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Scientists in Texas Panhandle try to build a better wind turbine

On a flat stretch of ranchland, a lone wind turbine spins in the steady winds sweeping across the Texas Panhandle.

For the next six months, scientists will record the power it generates relative to the wind. At the end they will report back to their client, a small wind power company in Oregon, whether the turbine is keeping up with the multitude of new models coming on the market.

As the wind industry pushes to take a greater share of the country’s power load, the emphasis on creating more efficient turbines is growing.

Wind power labs like the one outside Canyon, a partnership between West Texas A&M and the global product-testing company UL, are springing up around the globe.

The question of whether the industry can build a wind turbine that is more efficient than traditional coal- or gas-fired plants is critical to the industry’s future, said Don Topliff, dean of A&M’s school of agriculture, science and engineering.

“The power production off a wind turbine vs. a coal-fired electrical plant, the coal plant is still higher,” he said. “Efficiency is one of the things holding us back. As wind turbines become more efficient, then wind is going to be more attractive as a source.”

Wind turbines have already gotten considerably more efficient over the last decade. A 500-kilowatt turbine used to be considered the top end. Now engineers are building machines that can produce 10 times as much power from roughly the same footprint of land.

Materials for the blades have gotten lighter and stronger. And the new generation of turbines is simply larger than their ancestors, with blades that measure more than 350 feet in diameter.

And expectations are that turbines will only get more efficient in the years ahead, said Daniel Kammen, an energy professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Ideas like turbines that float far out to sea or fly in the upper limits of the stratosphere like giant kites stand to open up far greater areas of the planet to wind power.

“A lot of people look at wind and think the technology has plateaued,” Kammen said. “Wind on the surface of the earth is typically intermittent, but not at 30,000 feet. The wind doesn’t turn off there.”

Figuring out how a new machine will perform in real conditions over extended time is critical, experts say.

UL, which has offices in 39 countries, already maintains two wind testing facilities in Germany. But being able to test in the prevailing winds and flat landscape of the Panhandle was important to clients, said Evelyn Butler, a director of UL’s energy team.

“A lot of the manufacturers want to test at the higher limits,” she said. “The wind speed [in Canyon] is more than what you would find around the rest of the United States.”

Right now the facility, which opened earlier this month, has only one client. But with 450 acres of land, there is enough room for 20 small turbines or six large ones.

For the ranchers who occupy the land around Canyon, the appearance of towering spinning turbines on the horizon isn’t likely to come as a shock.

“Wind has always been a resource on the high plains. We’ve used wind to pump water for livestock for 150 years,” Topliff said. “A lot of people don’t remember that.”

Follow James Osborne on Twitter at @osborneja.

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One comment

  1. It’s great to use wind, but simply put its not cost efficient. The main problem with wind turbines is their constant maintenance and excessive down time. The bigger they are the more expensive. So its great to get an extra 5-10% increase in efficiency but in the end the cost are 4x’s in production to get there. The one question I’ve always had is why not make wind turbines look like jet turbines? Jet turbines replaced propellers on airplanes because of efficiency and generally cheaper to make.

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