Whatever the advances in technology, however, the wind power industry still faces significant hurdles, starting with uncertain political support in the United States. In Europe, wind power is already a relatively easy sell. But in the United States, wind developers rely on federal tax credits to make a profit. These vital credits face chronic opposition from powerful oil and coal lobbies and often lapse. The wind power industry raced to plug in its turbines before these credits expired at the end of last year, then went dormant for the three months it took the U.S. Congress to renew them. Congress extended the credits through the end of next year, initiating what is likely to be yet another start-and-stop development cycle.
A second obstacle to broad adoption is the wind itself. It may be free and widely accessible, but it is also frustratingly inconsistent. Just ask any sailor. And this fickleness translates into intermittent power production. The more turbines get built, the more their intermittency will complicate the planning and management of large flows of power across regional and national power grids. Indeed, in west Texas, a recent boom in wind turbine construction is straining the region’s transmission lines-and also producing power out of sync with local needs: wind blows during cool nights and stalls on hot days when people most need electricity.
Texas utilities are patching the problem by expanding transmission lines. But to really capture the value of wind power on a large scale, new approaches are needed to storing wind power when it’s produced and releasing it when needed. The Electric Power Research Institute, a utility-funded R&D consortium in Palo Alto, CA, is conducting research on how to make better one-day-ahead wind predictions. More important, it is exploring ways to store energy when the wind is blowing. “We need to think about operating an electrical system rather than just focusing on the wind turbines,” says Chuck McGowin, manager for wind power technology at the institute. Storage facilities “would allow us to use what we have more efficiently, improve the value of it.”
In the northwest United States, one storage option being developed by the Portland, OR-based Bonneville Power Administration balances wind power with hydroelectric power. The idea is simple: when the wind is blowing, don’t let the water pass through the hydroelectric turbines; on calm days, open up the gates. And the Tennessee Valley Authority is even experimenting with storing energy in giant fuel cells; a pilot plant is under construction in Mississippi.
Wind power faces plenty of obstacles, but there’s more reason than ever to believe these obstacles will be overcome. Worries over the environmental effects of burning fossil fuels and political concerns about an overdependence on petroleum are spurring a boom in wind turbine construction. But it is advances in the technology itself, created by continued strong research efforts, that could provide the most critical impetus for increased use of wind power.
At Rocky Flats, four rows of research turbines-a total of a dozen machines ranging from 400-watt battery chargers to grid-ready 600-kilowatt machines-share a boulder-strewn 115-hectare plain. With the Rocky Mountains as a backdrop, their blades whup against the breezes blowing in from El Dorado Canyon to the west. At least, they do much of the time. “We have a lot of calm days, in the summer in particular, and for a testing site it’s good to have a mix,” Thresher says.
Calm days may be good for wind turbine research, but they’re still among the biggest concerns haunting wind turbine commercialization. While no technology can make the wind blow, lower-cost, reliable technologies appear ready to take on its fickleness. And that could mean a wind turbine will soon sprout atop a breezy hill near you.