Wind blows when and where it wants. That’s annoying when you’re sailing. It really becomes a problem when you’re trying to convert wind energy to useful power. You see, the wind is here on the Buffalo Ridge of Southwest Minnesota. You people reading this live everywhere else.
Southwest Minnesota has been at the forefront of renewable energy development for some time—corn-based ethanol, soy biodiesel, and wind energy conversion systems. The BioBusiness Alliance of Minnesota wrote this into their long-range plan for the Life Sciences industry in the state and the Worthington BioScience Conference picked up on the theme this year.
Jay Allsup, Pinnacle Engineering, Maple Grove, MN, spoke in a breakout session on wind and solar power. The existing electrical utility system was built to send power OUT to rural communities. Now rural communities are trying to send wind power back up the grid, and it works about as well as stuffing toothpaste back in the tube. The Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator (MISO) tries to make it work but the system is complicated. Instead of sitting and waiting for needed reforms, Allsup worked on a project to put new wind turbines (windmills to us old-school technologists) into the spots where the regional electrical grid has room for new capacity. Plug in where the system can handle the load.
Another way to tackle the distribution problem is to not play the distribution game. Dan Juhl, a long-time wind developer from Woodstock, MN, champions small wind projects and Community Based Energy Development (CBED). Instead of moving electricity, move towards distributed generation facilities—build more smaller turbines closer to where we in the region use power. Juhl cited many sound technical disadvantages of the larger turbines common in Europe, in addition to many sound economic advantages to smaller turbines on family farms across rural Minnesota. The insatiable urge to build bigger, larger, taller systems will not necessarily provide more efficient, effective or affordable energy. Sometimes a bigger turbine is just a bigger turbine.
Other advances in technology are also looking promising to firm-up power supplies from renewable sources. For example, the wind tends to stop blowing when the sun comes out, so some pretty smart folks are working on demonstration-scale solar power and fuel cell backup to smooth out the electrical peaks and valleys. There are of course other issues that need to be hashed out with the technology, fair regulatory provisions to protect adjacent property owners, and more effective state and federal tax policy, but nothing that couldn’t be fixed if we really wanted.
A balanced approach, of course, is more likely to meet our long term energy needs. Industrial-scale distribution lines across our rural landscape will be, unfortunately, necessary to meet our nation’s need for electrical power. Industrial-scale wind energy conversion systems—acres and acres of turbines on farm and field—will be increasingly necessary as an essential compliment to coal-fired and nuclear power generation. And small-scale, individual distributed generation facilities will be increasingly important sources of redundant (back-up) and peak-hour energy.