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Blowing in the Wind

UW research center works to help state benefit from one of its most plentiful natural resources

Volume 14 | Number 2 | January 2013

By Steve Kiggins
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You’ve seen the signs; we all have. They’re yellow with a black outline, shaped like a diamond and emblazoned with “HIGH WIND AREA” in big, black letters. Or maybe you’ve spotted another sign from the same family— “STRONG WIND POSSIBLE” or “WIND GUSTS” are among the variations—as you’ve traversed the seemingly endless roads of the Cowboy State.

Like they need to warn us about the wind around here, right? This is Wyoming.

“We have a lot of wind, obviously!” Heather Sauder says with a knowing laugh. “All you have to do is look outside every day.”

It’s easy to curse the wind when you’re fighting to keep your vehicle between the yellow lines, when you discover the shingles from your roof on the ground, when your hair gets ruined. But Wyomingites also should celebrate the wind, an abundant natural resource that has the potential to affordably power our homes and establish our state as a front-runner in the United States’ quest to increase its reliance on renewable energy.

The University of Wyoming, ideally situated in one of the greatest onshore wind generation areas in North America, is primed to drive efforts to grow the nation’s wind industry enterprise through the experimental and computational contributions of its Wind Energy Research Center (WERC), one of eight centers of excellence housed in the School of Energy Resources.

Born in December 2007 from a $2 million gift from BP America, WERC has brought together 15 UW faculty members from mechanical engineering, electrical and computer engineering, atmospheric sciences, mathematics and civil and architectural engineering to address critical research needs of an evolving industry and train a future workforce.

WERC’s research is also helping to bolster Wyoming’s own wind industry, which, as of November 2012, had 1.5 gigawatts of installed power, or enough to provide electricity to about 450,000 households. A gigawatt is a unit of electric power equal to one billion watts.

“I think the perception is that we’re just producing power for California. Now, don’t get me wrong, we’re making money in the process of doing that, and I’d love to sell as much power to California as we can. But that taps such a small amount of our wind energy,” says WERC Director Jonathan Naughton. “It’s been shown by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Wind Program and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) that Wyoming’s highest quality winds could produce as much as 250 gigawatts of power. And, remember, we only have 1.5 gigawatts installed right now. Just our best winds could produce 250 gigawatts.

“In 20 years, if we’re exporting 10 to 12 gigawatts to California, out of 250 gigawatts, that would be fantastic,” he says. “But, think about it: If California can justify importing electricity from Wyoming because it’s such an amazing energy source, and we can build transmission to carry it all the way to California and still come out of it making money, what could we do if we just used that electricity right here?”

The potential of wind

Naughton’s question is another in an industry full of them. There is tremendous potential in wind energy, particularly in Wyoming, where it’s not a normal day if the wind isn’t blowing, but there aren’t enough answers to push the industry into full-scale production in the U.S.

While other countries increase their dependence— Denmark, for example, generates more than a quarter of its electricity from wind—America garners just 3 percent of its power from wind, though NREL has set a goal to reach 20 percent by 2030.

To get there, U.S. research institutions, including WERC, have a lot of work to do.

“Wind is highly variable. So, how do you design a turbine to extract the most energy possible but protect itself from being overloaded?” asks Naughton, raising one of the questions that’s being researched across the country.

“The turbines do need work, in terms of making them more reliable and cost effective, but the biggest problem is the transmission,” counters Eric Robinson, who is one of about 20 UW graduate students working on research projects at WERC. “You have to have unity across the nation, because wind is a variable energy source, and so when it’s faltering somewhere, it has to be picked up elsewhere.”

Robinson’s research partner, Adam Karges, adds another wrinkle. “But the transmission companies won’t want to install transmission until they get a guarantee from the wind farms.”

“And,” Robinson says, “the wind farms won’t build up their turbines unless they have a guarantee for the transmission.”

A conundrum, to be sure.

WERC, though, is well positioned to answer one looming question. As part of UW’s deepening relationship with the National Center for Atmospheric Science (NCAR), WERC researchers have access to the recently opened NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center (NWSC), where they will model atmospheric conditions to better determine how to forecast winds.

“The worst thing you can do is say that you’re going to produce a lot of power and then not produce, or say you’re not going to produce any power and then produce a whole lot,” says Naughton, a professor in UW’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. “The longer in advance that you can tell people how much power you’re going to provide, the more they’re willing to pay for it.

“But meteorology, until recently, had never really focused on low-level winds, because it wasn’t as much of a concern to people as, ‘Is it going to rain tomorrow? I don’t care whether the winds are 10 or 15 mph, I want to know if it’s going to rain tomorrow,’” he says. “Well, to a wind operator, it’s very important to know if the winds are going to be 10 or 15 mph—and when they’re going to be 10 or 15 mph.”

Through other computational modeling using the NWSC, Naughton hopes WERC also can make worthwhile contributions to the national conversation on blade and turbine design and wind farm layout.

“Wind energy is not a fully developed industry, so everything we’re doing at the University of Wyoming can make an impact,” says Sauder, another UW graduate student who conducts wind research. “Every little change we make in a blade design, or any tiny observation we make in a wind flow model, we can help get a lot more power out of a wind farm.”

Whatever UW learns, industry officials will be all ears, says Paul Medina, who oversees a six-person wind power engineering team at Siemens Energy, which manufactured 44 of the 110 turbines at the Top of the World wind farm near Glenrock.

“The wind industry has a future. It is a player,” says Medina, a Riverton native who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at UW. “Our job here, and at WERC and at NREL’s wind laboratory, is to continue to drive down the cost of wind to not only make it competitive but superior. There are questions to answer. But, the great thing about wind is, the fuel is free.”

Location, location, location

There’s more than the potential of electricity blowing in Wyoming’s winds. There’s economic growth. As the wind energy industry continues to grow along Colorado’s Front Range—Medina works at Siemens’ lone U.S.-based rotor design office in Boulder, and Clipper Windpower and Vestas Wind Systems also have strong presences— Naughton believes Wyoming will attract new businesses, and, in turn, new jobs, as the state builds its wind capabilities.

“We’re such a natural site for wind energy that there is real interest from the companies to come to Wyoming,” he says. “We see that as just a great opportunity, because we’re going to be able to have this interaction with industry that often is harder because of our location. But, in this case, location really helps.”

There’s already good news. The Cowboy State will soon be home to the nation’s largest wind farm, the 1,000-turbine Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project, which will be built over three years on 350 square miles south of Rawlins. The project, owned by the Power Company of Wyoming, is expected to generate 3,000 megawatts upon completion and create 114 permanent jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

The more wind farms in Wyoming, Naughton contends, the more likely it is that turbine tower and blade manufacturers will set up shop within the state’s borders. “It just makes sense to build them close to where you’re going to install them,” he says.

Naughton smiles and adds, “Now we’re not just providing and exporting electricity, we’re using that electricity to generate jobs and industry in the state.”

So, see, the wind isn’t bad. It’s sure annoying when it blows snow or dust in your face at 45 mph. Nobody will argue that. But wind is another of our state’s treasures, a potential energy source whose value is greater than its inconvenience.

“Wyoming has a lot of fantastic natural resources—and wind is one of them, even though some people wish it wasn’t,” says Ashli Babbitt, a 2009 mechanical engineering graduate from Douglas who was among the first UW students to contribute to WERC’s research efforts.

She laughs and says, “We all put up with it on a daily basis, we might as well get something out of it!”

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