Wind power is one of America’s cleanest and most abundant energy resources. But it only works when the wind blows, making it less reliable than fossil fuels or nuclear power. Can wind power overcome its challenges and secure a place in a clean energy future? This week, energyNOW! looks at how the U.S. is harnessing the power of the wind today, and what lies ahead for this renewable energy source.
Capturing The Wind
The biggest challenge facing wind energy is intermittency. Wind often blows strongest when power demand is lowest, and weakest when electricity is needed the most. Because today’s power grid needs electricity to be consumed the moment it’s generated, that means wind turbines send electricity to the grid half as often as an average coal plant.
But what if wind farms could store the power that isn’t needed right away and sell it later when demand is high? Correspondent Patty Kim visits a new battery storage system built alongside a wind farm in the heart of coal country.
The Midwest’s Wind Power Hub
The Department of Energy says the potential for wind power is greatest in middle America, where strong, steady breezes blow across the prairie. But the wind farms built there often have to send their electricity across several states to find the homes and businesses that need it. So how can energy from small-town wind turbines reach big city power sockets?
Correspondent Lee Patrick Sullivan goes inside the Midwest power grid’s control room and meets the people harnessing wind’s power and moving it across the nation.
The Makani Airborne Wind Turbine
Flying a kite has often been considered child’s play – until now. A group of inventors are working to turn the kite-flying concept into an airborne wind turbine that’s lighter and cheaper traditional wind turbines.
Correspondent Josh Zepps meets the innovators who could change wind power forever.
Energy Answers: Blowing In The Wind? (Transcript)
[ASSURAS] Wasted energy, just blowing away. A look at innovators working on capturing and storing wind power to charge the nation.
[PATTY KIM] Each of these little drawers here contain thousands of batteries?
[PRAVEEN KATHPAL] Yes, in the entire project, there’s about 1.3 million battery cells.
[ASSURAS] Plus, an up-close tour of wind turbines, as we trace the tricky path that brings their power to you.
[SULLIVAN] So, this is the inside of a turbine.
[SHANELLE EVANS MONTANA] Yes, this is the inside, and as you can see, it’s a lot more spacious than you expect. From the tip of the blade all the way down, it’s about 400 feet.
[ASSURAS] And flying high. A new way to capture more powerful wind, higher in the sky than we get now.
[CORWIN HARDHAM] The difference between a wind turbine and what we’re doing is we actually have a wing that is free-flying and tethered to the ground, almost like a kite.
[ASSURAS] Come fly a kite with us. This is “energyNOW!”
Hello, I’m Thalia Assuras. Welcome to “energyNOW!”, a weekly look at America’s energy challenges and what we’re doing about them. Today, we’re going to focus on the complex challenges facing wind energy. Sure, it’s an abundant, renewable source of power, but it only works when the wind blows, making it less reliable than nuclear- and fossil-fueled power plants. Even so, America’s use of wind power is growing and it’s one of the oldest energy sources we have.
[NARRATOR, DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY FILM] The idea of windmills was brought here by early European settlers and used in many ways.
[ASSURAS] Wind energy has come a long way since then. It’s now a multi-billion-dollar industry, employing more than 75,000 people in 42 states. Even so, wind supplied only about 2% of the nation’s electricity last year. But its supporters see wind playing a much larger role.
[BARACK OBAMA, APRIL 27, 2010] Wind power isn’t a silver bullet, it’s not going to solve all our energy challenges. The key is to understand that this is a key component, a key part of a comprehensive strategy.
[ASSURAS] This year, Iowa is getting 18% of its electricity from wind, more than any other state. And the Department of Energy says by 2030, wind has the potential to produce 20% of our electricity nationwide.
[ANNOUNCER, VESTAS COMMERCIAL] We will not rest until wind is on a par with oil and gas.
[ASSURAS] But to get there, wind farms like this aren’t enough. About one in five new turbines would need to be offshore, where the wind is faster and more consistent. That’s already happening in Europe. But here? Still on the drawing board.
[MAN] We need wind power — not there!
[ASSURAS] Take Cape Wind, a controversial project off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, that took nine years for federal permits, hit another snag in October, after an appeals court ruled the federal government failed to properly study how the turbines will impact aircraft.
But there are other offshore wind projects taking shape off the coasts of Rhode Island, Delaware, and New Jersey. Offshore or on, all new wind projects could be in jeopardy if federal production tax credits expire as scheduled at the end of 2012. The Energy Information Administration says those tax credits and other federal wind subsidies totaled almost $5 billion in 2010. But the wind industry says renewable energy sources are still getting less than 10% of the support received by oil, natural gas, and nuclear in their initial stages.
Besides the money, another big challenge for wind energy — if there’s no wind blowing, there’s no energy created. Turbines send electricity to the grid about half as often as the average coal plant, and even when the wind blows, if the electricity isn’t used right away, it’s lost. Too difficult to store.
But now there’s something that could enhance the reliability and viability of wind — battery storage. And you can find it in the heart of coal country — West Virginia. More from Patty Kim in this “energyNOW!” Spotlight.
[REPORTER, 1969] We have a liftoff.
[KIM] We’ve put a man on the Moon…
[ARMSTRONG] One giant leap for mankind.
[KIM] …built planes that fly faster than the speed of sound… and created the Worldwide Web. But we haven’t come up with an efficient way to store electricity on a large scale, until now.
This is one of the largest energy storage systems of its kind in the entire world. Now, it’s pretty unique, but it may not be for long.
[PRAVEEN KATHPAL, AES] Projects like these are the beginning of a long wave of energy-storage projects to come.
[KIM] This is the beginning of something big. And is that exciting to you, personally?
[KATHPAL] Very personally exciting for me.
[KIM] Praveen Kathpal is with AES, the firm behind this storage system and this new wind farm in West Virginia, Laurel Mountain. The farm generates enough power to run well over 20,000 homes. Spanning over a dozen miles are more than 60 turbines. These wind turbines — which are about as tall as the U.S. Capitol building, if you can believe it — feed energy into one of the largest power markets in the world, stretching across the American northeast and midwest — that’s about 50 million people.
And the key to keeping their lights on with cleaner, more reliable electricity may lie inside these shipping containers.
Wow! It’s like we’re going inside a bank vault.
[KATHPAL] Yeah, come on in.
[KIM] Check this out.
Here, you’ll find over a million lithium ion batteries.
[KATHPAL] They’re about the size of a C or a D cell.
The batteries do something called “frequency regulation,” making sure that, at any given time, supply and demand on the grid are perfectly matched so things run smoothly and blackouts don’t happen.
So these guys are really the army, if you will, on the front lines.
[KIM] Batteries get their marching orders from the power grid operator every four seconds. A signal tells them either to send electricity to the grid or store any excess for later use, when the wind isn’t blowing.
[KATHPAL] It’s a level of control over power that we haven’t seen.
[KIM] When it comes to power, some say we’ve been doing things the hard way.
[KATHPAL] It just shoots on to the wires and it has to be produced and consumed in real time. When you go to Whole Foods, and everyone else is there at 7:00 in the evening doing their grocery run, and everyone is demanding milk, right now, it’s as if people have to be out there milking cows in real time to provide that amount of milk.
[KIM] So you really control the world right here at your fingertips.
[KATHPAL] Just a few batteries in the world, not the whole world.
[KIM] Okay, so world domination, it isn’t. At least, not yet. The goal is to build even larger storage systems, ones that could hold oodles of clean energy and supply a steady stream of power at peak times, when electricity demand and prices are the highest.
[KATHPAL] The power plants we’re using at peak are the most expensive and inefficient cows you could be milking.
[KIM] With a bigger battery backup, having more clean energy that’s more reliable than ever could be a breeze.
[KIM] In Elkins, West Virginia, Patty Kim, “energyNOW!”
[ASSURAS] The battery you just saw is designed to store and release fairly small amounts of electricity to help keep the grid stable. But in theory, it holds enough electricity in a single charge to power roughly 5,000 homes for 15 minutes. AES now wants to build a larger battery project, about three times bigger, for a utility company in west Texas.
Still to come, kite surfers feel the power of the wind. We’ll show you how one man’s sport became an inspiration for a new innovation in wind technology.
Plus, how the wind works. We go inside a ground-level wind turbine.
[SULLIVAN] These things stack on top of each other. There’s going to be three of them and then a turbine on top of that?
[SHANELLE EVANS MONTANA] That’s right, we’ll have three different sections.
[ASSURAS] Lee Patrick Sullivan looks at some of the challenges of getting energy from the wind farm to the electricity grid.
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[ASSURAS] The energy storage technology we just showed you isn’t used by many wind farms, and that’s a challenge for the folks who run the power grid. The wind can be fickle, so when those breezes blow, or don’t, it takes quite a bit of juggling to make sure renewable energy doesn’t get wasted and everyone’s lights stay on.
“energyNOW!”‘s Lee Patrick Sullivan got an inside look at the wind farms and control rooms that make it work, and spoke to some of the Midwesterners who are taking charge of their energy future.
[SULLIVAN] There’s something sprouting above the cornfields of Minnesota.
[SHANELLE EVANS MONTANA] I think they’re very majestic. No matter how many times I go through a particular farm, I still have to stop and say, “Wow! That’s really amazing.”
[SULLIVAN] Shanelle Evans Montana of enXco Energy is talking about four large wind farms, turning an area that grows nearly 10% of the country’s corn into a source of more than 10% of Minnesota’s electricity.
Now, when these massive turbines are way up in the air, it’s hard to get a perspective of how big they are. But this is one of the blades. They’re made out of a tough fiberglass, the same sort of stuff that boats are made out of. Montana took me into one of the sections of the tower. In about six months, it will be put upright and join the others in the Fenton Wind Farm in Chandler, Minnesota.
[MONTANA] We’ll have three different tower sections and then a nacelle on top of that which contains the gearbox, and then the blades that are attached.
[SULLIVAN] But what’s even more impressive is the amount of wind out here on the prairie. [Wind gusting] My God, it’s windy here.
[MONTANA] It is very windy here. People don’t associate the wind with Minnesota until you come here to southwestern Minnesota.
[SULLIVAN] Take that, Chicago — this is the Windy City. Montana had a better idea — seeking refuge inside this massive turbine.
[MONTANA] Yes, this is the inside, and as you can see, it’s a lot more spacious than you expect.
[SULLIVAN] Yes. Now, how big is this thing?
[MONTANA] So, from the tip of the blade all the way down, it’s about 400 feet, but the actual tower will go up about 80 meters.
[SULLIVAN] Meters? Are you Canadian? What is that in feet?
[MONTANA] We’re very close to… [Laughs]
[SULLIVAN] This, right here, is what it is in feet.
[TEXT ON SCREEN] 262 feet
[SULLIVAN] All right. And you have people that will climb up there to turn a bolt. What would they do when they get up there?
[MONTANA] Our wind technicians are very special people.
[SULLIVAN] Is it a balanced level of stupidity and skill to want to go up that high?
[MONTANA] You would think, but it’s a lot more skill, I think, than anything else.
[SULLIVAN] Those high-wire maintenance crews are part of a team of 60 full-time workers here at the Fenton Wind Farm, which is huge for this small town’s economy.
This is the part where we walk out and go into the wind, and I don’t want to go back out there.
The wind farm spans two counties, which, together, get $800,000 a year in taxes and fees from enXco. The roughly 150 property owners on this farm who lease their land to enXco get a combined total of about half a million dollars each year.
So, how much energy does one of these turbines produce?
[MONTANA] This would be about 1,500 homes for this one turbine. It’s a 1.5 GE turbine.
[SULLIVAN] The entire wind farm produces enough electricity for 66,000 homes. Now, there are only 110 homes in the city of Chandler, so this energy needs to be sent somewhere else. Enter the Midwest Independent System Operator, or MISO for short. Cameras are rarely allowed inside this facility. The people who work here are like air traffic controllers for electrons. It’s their job to move electricity around the power grid to where it’s needed, when it’s needed.
[RICHARD DOYING, VP, OPERATIONS, MISO] You can see that load would typically be very low, 5:00 A.M. It would increase during the day and it would peak here between 2:00 and 4:00 in the afternoon.
[SULLIVAN] It’s Richard Doying’s job to coordinate the delivery of electricity across 12 states.
[DOYING] Here is zero.
[SULLIVAN] In the last decade, he’s been trying to get the most out of all the new wind farms connecting to the power grid.
[DOYING] Wind, typically, is highest early in the morning, late at night, and you can see it dropping off pretty quickly, so, 10:00 in the morning, we’re at a fairly low level, relative to where we started and where we were during the early morning hours.
[SULLIVAN] And Doying says, that’s the challenge with wind. It blows the hardest and produces the most electricity at night, when demand is low.
[CLAIR MOELLER, VP, TRANSMISSION, MISO] When you start to move renewable energy, particularly wind, into the system, that energy shows up when the wind blows, not when you may or may not need it.
[SULLIVAN] And when they don’t need extra electricity from wind turbines, that puts the grid operators in a tricky situation.
[TEXT ON SCREEN] Take a tour of the MISO Control Room at energyNOW.com.
[SULLIVAN] To keep the grid stable, they have to perfectly balance the supply of electricity with demand. So making room for more wind means dialing back or shutting down other power plants. Otherwise, they would have to tell the wind farm operators to take their turbines offline.
[MOELLER] So, finding a place to put it is a much more desirable situation. So we work hard to try to make that come true.
[SULLIVAN] The scramble to find a town or city that needs the extra power from a wind farm also puts a strain on MISO’s section of the power grid. MISO says the grid was really designed to move electricity between power plants and population centers that are pretty close together. With wind, sometimes the only place that needs electricity can be several states away from a wind farm. To get it there, the grid operator has to use backup transmission lines that weren’t designed to carry large volumes of electricity.
[MOELLER] We’re using that emergency backup system to move great blocks of energy all the time. So that’s really, fundamentally, the problem.
[SULLIVAN] So you might think, with all these challenges, the folks at MISO would want fewer renewable resources like wind turbines plugging into the grid. Well, actually, they say, whatever the fuel mix of the future, they can make it work.
[DOYING] Whether it be 20% renewable, or whether it be what we have today — coal, gas, nuclear — in either case, our job is simply to keep the lights on.
[SULLIVAN] Back in Minnesota, Shanelle Montana is still enjoying what she calls “a nice breeze.”
You’re used to this wind. Did you ever think it would become an asset for the state?
[MONTANA] You know, I didn’t. I think it’s tremendous, and I’m glad that Minnesota’s been a leader in this industry, because it has provided so much to this area.
[SULLIVAN] And Montana expects even more turbines to be sprouting up among the cornfields in the future. In Chandler, Minnesota, Lee Patrick Sullivan, “energyNOW!”
[ASSURAS] One reason wind turbines keep springing up in Minnesota is because it’s one of more than two dozen states with a renewable energy mandate. The 2007 law requires Minnesota to get 25% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2025. The EIA says, this year, Minnesota ranks fifth in the nation in total electricity generated by wind, behind Texas, California, Iowa, and Washington state.
Now, many of those Minnesota wind turbines you just saw are practically brand-new. But they’re really the product of a decades-old effort to make wind power cheaper and more reliable. Check out this energyTHEN from a 1980 Department of Energy video. [Film projector running]
[NARRATOR] There are problems with wind energy. It doesn’t always blow when and where you want it. And quality machines are expensive. But solutions are being sought. The Department of Energy is testing small systems for individual use and large machines for centralized utility needs. Wind has great potential as an energy source in America, a potential that is in the process of being realized. As manufacturing costs decrease with mass production, as new technology and stronger and lighter materials are developed, and as the cost of conventional energy continues to rise, wind energy will find an even more important place under the Sun.
[ASSURAS] As we said earlier, wind still plays a relatively small role, providing about 2% of America’s electricity last year. But wind’s share is growing. The EIA says, from January to July of this year, the most recent data available, almost 3% of U.S. electricity came from wind. And if you look at all the new power plants built in the last decade, wind farms were the second most popular choice after natural gas.
When we come back, go fly a kite! How one man’s vision of flying high could change the future of wind power.
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[ASSURAS] We’ve shown you what power companies and electricity grid operators are doing to get as much clean, renewable energy as they can from the wind. Maybe the answer lies in a new type of turbine, a daring innovation that could turn child’s play into a steady source of emissions-free electricity. “energyNOW!”‘s Josh Zepps looks at one company leading the charge in wind innovation.
[ZEPPS] If you have any fond childhood memories of flying a kite, then you have a real sense of just how much energy the tug of the wind can have. So, what if that same energy could be used to generate electricity?
[CORWIN HARDHAM] The genesis of the idea actually started with kite surfing.
[ZEPPS] You’re a kite surfer?
[HARDHAM] I am a kite surfer, yes.
[ZEPPS] But not just any kite surfer. Corwin Hardham is also a mechanical engineer with a Ph.D. from Stanford. And, by the way, that’s really him.
[CORWIN HARDHAM, CEO, MAKANI POWER] When you’re a kite surfer, you get a very visceral feel for the force that’s able to be created with these very lightweight wings. So your kite weighs about 5 pounds and able to pull about a couple hundred pounds of force in relatively slight winds.
[ZEPPS] Hardham wondered if it’s really necessary to build enormous wind turbine towers at a cost of up to 3.5 million bucks apiece if so much power can be captured by nothing more than a kite and a light tether. Well, that’s a question that also interested fellow kite-surfing Stanford grads Larry Page and Sergey Brin. You know, the founders of that little Web startup, Google, which put up 20 million bucks to help Corwin Hardham find the answer.
[HARDHAM] The difference between a wind turbine and what we’re doing is we actually have a wing that is free-flying and tethered to the ground, almost like a kite. So you have this kite flying very much the same pattern as a tip of a wind turbine blade, but up higher in the sky.
[ZEPPS] Imagine the arc that’s traced by the blade of a conventional wind turbine. The idea of the Makani Airborne Wind Turbine is to achieve that same motion without all the scaffolding of the turbine structure itself, which accounts for 90% of a regular wind tower’s mass. Instead, just a fleet of light, motorized, self-piloting, fixed-wing gliders, tracing lazy circles in the sky, and sending the electricity they generate back down a cable and into the power grid. Hardham says this would have two big advantages over wind towers.
[HARDHAM] We’re using a fraction of the material to capture the same benefit.
[ZEPPS] A conventional 1-megawatt wind turbine can weigh more than 100 tons. Makani says its 1-megawatt airborne turbines weigh 1/10 as much, at an installed price that’s about half as costly as a normal turbine with the same rated power.
[HARDHAM] The next advantage we have is we’re flying a little bit higher in the sky, so we’re at about 1,000 feet up. The wind is about twice as powerful at that altitude.
[ZEPPS] Hardham says Makani’s system will generate power twice as consistently as the best wind farms of today.
But what about when the wind doesn’t blow? Well, the kites can fly themselves, but they consume electricity if the wind speed drops below about 9 miles an hour. So, when long periods of low wind speeds are expected, the kites would be landed.
Still, the project is a long way from being commercial.
[DAMON VANDER LIND] This rotor right here weighs 300 grams.
[ZEPPS] Damon Vander Lind leads Makani’s systems engineering team. The carbon fiber wing was his design.
[LIND] It’s very light, so this whole piece right here weighs about 30 pounds. And it breaks at a force of about 4 tons.
[ZEPPS] This 26-foot wing doesn’t generate any power. That’s just a glider on autopilot, banking endlessly across the sky. What generates the power are the rotors mounted on it, which gobble up the onrushing wind.
[HARDHAM] So, very much like on your electric vehicle where you might step on the brakes to actually generate power, we’re doing the same thing here. We’re actually stepping on the brakes with these rotors that you see on the wing and slowing the wing down.
[ZEPPS] They’re not just any old rotors. They also function as propellers to get the wing up to speed.
[HARDHAM] So using some power from the grid or some standby power, we launch vertically, we hover up off the ground, using the same rotors that we use to generate power. So, in that mode, the rotors are actually operating as propellers. And then, when we start generating power, flying, being pushed by the wind, they operate as turbines.
[ZEPPS] One thing that strikes me, this is surprisingly small, given how huge the wing is.
[LIND] Yeah, this thing is basically like trying to generate in a hurricane, because of the speed of the wing flying.
[ZEPPS] How fast is the wing going?
[LIND] The wing goes about 150 miles an hour.
[ZEPPS] Right. So these little things are going like the clappers.
[LIND] Yeah, they go really fast. And actually, one of the big problems is designing these to be quiet.
[ZEPPS] And that, of course, could be a big problem. Because Makani’s rotor blades spin at speeds of over 250 miles an hour, they buzz. [Blades buzzing] Makani says it’s making huge strides in reducing the noise. Wind energy opponents say conventional turbines are already too noisy, unsightly, and a collision hazard for birds. At the end of the day, like all green energy technologies, Makani will most likely succeed or fail on the price of the power it generates.
[TEXT ON SCREEN] See how the Makani wind turbine works at energyNOW.com.
[HARDHAM] What we expect the cost to be is around 3 cents a kilowatt hour, which is quite low. That’s getting lower than a lot of coal-fired power generation at the moment. And that is the thing that gets us very excited about what we’re doing here.
[ZEPPS] So, when people are crossing the Bay Bridge and wonder what that black shape is arcing across the sky, it’s not a bird, it’s not a plane… it might just be a glimpse of one way we could harvest wind power in the future. In Alameda, California, Josh Zepps, “energyNOW!”
[ASSURAS] Makani won the energy category of this year’s Breakthrough Awards run by the magazine Popular Mechanics. Makani says it’s developing a bigger turbine that would fly at 1,600 feet and produce enough electricity to power 600 homes a year. It plans to have a prototype ready by 2013 and go into commercial production by 2015.
We thought you’d like to see a new way the wind is being used, along with the Sun, to energize electric cars. That’s what’s in this week’s “energyNOW!” hotZONE. This is the Sanya Skypump, developed by Urban Green Energy and General Electric, which hooks up a small wind turbine plus a solar panel to an EV charging station. When it’s not being used as a charger, the designers say the wind and solar modules will send electricity to the power grid. The Skypump is supposed to debut in New York, Beijing, and Barcelona, either by the end of this year or early next year.
And one last thing about wind energy. Check out our latest animated “energyNOW!” 101 with Little Lee Patrick Sullivan explaining how wind power works on our Web site, energyNOW.com. Here’s a little look at what you’ll see.
[SULLIVAN] Hi, I’m Lee Patrick Sullivan with “energyNOW!” and today I would like to talk to you about the power of the wind. Wind turbines harness the kinetic energy of moving air. The air blows over the blades, creating lift, just like the wings of an airplane. This causes the blades to move, and through a drive shaft, this turns a generator that creates electricity.
Similar to solar arrays, wind farms connect individual wind turbines together to generate electricity on a large scale.
[ASSURAS] Catch the full Little Lee “energyNOW!” 101 on wind energy on our Web site, energyNOW.com.
Last week on “energyNOW!”, we took a look at nuclear energy, and before we go, here are the results of our online poll question, “How do you think the U.S. should dispose of nuclear waste?”
70% said, “Reprocess it so the fuel can be used again.” 17% said, “There’s no safe way to deal with nuclear waste.” 10% of you said, “Bury it in a remote place.” And 3% said, “Store it safely at nuclear plants.”
That’s it for this week’s “energyNOW!” In addition to our polls, you can also check out our blogs, get the latest energy news, watch video extras, and be part of the energy conversation at energyNOW.com. And reach out to us on YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter. Search for us at energyNOWnews. I’m Thalia Assuras. See you next week.
Next week on “energyNOW!”, a modern American oil rush. Tapping into the black gold trapped deep in shale rock. Can it help energize the economy and wean America off imported oil?
[ANNOUNCER] Help us make “energyNOW!” a continuing success in our second year. To keep growing, we want to form new partnerships with foundations and corporations who are equally concerned about America’s energy future. Join us in bringing our message to more and more viewers. Please have your company or foundation contact “energyNOW!”
[TEXT ON SCREEN] Please contact our General Manager, Hardy Spire, 202-621-2916,email@example.com.