Energy Dept. Sees Gold In US Wind Energy “Dead Zones”

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There they go again. Last Thursday US President* Trump ridiculed the US wind industry during a high profile campaign stop in Minnesota. The very next day, the US Department of Energy clapped back with another $28 million in funding for — you guessed it — research projects aimed at accelerating wind energy development in the US.

The new funding announcement is especially interesting in light of the President’s remarks, because it focuses on three areas where commercial activity has not yet flowered: offshore wind, tall towers, and distributed wind.

What’s All This About Distributed Wind Energy?

Let’s start with the distributed wind research first, because that intersects with two of our favorite topics, rural electric cooperatives and micro wind turbines.

Distributed wind refers to turbines that connect directly to end users, such as a farm, a school campus, or a business. They can also connect to the local grid.

Typically, though not always, these turbines fall into the small category. That usually means a capacity between five kilowatts and one megawatt, though sometimes it refers to the airspace swept by the turbine blades.

Rural electric cooperatives come into the picture because distributed wind energy users are generally located in rural areas.

The Energy Department believes that small, distributed wind has an important role to play in decarbonizing the US economy and stimulating US manufacturing jobs.

Tapping into the rural electric cooperative market could turbo-boost the small wind industry. Currently, there are 900 electric coops in 47 states, serving more than 40 million people. Their service territory encompasses more than half the nation’s land mass.

Rural Electric Cooperatives And The Renewable Energy Revolution

DOE already has a relationship with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association aimed at streamlining solar adoption, and now it looks like wind energy’s turn.

The agency’s interest in small wind energy has continued apace during the Trump administration. In 2017, for example, DOE released another round of funding to improve performance in small wind turbines, aimed at benefiting the distributed wind market.

Last week’s funding announcement includes $6.1 million for a new hardware/software initiative called WIRED, for Wind Innovations for Rural Economic Development.

The hardware component involves projects that integrate distributed wind with other distributed resources, like solar for example. That’s a key topic of research because wind turbines and solar arrays can reach peak performance at different times of day and in different seasons. The technical word for that is complementarity.

Renewable energy researchers are excited about complementarity because it opens up the potential for introducing more wind and solar into the grid, while minimizing the need for expensive energy storage systems.

The software part of WIRED aims at streamlining the process for developing distributed wind projects. Basically that means coops would not have to reinvent the wheel with each new project.

But Wait, There’s More

So far, rural electric cooperatives have been slow to adopt wind energy. The WIRED initiative could change that.

Here’s DOE describing the motivation behind WIRED:

…Hundreds of rural electric utilities have economically viable distributed wind potential that they could use as a tool to reduce costs and increase the resilience and reliability of their systems…

Do tell! DOE attributes the slow rate of adoption to “technical risks and a lack of familiarity with wind technology. ” An exploratory workshop last fall yielded a pathway forward:

Workshop participants reported that distributed wind systems integrated with other DERs, and agricultural, commercial, and industrial applications represent potential high-value opportunities to support rural economic development.

Got all that? DOE is asking prospective WIRED awardees for projects that make a bottom-line case for wind energy by integrating turbines with solar arrays, energy storage, and other loads.

What About Tall Towers?

The tall tower part of the new funding opportunity also seeks to develop unexploited territory.

Winds are stronger and more consistent at higher altitudes, so taller turbine towers would open up large swaths of the US where lower-altitude winds speeds are not optimal.

In particular, practically the entire US southeast would be ripe for onshore wind development with taller towers in hand.

One problem is balancing costs and benefits. An even bigger problem is transportation. The nation’s roads, bridges, and tunnels are not set up for transporting inflexible loads of more than 140 meters.

The agency is looking for economy-of-scale solutions that factor in the transportation restrictions.

More Help For Offshore Wind Energy

The President’s most recent dunk on wind energy was far from a one-off. He swept into office with a well-known antipathy for wind turbines under his belt, possibly having to do with a new offshore wind farm within view of one of his golf courses in Scotland.

Nevertheless, the US wind industry is still going strong during his tenure, with his own Energy Secretary, former Texas Governor Rick Perry, functioning as cheerleader-in-chief.

The funding announcement makes clear the potential for offshore wind to replace fossil fuels all along coastal areas of the US:

With almost 80% of United States electricity demand located in coastal states, and the offshore wind energy technical resource potential equal to about 2,000 GW, offshore wind has the potential to contribute significantly to a clean, affordable, and secure national energy mix.

Sweet. Somewhat ironically, the US offshore sector began stirring into life after Trump took office.

The new round of funding includes two focus areas for a total of up to $17 million. The aim is to upgrade the nation’s existing test facilities and come up with some innovative ways to cut costs — and do it quickly.

To qualify for funding, the solutions need to benefit offshore wind energy projects that will be operational before the end of 2025.

Many of these are already in the pipeline. According to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the combined capacity for announced projects on the Atlantic coast stands at more than 25 gigawatts.

Hold on to your hats!

Follow me on Twitter.

*Developing story.

Photo: US Department of Energy.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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