Efficiently catching the wind's energy

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They are giants that rise from the hills in Solano County. Some of the world's largest and most advanced wind turbines. As they spin, each produces enough energy to power as many as 1,500 homes for an hour. They are good, but to Dr. Case van Dam, they can be better.

"Right now wind energy in California, only represents only a small percentage of the total electric power," says Dr. van Dam, with the California Wind Energy Collaborative.

Van Dam runs the California Wind Energy Collaborative which is the premier place for wind energy research in California.

"That is an effort that started in 2002 with the focus of really working closely with the California Energy Commission and the Industry, the wind industry in the state, to work on issues facing wind energy in California," says van Dam.

The collaborative goal is simple to make wind energy safer, more reliable, affordable and environmentally sound without endangering birds.

It's not a new idea. At one point California accounted for 99 percent of the world's wind power production. Today, Texas and Europe surpass the state in wind power production.

"We understood what wind energy could do for us in California, in the 1970's and the 80's, and then we lost interest," says van Dam.

Today much of that era's wind power tops the hillsides along the Altamont Pass in eastern Alameda County.

"When you see Altamont today, I call it the living museum, it is really wind energy in the 1980's," says Van Dam.

The modern wind turbines in Solano County produce a lot more energy.

"One of the wind turbines in Solano replaces about 50 to 20 of these small wind turbines you see in Altamont," says Van Dam.

The Wind Energy Collaborative is working on the next generation of turbines. Carefully crafted models are built and blasted in wind tunnels to explore the best places to put wind turbines.

"You can get a year's worth of wind data in a matter of weeks to months," says Beth Kuspa, a junior specialist engineer.

A couple years ago when the windswept hills near Candlestick Park were eyed for wind turbines it was the Wind Collaborative that tested out the coastal breezes. The site was good, however the plan for turbines has been shelved.

Still, natural landscapes aren't the only ones that may provide ideal conditions for wind power generation. Man-made landmarks are also being explored for their wind power potential.

"The purpose of why we did this study was to assess the resource of wind that we could potentially harvest energy from," says Kuspa.

It's one thing to know there is wind, but how you best capture that power is the question. That's what aeronautical engineers are doing with a prototype turbine blade. There are threads to measure the wind direction to maximize power generation on the blade.

"If the model is in a certain orientation, there would be a positive angle of attack or a negative angle of attack," says Jonathon Baker, an aeronautical engineer.

The more positive angle of attack, the more the blade will spin. The more the blade spins, the more electricity is generated. However, not every test is done in a wind tunnel. Computer modeling can replicate many of the same conditions found in nature, giving wind researchers another tool to test out new theories.

"In the past, people have used more rudimentary and simple computer models to design these turbines," says Raymond Chow, an aeronautical engineer.

Researchers have access to some of the most sophisticated tools on Earth including software originally developed for NASA to design the next space shuttle.

"We believe that using modern tools, we can improve that performance and the efficiency of these devices by quite a bit," says Chow.

"We are looking at the coming five to six years 4,000 additional megawatts coming on line," said van Dam.

That's enough energy to power three million homes.

One of the many issues the California Wind Collaborative is working on is how to manage the intermittency of wind power. Like solar power, it doesn't always generate electricity. So a strategy needs to be developed to keep too much, or too little power off the power grid.

California Wind Energy Collaborative: http://cwec.ucdavis.edu

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This report was written and produced by Ken Miguel.

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