Future Energy Fellows post

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Read Lori-Lee Emshey's first piece on wind energy for The Energy Collective here.

In North America, Australia, New Zealand and Europe, almost all wind power utilizes today’s technology in the same way: large megawatt wind farms generate power to supplement the grid. But why is this? Wind power makes for an adaptable power source, one we should be seeing everywhere, like generating a few kilowatts for a remote cabin in the Appalachians, or churning water irrigation pumps along the South Saskatchewan River. But still, it’s being pigeonholed into one task, like an aging sitcom actor. 

These stereotypical kinds of wind farms have sprung up in all sorts of environments over the past thirty years, including offshore and barren deserts. According to the latest energy report from US Department of Energy, wind energy accounted for 3.91% of all electricity generated in the US in the past year.

Despite this dedication to single-purpose wind technology, no towns have managed to completely free themselves from the grid. For that to happen, a wind farm would need to be geographically close to the town it would support. Currently, this is rarely possible due to zoning laws and uncooperative wind conditions. Thus, no wind-powered town. 

But on the other side of the planet, an experiment in Tocco da Casauria, a village in the Abruzzo region of central Italy, has demonstrated the possibilities of being 100 percent wind-powered. The cobblestoned village of 3000 people generates enough wind power from their four local turbines to be completely free of thermally generated power and even sell excess wind power back to the Italian utilities. Tocco Da Casauria is perfect prototype for a wind-powered town – it has a small population, good wind conditions and citizens who don’t mind the turbines obscuring their mountain view. But population density and aesthetics are bad excuses for a lack of wind power. 

The U.S. Department of Energy calculated that the United States has an offshore wind capacity that can meet the entire country’s electrical demands, using large megawatt turbines like the ones currently installed on land. Currently, the U.S. has no offshore wind farms, but the government announced three proposals for farms in off the coast of New Jersey, Texas and Virginia to help meet their goal. 

Whether the offshore option is theoretically possible, maritime traffic and sub-sea infrastructure are complications, and its real-world viability remains to be seen.

 


 

So why the big focus on big wind? It would make sense that countries so focused on reducing carbon emissions would try and use every available renewable resource, no matter how big or small, but they don't — actually, they can't. 

Environmentally-conscious home and business owners like the idea of making his or her building greener by adding solar panels, wind turbines or some combination of the two on-site to supplement their electrical consumption. This is known as distributed generation, because the energy source comes from a remote location, rather than a centralized power station. Sometimes people can install solar panels or small turbines, although it usually involves the extra (and expensive) step of adding a battery bank to store excess power. Much of the time, supplementary renewables aren’t possible, since battery banks are impractical and the grid is not set up to handle back-feeding electricity into the system from distributed generation.

In North America, for example, the electric grid currently in use is the same one that was laid down a hundred years ago. But it’s not the electrical wires themselves that are the problem — it’s the absence of meters and converters that fall under the responsibility of the utility provider.  

Many people used to think that a clunky, old grid could not handle too much wind power, because its electrical frequency needed to be evened out to feed seamlessly into the grid. If the electricity got too far out of sync, it could cause a blackout. Countries like Germany have demonstrated that with improved frequency converter technology, the grid can handle big, steady additions of wind power from farms. This issue should have been dismissed long ago, but anti-wind power advocates still cite erratic frequencies and potential blackouts as terminal problems.

 


 

The real problem is much less scientific and more financial. In order for distributed, site-specific wind turbines to be installed, they must be able to feed back into the grid if they generate more power than what a home or business uses. The utility provider needs to know exactly how many watts a property is back-feeding and pay them for it. Some utility providers, such as New York City-based Con Edison, have no problem with individuals backfeeding and are slowly adding meters on the outskirts of Manhattan and Brooklyn to encourage distributed generation. Other utilities are following suit, if they haven’t already, while still others are less thrilled with the idea of having to pay their customers and may never get around to adding these devices.   

In order for renewable to be effective on a smaller scale, the grid doesn’t need a complete overhaul, just a few added extras. The end result is what the energy world has dubbed 'smart grids'. A smart grid is any electrical grid that monitors how its users consume energy and adapts to meet those demands, incorporating any renewable resources available.

In countries with established grids, retrofitting a smart grid on top is the logical step to reaching renewable energy goals. Wind power is the current front-runner in supplementing existing demands, because it’s available almost everywhere. 

It's a good start, but is this the only way the world can use wind power?