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Our energy future: Wind

BY MATT AARONSON
Daily Staff Reporter
Published April 10, 2009

Editor's Note: The perils of our country’s energy dilemma are well known and often discussed. As the nation’s best scientists, engineers, businessmen and policymakers work to come up with a solution, one thing is becoming ever more clear. The tonic to our nation’s energy illness will not be one catch-all, but, rather, the combination of budding industries of alternative energy — the fruits of “energy diversity.” Over the next five days, we will take a look at how a variety of these developments in different types of energy are playing out on campus and in the greater Ann Arbor area. Through this series, we hope to get a glimpse of what this area’s best researchers and entrepreneurs are doing to solve America’s energy quagmire.

In 2008, more than 120 gigawatts of energy were generated from wind around the world, according to the World Wind Energy Association, a global nonprofit that works to promote wind energy technology.

However, a recent University of Delaware study estimated that 72 terawatts (1 terawatt = 100 gigawatts) of commercially viable wind power is available.

That means that, as a planet, we’re only using about .17 percent of the potential wind energy on Earth. It also means that, if utilized correctly, wind energy could satisfy the world’s total energy needs five times over.

With the current economic crisis and the United States’ increased dependence on foreign oil, it is now more crucial than ever to tap into this abundant and free natural resource.

But you don’t have to tell that to the state of Michigan.

With 3,288 miles of coastline — more than any other state except Alaska — Michigan has incredible wind capture potential. And there are many people in and around Ann Arbor who are working to help reach it.

The day after signing a Memorandum of Understanding to mark a collaboration with Denmark’s Minister of Climate and Energy last month at the Michigan League, Gov. Jennifer Granholm highlighted the Scandinavian country’s experience with wind power in her weekly radio address.

“Denmark leads the world in wind power technology, an industry employing 20,000 people in a nation with half Michigan's population,” she said. “In fact, Denmark has a 2.2 percent unemployment rate.”

Denmark was completely dependent on imported fuel until after the 1973 oil crisis, when Danish officials resolved to find alternative energy sources.

“So, in a week where we saw our state's January unemployment rate rise to 11.6 percent, driven in large part by continued job losses in the automotive manufacturing sector,” Granholm said in the radio address, “Denmark's story is nothing short of inspirational.”

Now at 12 percent and steadily rising, Michigan has the highest unemployment rate in the country. The state has been crippled by the decline of the auto industry, something that has sped up as the country falls deeper into recession.

Call it lofty, or even impossible, but Granholm is hoping that the synergy of two crises — one a unique economic struggle for the state of Michigan and one a profoundly existential test for humanity — will create the “perfect storm” to spark much-needed economic growth and restore Michigan’s place as the world’s innovative manufacturing nerve center.

If wind power were made more viable and, consequently, in higher demand, Michigan could build the equipment and infrastructure that not only Michigan — which has so much wind capture potential and currently imports 80 percent of its energy — but the whole world would have its sights on. And thanks to the near-collapse of the American auto industry, the state has more excess manufacturing capacity than any other.

University alum Pete Tchoryk is just one of the innovators in Ann Arbor who has been working to improve wind energy technologies.

“It’s a perfect scenario for (wind power in) Michigan,” he said.

Tchoryk’s company, WindSight, is a spin-off from the Michigan Aerospace Corporation that was formed in 1996 to help commercialize developments of the University’s Space Physics Research Laboratory. The company has developed ultraviolet lasers that provide long-range 3D mapping of wind and atmospheric conditions for potential wind farm sites.

“One of the things that I see as really critical, and this is something that Michigan can really take the lead on, is in really doing a more thorough job than anyone else of doing pre-assessments of where the best locations are to do wind farms, both onshore and offshore,” Tchoryk said.

WindSight’s lasers and accompanying software can simultaneously measure wind speed, direction, temperature, density and water vapor. Better site assessment translates to more reliable and efficient wind capture, Tchoryk said, which makes wind power a much more attractive investment.

Since the lasers can take measurements from over 10 kilometers away, they can assess both on and offshore sites.

“You can have our system sitting on land, and then map out the winds over the water,” Tchoryk said. “That in particular is really useful.

“Right now, it’s just extremely expensive to put a tower with anemometers and weather vanes out in the middle of the water,” he said. “And you have to drop a concrete pylon. It’s really outrageously expensive.”

The funding for WindSight’s technology, which was mostly developed under Michigan Aerospace, “has been quite extensive,” Tchoryk said, coming primarily from National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the U.S. Department of Defense.

Though WindSight is relatively new and still seeking capital, Tchoryk announced in early March that the company would create about 60 jobs in Ann Arbor and elsewhere in Michigan over the next few years to start manufacturing the systems.

In hopes of funneling more money into the wind energy sector, Jerry Lynch, an assistant professor in the Civil and Environmental Engineering and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science departments, has developed a remote monitoring system for turbines that could cut costs for wind farm operators and make turbines more profitable.

“Wind turbines are somewhat of a damage-prone engineered system,” Lynch said. “Turbine blades may break, the turbine towers may experience some local damage and even the equipment inside the turbine is prone to damage such as the gears and the power generation unit.”

Lynch’s structural health monitoring system, whose development is funded mostly by the National Science Foundation and the University’s Office of the Vice President for Research, uses wireless micro-sensors to collect data about the structural well-being of wind turbines using “automated damage detection algorithms.”

“The hope is that the data we can collect will allow us to identify damage before it becomes a serious concern, and we can fix that damage before it becomes large and expensive to repair,” he said. ““It actually will make long-term use of wind turbines more cost efficient.”

Lynch’s technology is currently in the testing stages.

Lynch and his collaborator Carlos Cesnik, professor of Aerospace Engineering and director of the University’s Active Aeroelasticity and Structures Research Laboratory, began a working partnership last year with the University of Hanover in Germany to test the sensors on running turbines there.

He plans on working with Sandia National Laboratories, a U.S. Department of Energy facility run by the Lockheed Martin Company, to test the sensors on turbines in the United States in the near future.

Lynch said he hopes these sensors can help “tip the scale” on the “delicate balance between profitable and not-so-profitable” in the wind energy industry.

“It’s beneficial to make (wind power) a more profitable technology to entice more investment into it,” he said. “This technology could really enhance the cost competitiveness of wind as an energy source.”

But driving down costs isn’t the only way to increase profitability.

Mechanical Engineering Prof. Sridhar Kota has developed a technology that significantly increases the wind capture capability of wind turbines.

Kota is the president of Flexsys, Inc., a company he started in 2000 after the U.S. Air Force expressed interest in his approach to shape-morphing technology. With funding from the Department of Defense, Flexsys successfully designed, built and tested — including a flight test — a shape-morphing aircraft wing flap that, according to Kota, provides the necessary lift while also reducing drag, which “directly amounts to fuel savings.”

Kota said applying the same concepts to wind turbines seemed like a natural progression.

“That technology readily transitioned to wind turbine blades,” he said.

The Flexsys Adaptive Blade, a 25-30 foot trailing edge flap that attaches to the turbine blade — these are typically around 100 feet long — adjusts its shape continuously as wind conditions change.

The result is 15 percent more energy captured by the turbine, certified by Sandia National Labs. Kota said that while the blades are somewhat more expensive, they pay for themselves quite quickly from the extra energy they produce.

“You design a wind turbine to last 25 years,” he said. “You get your money back in two and a half years, and then you continue to get 15 percent more energy.”

He noted that two and a half years could be an overestimate, as “additional gains from reduced stress” on the blades resulting from his technology are difficult to quantify.

Kota said that a number of venture capital firms are “seriously interested” in the Adaptive Blades, but he’s put them on hold while Flexsys prepares for more testing, including a test on a full-scale turbine.

Additionally, a handful of University students came up with an idea that combines wind capture with another revenue source — advertisement.

Mechanical Engineering graduate student Joe Belter, Business sophomore Don Tappan, Energy Systems Engineering graduate student Dave Clark and Prateek Chourdia, an Engineering alum who graduated last fall, started Urban Wind Solutions last November as an entry for the Michigan Business Challenge and the Clean Energy Prize.

From their three-minute pitch on YouTube:

“I’m sure you’ve seen the toys that are sold in amusement parks that little kids spin in their hands. These have small strips of LEDS in the outermost point that flicker to produce some text … Imagine combining this technology with the three blades of a helical vertical axis wind turbine. As the wind rotates the blades, renewable clean energy is not only being fed directly into nearby buildings and the grid, but it’s also used to power the LEDS that create kinetic advertising space.”

Although they were eliminated in the second round of the Clean Energy Prize, it ultimately led to their selection for a spring break trip to San Francisco with the College of Engineering’s Center for Entrepreneurship with about 30 other students to meet with venture capitalists and alumni.

The group was also awarded a $1,500 “Dare to Dream” grant from the Zell Lurie Institute at the Ross School of Business for a “feasibility study of the possible market for Urban Wind Solutions,” Tappan said.

Tappan said they plan on using the grant to build a table-top size prototype.