, then 650kW machines. Even these would be quickly dwarfed when 1MW giants started going up in the late 1990's.
Now the wind industry is not just talking about 2 and 3MW-plus machines with 120 meter-long blades, they are building them, onshore and offshore. There's even talk now of 5MW giants.
So, what's this have to do with electric-drive vehicles? Little at the moment, but if Matthew Simmons' instincts are accurate, that could begin to change, maybe a lot sooner than many expect.
In the last several years, the wind energy business has enjoyed a very healthy thirty percent growth rate. Until 2004, when a number of factors from a stalled energy bill in the US Congress to concerns about migrating birds and radar in England slowed the pace a bit, wind farm construction has been one of the few bright spots in an otherwise stagnant global economy. In 2002, some 7000MW of wind energy was added for a total investment of 7 billion Euros. The top ten wind energy markets are Germany (11.9GW), Spain (5.4GW), USA (4.6GW), Denmark(2.8GW), India (1.7GW), Italy (806MW), Netherlands (772MW), Japan(486MW), Greece (462MW) Canada (270MW) and Australia (189MW). Other nations combined total 3.1GW.
The industry's success is obvious from the scope Global Windpower 2004 conference and exposition held at the sprawling McCormick Center in downtown Chicago. The 225 exhibitors represented every imaginable aspect of the wind industry from attorneys to land surveyors to bearing makers to wind farm developers. As you'd expect all of the big wind machine makers had exhibits including Bonus, Gamesa, General Electric, Suzlon, and Vestas.
But for all its bouyant mood and optimism, the industry finds itself still hamstrung in the United States by several critical issues: insufficient grid capacity, regulatory obstacles and cultural barriers from within the utility industry. AWEA's president, Randall Swisher reassured the conference that his association is addressing these issues, but it's clear from the successes in Germany and Denmark that what the industry needs in America is a combination of enlightened, consistent government policy that sets ambitious, but achievable power goals and matches this with real market rewards in the form of long term, fixed energy prices for producers.
In Denmark, for example, many of the nation's wind turbines are not owned by large corporations or utilities, but by individual families and small farm cooperatives. It is estimated that some 150,000 Danish families own all or part of a wind turbine. Driven by government policy that seeks to reduce oil and gas imports, and increase the use of renewable energy, farmers and small communities financed their own wind turbines, helping to nurture over the last two decades the growth of such world-leading wind turbine manufacturers as Vestas and NEG Micon, which merged last year.
Germany adopted a similar policy and in just five years time went from under 300MW of windpower to more than 14GW coming from some 12,000 windturbines located in the north and southwest of the country, making it the world leader in wind energy; and Bear Stearns projects it will remain so for at least the rest of the decade. At present, windpower generates almost 15% of the nation's electrical power, the largest percentage of any western nation.
Clearly, both countries appear to have hit upon the right combination of incentives and policies to encourage the growth of the wind power. The problem now in both countries is finding enough areas to erect more farms onshore, so both are looking increasingly at offshore installations in the North and Baltic seas, which raises construction costs at least 50 %.
According Ed O'Connor, the head of Ireland's Airtricity noted, America has no such problem. Its "offshore" wind resources are in the Dakotas -- a vast expanse of open plains and few people -- which brings me to Robert Gough with the Intertribal COUP.
Rebirth at Rosebud
Gough is a Native American from the Rosebud Indian Reservation in southwest South Dakota, who is working very hard to help the tribes of the Great Plains get into wind power. By a joyously ironic twist of fate, it turns out that many of the tribal reservations, including Rosebud, sit astride some of the best wind resources in North America. Forced or tricked by the federal government in the 19th century into accepting marginal, often unproductive lands, the tribes, who are government entities unto themselves, are starting to explore the economic potential of one of the few natural resources left to them by the Great White Fathers.
With Gough's urging, the Rosebud Sioux installed their first 750kW wind turbine, which also happens to be the first utility-scale wind turbine on tribal lands. That turbine has broken new ground for Native Americans in other areas, as well, inspiring more tribes to look at putting in their own turbines. But as Gough pointed out to me, tribal wind farms will only be successful if they have a sound business plan. They must have transmission access and a guaranteed, long-term market for the power. In Rosebud's case, it's the local casino and hotel, which will get an estimated 80% of its electrical power from the turbine. The wind machines "green tags" were bought by Ellsworth Air Force Base.
Another barrier facing the tribes is their governmental autonomy. Unlike private corporations that can take advantage of the Production Tax Credit, which provides an important financial incentive to wind farm investors, the tribes can't take advantage of either state or federal incentive programs. While they can sell electric power and green credits, being able to also pass on the equivalent of the PTC to outside investors would provide the tribes with needed financial leverage to attract financing for larger scale projects on their tribal lands, Gough told me.
A Tale of Two Cities: Hull vs Hyannis Port
It was Andrew Stern who introduced me to Robert Gough, and it is Stern who introduced me to wind power in Hull, Massachusetts, where he's been a strong advocate.
Hull sits on a tiny spit of land jutting out into Boston Harbor. At the tip of this spit is a municipally-owned wind turbine called Hull 1, a Vestas V47 with a peak output of 660kW. Historical documents show that in colonial times the site was known as "Windmill Point," so placing a turbine here is not without precedent. In the more than 830 days since its commissioning, the V47 has generated a total of 3,765,069 kilowatt hours of pollution-free electricity, operating at just under 29% of its capacity, which is about average for the industry. Hull 1 is the first utility-scale wind turbine located on the coastline of the continental United States and the first in North America to be sited within an urban area.
From the outset, the slender, gleaming white machine has enjoyed a high degree of local acceptance. When a survey was sent out 9 months after Hull 1 went online, 95 percent of the 500 people who responded said they viewed the wind turbine favorably. The project has been so successful that the community has put out a RFP for a second machine.
Hull's response to wind power is in marked contrast to that of communities along Cape Cod further south, where a much more ambitious, offshore project called Cape Wind has drawn some high-profile opposition. A private firm wants to erect what would be the largest offshore wind farm in the world with 130 giant, megawatt machines, each of which towers 417 feet above Horseshoe Shoals, an expansive but shallow sand bank between Hyannis Port and Nantucket island.
Here, the community is sharply divided, even though the farm will be miles offshore and barely visible. Stern confided to me that even he is somewhat ambivalent about the project, noting that whereas Hull 1 is perceived as a community effort that benefits the local economy, the Cape Wind project is viewed as a private venture that wants to take unfair advantage of a communal asset -- offshore winds and shallow water -- with little or not direct financial benefit to the those who must live with machines for the next twenty years or more.
While the battle of words and conflicting computer illustrations rages on, Stern is of the opinion that if the Cape Wind project is ever to get built -- and its backers do have powerful allies in the community and at the State level -- it may require a compromise that reduces the scale of the project and incorporates municipal/community ownership of some fraction of the turbines. Cape Wind could contract to maintain the turbines for the community, as part of the agreement, thus guaranteeing some ongoing income, though it wouldn't surprise me to learn there are already spreadsheet models siting on laptops in Boston and Hyannis Port that have analyzed this scenario and others.
It should be noted that opponents to the Cape Wind project say they are not opposed to onshore, municipal turbines like that at hull, they just object to the visual and potential economic impact of such a large, industrial-scale project in one of the most beautiful and heavily used boating and fishing areas in the region.
Bottling the Wind
As the Rosebud and Hull turbines indicate, the lesson for the growth of windpower in America would appear to be active community involvment, and policies that encourage it. But its one thing to erect wind turbines, either publicly-owned or privately-owned, it's another to make the most of the energy when it's available. So, you would expect there to be a lot of talk about about wind and hydrogen, and there was, in very general terms.
Only one workshop presenter -- Bob Bechtold of Harbec Plastics -- is actually using wind power to produce hydrogen to help power his plastics factory. Harbec is using wind-generated hydrogen produced from a 250kW Fuhrlander windturbine and Hydrogenics electrolyzer to create a blend of H2 and natural gas called hythane. This fuels 25, 30kW Capstone microturbines in a combined heat and power (CHP) system where both electricity and heat are produced. The current electrolyzer produces only about 2 to 2.5 kg of hydrogen, enough for the first phase of the demonstration, but not enough to be practical on a daily production basis. Bechtold hopes in phase two to upgrade to a 140kW electrolyzer, which should product 65 kg of hydrogen a day.
Apart from Harbec Plastics demonstration, there appears little need to find a practical way to "bottle" the wind at this point in time since it currently represents such a tiny fraction of the overall power system. All the electricity produced can be fed directly into the grid, and probably will be for some time to come.
But let's assume at some point in the future we have a sufficient concentration of wind power online to afford the luxury of needing to "bottle" the wind in some form of storage. Is making hydrogen the best way to do it? Possibly, but at the moment, costs are very high and the technology is immature. For example, from a number of studies that have looked at various scenarios for getting wind energy from the Dakotos to Chicago, it appears to be a toss up whether to send it via a hydrogen pipeline or by high tension power line. Either way the cost is still nearly $9 a kilogram, whether you make the hydrogen in the Dakotas or in Chicago. Currently that translates into roughly the equivalent of $9 a gallon for gasoline.
Given the inefficiencies of current electrolyzer technology -- not to mention the amount of water consumed -- it would be an interesting academic exercise to explore the economics of using the battery banks in electric vehicles to store wind energy rather than turning it into hydrogen, only to be converted back to electricity.
In the end, it will be economics that determines the viability of hydrogen and not wishful thinking. That being said, it was exciting to make my first foray into the heart of the wind power industry, meeting a fair number of its leaders and pioneers. I was pleasantly surprised by its vibrancy and technical sophistication. If American policymakers can enact the type of enlightened policies found in Germany and Denmark, we may someday see windpower become an inportant contributor to this nation's energy system. At that point, we can then argue over the relative merits of whether to make hydrogen from wind or use it to recharge our electric cars.
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