Blowing away the alternative: a case for wind power

Following up on his previous post, Wiess Energy Hall Master Docent Julian Lamborn shares his case for the further development of wind power in the US: 

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Creative Commons License photo credit: s2art

If coal-fired power stations were to be forced to sequester their greenhouse gases then production of electricity from wind generators would be cheaper than from coal.  There are optimists who believe that the present USA wind generating capacity could be raised from 1% of the country’s electricity needs to 20% (although 5% to 7% by 2020 is believed by most to be a more realistic number, particularly since some of the Federal subsidy programs for wind generators are scheduled to run out at the end of 2008!)
If you are considering putting a 2 MW wind/power generating machine in your backyard (remember that it would be some 360 ft. tall!) it would set you back around $2 million but, remember, the wind resources in the United States are vast. Using today’s technology, there is theoretically enough wind power flowing across our country to supply all of our electricity needs.  North Dakota alone could supply about one third of the nation’s electricity

Adequate winds for commercial power production are found at sites in 46 states but only a small portion of our country’s vast wind potential will likely be tapped in the near future since there has to be an integrated approach to energy management with both political and industrial participation.

Here in the USA, in Iowa, at the Iowa Stored Energy Park, a $200 million system that will take surplus electrical energy from nearby wind farms and use it to compress and store high pressure air underground will go online in 2011.  When needed, this compressed air can be released into a natural gas fired electricity generating turbine to produce some 268 MW of supplemental power.

The World Wind Energy Association anticipates that the installed capacity of wind powered generators will be around 170,000 MW by the end of 2010… this represents an 81% increase in world wind generating capacity from the end of 2007. This is the fastest growing source of alternate energy the world has at present. 

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Creative Commons License photo credit: s2art

Although there are many NIMBY (“not in my back-yard”) activists interested in where to site wind-farms, many ornithologists interested in avian problems created by the rotor blades and many people that just don’t like change, the alternate of burning more and more coal and producing potentially more and more greenhouse gases has also to be put into the equation.  In the long term (as there always is) there will be an acceptable balance wherein, at least in the US, there will probably be wind generation producing between 5% and 10% of our daily electricity needs as part of our daily power grid input. But I’ll also bet with you, though, that none of these wind generators will be in or very close to a National Park!

Paul’s Fourth of July Picnic Piñata

A Smörgåsbord of Alternative Energy Treats à la Carte Sure to Set Off Some Fireworks!

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Creative Commons License photo credit: Sarah Camp

Independence Day is here, and it’s time to fire up the grill with a few tasty bites from the overflowing pantry of alternative energy. For an appetizer, dig into some ocean algae that may one day soon be a superior producer of biofuels, at least according to researchers from Kansas State University. Well, don’t actually eat them, because they are probably not too tasty, and that’s good news, because using algae to make fuel could leave more corn (that would otherwise be used for biofuels) on the market for much-needed food supplies.

Another way to use tiny living things to make energy for us is to let microbes turn hard-to-reach oil into easier-to-extract natural gas. That is the goal of a group of Canadian and British scientists. If their research goes well, injecting microorganisms into wells formerly deemed depleted could renew production. And when will this exciting development get those gasoline prices below $4 a gallon again? Well, let’s see, the original biological process took tens of millions of years, so….

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Creative Commons License photo credit: atomic0x

What better way to have fun in the sun on Independence Day than with a solar powered car. A group of students from Iowa State University are planning to compete in 2,400-mile race from Texas to Canada in a $400,000 sun-powered vehicle that looks like a souped-up ping-pong table-but hey, that’s a zero emissions ping-pong table that can cruise at over 30 miles per hour. More (solar) power to them!

You may one day declare your independence from less efficient chemical batteries to power your stuff as fuel cells become more efficient. Researchers in Germany are working with carbon nanotubes to make components for fuels cells that are ten times lighter and weight far less than conventional amorphous carbon structures used now. Even more impressive, these tiny-only several atoms thick-tubes boast 1000 times the electrical conductivity of their conventional counterparts.

For something a little more practical for you, the average American celebrating the quintessential summer holiday, you can get your very own fuel-cell-powered car and its solar-powered hydrogen production plant (which makes fresh fuel for the fuel cell)-and the whole package is only $99.99! Well, the model car is only about six inches long, but the science is real-and very cool. You’re sure to be the hit of the picnic.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: s2art

As the warm July breezes whisk away your paper plates and blow that BBQ smoke right back in your face, rather than complain about the weather, celebrate the fact that Texas has the fastest-growing wind power industry in the USA. An ultra-clean, and only somewhat noisy, wind turbine-or a whole farm of them-may soon be coming to a desolate hilltop near you. The question is, “What’s the next big thing in Texas energy?” and the answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind. Big time oilman T. Boone Pickens is betting $10 billion on that.

Another hot topic (aren’t they all?) for this hot month is geothermal energy-producing steam with the natural heat from the earth’s interior. I just got back from Iceland, where that clean and renewable source provides 90% of home heating energy-and allows for really long hot showers. Here in the US, we could supply the electrical needs for over 260 million Americans if we tapped in to only 5% of the geothermal potential available in our own underground. There are plenty of challenges to make this work, but you can bet that as hydrocarbon prices soar, those obstacles won’t seem quite so big.

As that sweet smelling smoke from the wieners and burgers on the grill wafts into the upper atmosphere, don’t overlook the contribution that it adds to your carbon footprint, and how that footprint contributes to global warming and climate change. Scientists are realizing just how hard it is for individuals to influence those numbers significantly-even the austere lifestyle of a Buddhist monk produces about 1/3 the carbon emissions of a typical energy-hungry American. So do we just give up? Of course not-we need to think more about alternatives already mentioned here-and walk more. The person who comes up with the carbon-free barbecue that still delivers that smoky flavor might be up for a Nobel Prize, at least in my book.

When you finally get back to the crib, your belly full of beef (or veggie burgers) and your eyes glazed from too many red, white and blue exploding chrysanthemums and Catherine wheels, you can settle back into your chair and read up on more energy topics the old-fashioned way-by the cozy glow of a zero-emissions gravity-powered lamp. Now, that’s a down-to-earth solution!

Happy Fourth of July!

The world’s oldest alternative energy source

As oil reaches a new record of $143 per barrel today, I think it’s safe to say that energy – and possible alternatives to fossil fuels – are topics on everyone’s mind. Before the development of fossil-fuel based energy technology, wind-power wasn’t an alternate form of energy – it was just the way things were done.

Julian Lamborn, Master Docent for the Wiess Energy Hall, has been kind enough to share the history of wind technology as well as share his case for developing wind energy today, in this two-part post.

Shakespeare had it right when he penned: “Blow, blow thou winter wind, thou art not so unkind.”

The winds of the world today bring with them the promise of low cost, renewable and sustainable electricity which will help feed the world’s insatiable demand for energy. One perk of using wind energy is it has a low atmospheric pollution potential.

In 2007, the globally installed capacity of electricity generation from wind increased by some 26.6% over 2006.

Ontario Turbines (2)
Creative Commons License photo credit: JoshMcConnell

The global capacity of wind-generated electricity is currently equivalent to some 1.3% of the world’s electricity needs with Germany producing the most wind power.  In fact, Germany has 22,247 megawatts of installed wind generating capacity which meets between 5% and 7% of the country’s electricity needs. 

Here in the USA (which, at 16,818 MW, is second only to Germany in installed, wind-generating capacity) about 1% of our electricity needs are met by wind generation and in Texas particularly, this number rises to 3%. Texas is also the state that uses the most wind energy.

Blood Hill Wind Farm, West Somerton, Norfolk

Creative Commons License photo credit: .Martin.

It’s all very well talking about a megawatt of wind generated power, but what can it actually do for you in your home?  In very round numbers, one megawatt of wind generating capacity typically will satisfy the electricity needs of 350 households in an industrial society, or roughly 1,000 people per year.  Although wind generators are placed in windy areas and designed to run optimally at wind speeds between 25 and 35 mph, wind does not blow all the time.  In the USA wind generators work at about 30.5% of their capacity.

But, of course, this is the modern story. 

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Creative Commons License photo credit:
Wouter de Bruijn

The first windmills were developed to automate the tasks of grain-grinding and water-pumping. The earliest-known design is the vertical axis system developed in Persia about 500-900 C.E. (although there is some suggestion that King Hammurabi of Babylon in c 1760 B.C.E used wind driven scoops to move water for irrigation).   The first known documented design of a Persian windmill is one with vertical sails made of bundles of reeds or wood which were attached to the central vertical shaft by horizontal struts. 

Windmills as we know them today from paintings by the Dutch Masters first appeared in the late Middle Ages, although it took another 500 or so years for the highly efficient mills of the Dutch to be fully developed. 

However, by the late 19th century, all the technology was in place to allow the design of the first power-generating wind-mill. This first use of a large windmill to generate electricity was a system built in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1888, by Charles F. Brush. Compared to today’s behemoths producing up to 3.6 MW or more, Bush’s machine was a lightweight producing just 12 KW!

The modern wind powered generating devices, such as those near Abilene, typically each produce 1.5 to 2 MW of power at around the same 4.5 cent cost per kilowatt-hour as electricity from coal but without the co-production of greenhouse gases