Harnessing Nebraska's Wind Energy

By Farooq Baloch

Wind energy- a sustainable energy source- can be of great economic benefit to Nebraska communities, according to Jerry Hudgins, professor and chair of the Department of Electrical Engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Hudgins said the wind resource, coupled with the agricultural use of the land in Nebraska, makes it possible to install wind farms- power plants that use wind turbines to generate electricity- in the rural areas without causing much disturbance in land use. Large amounts of electrical energy can be generated through these wind farms, he added.

Theoretically, these wind farms can generate enough energy to even meet the electrical demand for the state, he said. However, it will be practical only if scientists are able to find an efficient way to store large amounts of energy- something his research team is working on through the Nebraska Center for Energy Sciences Research (NCESR), of which Hudgins is interim director.

The research is looking at improving the energy density and response speed of intermediate energy storage components or looking at mixed generation systems, such as wind and wind energy photovoltaic, to minimize the storage needs, Hudgins said.

Economic and Environmental Benefits for Nebraskans
Hudgins said there is willingness among developers to do wind energy projects and it will be an economic benefit for the local communities to provide their land for production of wind energy. "I see a long-term market here," he added.

He explained that besides the blades, wind turbines have many other parts- both mechanical and electrical- which are supplied by secondary manufacturers. Once there is a more extensive transmission infrastructure for the wind farms, Nebraska will become attractive as a location for developers and manufacturers, bringing investments worth millions of dollars.

In addition to attracting those manufacturing businesses, wind energy projects can also provide large amounts of electricity for residential consumption.

Hudgins, who also is the director of Nebraska Wind Application Center, said wind power is a cost-effective energy source that can supply electricity to the residents of Nebraska.

While this sustainable energy source could be a great economic benefit for Nebraska, it is also non-polluting, as no fuels are combusted to produce electrical energy through wind power. He added that unlike large thermal power plants using nuclear, coal and natural gas, wind energy production doesn't use water for cooling.

One of the biggest challenges with wind energy systems, according to Hudgins, is the variation in the wind, which makes it hard to plan a consistent production of electrical energy that can be used by the consumers. To address that challenge, practical energy storage solutions must be found to store the large amounts of energy that can be used when the wind isn't blowing, he said, but that, too is a problem. "If you try to build a large system out of batteries, it's very expensive and batteries don't last very long," he said.

Another challenge, Hudgins said, is creating a transmission infrastructure that can capture wind energy so it can be used. "For instance, the heaviest electrical load is in the summer, when you have irrigation and air conditioning load," he said. "That's the biggest time when you use electricity." He added that the wind resource is the lowest in summer so there is a need to find efficient ways of storing large amounts of energy to use when it is needed.

Hudgins said the sustainable energy source is available but there is a need to build better and more efficient machines to capture wind energy and do it economically, on a large enough scale.

For instance, he said, when the wind blows, excess energy can be captured, stored and made available for when the wind is not blowing. Similarly, during the day solar energy can be captured and stored to recover that energy when it is needed because one can't rely solely on one type of renewable energy system, he said.

According to Hudgins, solar and wind energy systems together can cover a large percentage of the energy uses on a typical day. "The technology is available, but needs refinement to improve efficiency and affordability. I would call it applied research at this level." He further said there are manufacturers of small wind turbines and small photovoltaic systems, which use solar cells to convert light into electricity. These systems could power a small building or a large office building. For large scale production, he said, "you need a large wind industrial plant." He said it is possible to scale these systems and make them off-grid systems - though off-grid systems often require another form of standby or back-up power source.

If the wind resource is reasonable, Hudgins said, and if there is that interplay between the photovoltaic and wind systems, it can work well. For instance, he said, if the photovoltaic system is running while the wind turbine is not, or the wind starts blowing but the photovoltaic system is not working, the energy can still be captured.

The Future of Wind Energy
Hudgins believes a practical energy storage solution is at least many years away. The use of renewables will continue to grow, he said, but not at the pace to replace base load sources like coal plants, nuclear plants or natural gas plants because they provide nonstop electricity 24 hours a day. "However, you never know when someone may make a technology breakthrough that changes the paradigm," he added.

Hudgins said the future of wind energy is very good for the next half century or maybe even three-quarters of the century, while a solution is found for the energy storage problem. Hudgins said the storage problem can be solved with improved transmission infrastructure where one can put geographically-dispersed wind energy systems across the entire United States. If there is a transmission setup to move power around where needed, he said, and the wind is blowing in enough places, then enough energy can be generated. Hudgins said once the energy storage problem is solved, wind and then solar can be used as the longer term sustainable energy source.

Global Perspective
"The wind energy research that's conducted at the University of Nebraska has applicability to renewable energy systems all over the world," Hudgins said.

He said researchers are working on how to improve performance of the wind turbines, how to use small through large size turbines and integrate those as stand-alone generation systems. He said in countries that have either almost no electrical service or intermittent electrical service, this is a perfect application for them because these systems can provide power varying demand sizes of a very small house to the size of a large building.


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