Last week at the UW-Madison Weston Lecture Series, I listened to Julie Lundquist, a professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at University of Colorado-Boulder, explain how meteorologists are going to help usher in the age of wind.  (More precisely, 20% Wind – there are some serious people seriously shooting at getting 20% of our energy in the U.S. from wind power by 2030. )

We all think we know what wind is.  We’ve all had it fly our kites, and perhaps experienced some of its more dramatic and destructive ramifications.  But when we set out to harness the wind, we are working with a very complex force. For a nuts and bolts explanation of how we turn wind into energy check out this Dept. of Energy site.

Wind is ultimately a form of solar energy generated by the uneven heating of the atmosphere by the sun, the irregularities of the earth’s surface and the rotation of the earth. Wind flow patterns are further modified by the earth’s terrain, bodies of water, and vegetation.  Those turbines we hoist into the clear, blue sky are penetrating a very complex atmosphere.

Wind energy production in the U.S. has doubled in the past few years, Lundquist said.  But making wind a serious part of our energy portfolio is complicated because both wind energy and  our power needs fluctuate constantly.  Meteorologists can help balance that fluctuation by predicting very accurately how much energy is going to be generated by wind turbines at a given location  and a given point in time.

There is a lot of fine tuning that can be done on current wind turbine design.   Existing wind turbine specifications were quickly developed, often using wind profile data that does not reflect the subtle reality of wind.  But meteorologists are constantly improving our understanding of what the wind is capable of doing.  They now use something like a police radar gun shot straight up into the air, and what they are finding is that there are times, especially in evening as the surface of the earth cools, that can kick up winds exceeding turbine design specifications.  Applying the results from these monitoring tools can make a 20% difference in efficiency.

Wind direction also fluctuates with height.  As we make turbines larger and larger, this is going to be a significant challenge that requires precise and accurate data.

Dr. Lundquist also noted that a lot of wind farms out there have been spinning for about 20 years – which is their expected life span.  It’s time to take a very close look at how to build the next generation of turbines.  “Our wind farms are not as efficient as they could be,” Lundquist said.  Most of them were not sited using the kind of meteorological info that’s out there now.  Nor are they built with the current level of engineering knowledge.  The industrial standard, the 3-blade turbines that we see everywhere, are simply the best compromise in non-turbulent conditions.  That may be about to change.

Current research is not only are looking at how to make the turbines more efficient. Meteorologists are studying how planting a forest of turbines affects the ground below it, in front of it and behind it.

The 20% Wind Scenario is not likely to be realized in a business-as-usual future. Achieving this scenario means a major national commitment to clean, domestic energy sources.   The future of wind power is as uncertain right now as the weather outside my window.

And that ambiguity may increase.  “There is a lot of uncertainty about how climate change will drive future wind projects,” Lundquist said as she finished.  The implication is that we may be looking at a lot more wind in some areas, but there can be too much of a good thing from the perspective of a machine the size of a bus on top of a stick taller than a football field.

We are going to need our meteorologists and engineers more than ever!

How is wind power affecting your life so far?  Do you get some wind power from your energy provider?  Do you have a wind farm in your neighborhood?  Do you pay a premium to your utility provider to support more green energy?

7 replies

  1. There are not many wind turbines here in Latvia but there is a push to get them set up for farmers. We have more hydro-electric, thanks to the Soviets propensity to dam up rivers and stick generators in just about every small town and village.

    I was wondering if you have come across much research into the Vertical wind generators. Are they any more efficient? They seem a simpler construction as they don’t need to be up so high or need as much clearance, but there doesn’t really seem to be much information out there for the layman.

    • Hi Joanna,
      Interesting point about dams in your area. In Wisconsin, the state has been removing dams from some of the rivers and letting them go wild again. Those dams weren’t big enough to be power generators. They were just attempting to control the rivers — which was actually creating more flooding problems.

      Someone did ask Dr. Lundquist about alternative wind generators a the end of her talk. She said there were many styles under consideration for smaller generators, but she didn’t go into them. I think when you are working closer to the ground, you have more options.
      Wind power will probably never be feasible on our land, so I just follow it because of my general interest in sustainable power.
      Are you thinking of a wind generator?

      • I think it would be good to have a wind generator on our land but the large turbine type are costly to set up due to their height. If we did connect into the mains electric we would be getting our electric almost directly from a local biogas unit as we are on the route between that and the local transformer.

        I do think though that it would be good to have a combined approach to power production. Solar is very good in summer as we often have good summers and long days being so far north in Latvia but November would be absolutely useless – I even had houseplants die on me due to lack of sun, once it snows it is better, not so dreary. Ground heat would be good if we ever had a house out in the country but we are on communal heating now, fuelled by wood chippings.

        Interestingly enough I found out that Latvia is a net absorber of CO2 due to its large forest cover, small sparse population and relatively low emissions.

      • Thank you Latvia for being a CO2 absorber! That’s a very pleasing thought. Wow.

        Interesting perspective about your solar possibilities. My brother moved to Sweden a few years ago, and he writes about the loooonnnnngggg, dark winter there. Having lived in the Netherlands, I got a taste of that.

        Most of the renewable energy sources have their surges and their seasons. I like to hear people in the know talking about grids that can even out the supply, while fully using all these clean energy sources.

        Wind also seems to be a fickle fuel. But a productive part of a complex grid.

  2. Thanks again for an informative article. Seems like I’ve seen more and more wind farms popping up over the last few years. Not many in Gurnee, however.

    We do have a restaurant that is run partially by wind power: Chipotle Mexican Grill.

    • Hi Lorijo,

      Last night when we were traveling through the Driftless area near the Mississippi I saw a genuine old fashioned farm wind mill. That reminded me of how much I enjoyed seeing those as a child. They are almost all gone now.
      I like seeing the wind farms too. They seem so majestic in the distance. Do you like that view?
      As to Chipotles, I think they must be a good, green place to eat. The one in Madison uses local ingredients as much as possible.

  3. The worry for the Latvians is that they cannot cut emissions enough as they lose some of the advantages as their forests mature. Young stands absorb more CO2 and the abandoned farmland has become forested over time.

    Combined heat power could also a possibility for Latvia as they burn sawdust and chippings for communal heat systems and generate electricity as a by-product. This would take them through the winter months, the hydro-power is mainly a spring generating operation, so that would be two seasons covered. As for solar the systems have become better and can run in duller conditions which is ideal when the nights are short (9pm here and only just getting dim and we still have another month to go to the longest day)

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