Will Pinnacle Knob be built with obsolete turbines? If completed within the next few years the answer may well be yes.

For the sake of argument, let’s say the two year old computer I’m using has capacity and functionality to support my growing business for, at least, the next three years.  Unless it breaks, I would be a little nuts to replace it with today’s model based on a forecasted need three years from now.  Heck, with the way technology is advancing, by the time I get to the point of need a couple of years from now, the darned thing would be obsolete.  And worse, it would be a two or three year old used piece of equipment at the time the need for top performance is greatest.

So, what does that have to do with the Pinnacle Knob wind farm project planned for Mineral County, WV?  Well, according to what I understand, there is no forecasted requirement for the electricity it will generate that cannot already be supplied from existing power plants.  So we’re doing quite well meeting our needs with what we have.  You have to ask yourself the logic of installing turbine models available today that may well be obsolete by the time they actually begin to contribute to a real need.  Even worse, they will have been operating for all those years when not needed, serving to limit their effective life expectancy during the time of real need, should it ever arise.  So, on the face of it, that all seems pretty nuts, too.

From what I read, today’s turbine models are only expected to perform at some 30% of rated name plate capacity.  Actual performance measures have placed the number for some turbines at a much lower 15%.  As I’ve mentioned before, I marvel at the willingness of authorities to grant permission to consume the land and air space required to mount 23 turbines that produce only the output of 3 to 7 units.  I can’t help but think that, should the WV PSC receive an application for a facility that required a several mile strip of mountaintop including hundreds of acres of land and sky, in order to install 3 to 7 turbines, they would shove it back across the desk and tell the submitter to come back with a better plan.  I suspect environmentalists would be bouncing off the trees at the thought of such poor utilization of land and sky.  But, effectively, that’s what the US WindForce request boils down to.

But, back to the immediate need issue.  There is none!  Feeble memory and all, I recall a question raised by one of the WV Supreme Court of Appeals Judges at the June 2009, Laurel Mountain hearing stating that, effectively, there was no forecasted need for the electricity to be generated by the turbines that could not already be provided by existing power plants.  I seem to recall there was not a strong rebuttal of that point by the PSC Attorney or from any other of the wind advocates.

If I heard correctly, that statement leads me to suggest that, should Pinnacle Knob be built in advance of real need,  it would be the equivalent of me buying that “already obsolete” computer.  You see, the industry is working very hard to improve the efficiency, material content, safety and environmental issues surrounding the current design.  And that brings me to this October 12, 2009 post at Business Week’s Green Business Blog: ”Innovative wind turbine design triples output“‘  You can read the text later, but one thought from Business Week writer Adam Aston to keep in mind while you watch the video … “From the first flight at Kitty Hawk, it took about 50 years to engineer the switch from spinning propellers to more efficient jet engines. Now wind technology could be about to make a similar design leap, barely a decade after the commercial industry’s birth in the U.S.

MIT’s Technology Review took a favorable look at the design last December in their article “A Design for Cheaper Wind Power – A design that draws on jet engine technology could halve the cost of generating electricity from wind.”  Last I checked, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was a fairly reliable place to go for this kind of thing.  Yep!  There’s work to do but, as Paul Sclavounos, a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, said in the article, “It’s plausible that such a design could double or triple a turbine’s power output.”  To which I say, darn!

The MIT Technology Review article concludes that “Part of the increase comes simply from guiding the air to the turbine with the shroud. But Sclavounos notes that it also helps to use the wind surrounding the turbine to speed up the airflow, because the power produced by a wind turbine increases with the cube of the wind speed. The key question is whether the new turbines can be built and maintained at a low-enough cost, Sclavounos says.”

So, how are they making out with the design?  “FloDesign has already built a small prototype for wind-tunnel tests. Its next step is to build a 12-foot diameter, 10-kilowatt system for field tests. The prototype will be finished by the end of next year or early in 2010, with commercial wind turbines to follow. (The company is not yet taking orders.) Eventually the company plans to make turbines as large as one megawatt.”  Read the entire MIT article here.

Yes, developments like this are perhaps a few years away.  But since we don’t really need the power from Pinnacle quite yet, wouldn’t we be smart to wait until a time closer to need to top our mountains with the latest and most modern tools to gather the wind.  The property owners will still make a profit, taxes will still be collected and jobs will still be created, but we just might actually get some real benefit from the wind.

Is there a risk in waiting?  Nope!  With the quick turn quoted by US WindForce it seems certain, should the forecast suddenly change to a closer power need, installation could still meet the need.  Best part though … it would be with the new stuff.  Not the old obsolete stuff they’re making today.

I’m sure the wind industry will come up with a few reasons to continue to use the old props – inventory to consume, purchase price agreements and shovel ready, to name a few.  But these are business issues.  They have nothing to do with what is best for the consumers, the environment and the folks that will have to live with the installations long after US WindForce drives off to count their money.  The folks who matter in the long term are the ones the WV PSC is to protect and serve.  If US WindForce really wants to be the “good neighbors” they portray themselves to be, they will want what is best for us.  Without a need for what they’re producing the best option for us is to wait.

And even if this new “jet” technology is not available at the time Pinnacle Knob becomes a viable option, millions and millions of dollars are being spent world-wide to find improvements in the existing design.  On Thursday of this week, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, announced a $24 million grant to three universities in order that they study the technology with the specific goal in mind to improve what exists today.  NREL’s National Wind Technology Center installed the first of two multimegawatt wind turbines in August of this year, which is to be used for research to advance wind turbine performance and reliability.  So, with such a massive, ongoing effort to improve a product we will have to live with for 25 years, my vote is to make sure we don’t toss one on the mountain that is obsolete before it churns out the first kw of “needed” electricity.

But then, that’s just what I think.  I’d appreciate hearing your views.

Please report any errors, omissions or broken links in the comment section.

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1 Response to Will Pinnacle Knob be built with obsolete turbines? If completed within the next few years the answer may well be yes.

  1. Pingback: Course Correction | Allegheny Treasures

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