Past estimates have been notoriously unreliable, leading to many disappointments

March 15, 2014 by  
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Past estimates have been notoriously unreliable, leading to many disappointments

When it comes to building a wind farm, it’s not rocket science — you want to build it on the place with strongest, most commonly occurring gusts.  Finding that perfect location is where the rocket science comes in.
I. The Answer is Blowing in the Wind
The old knock on alternative energy is “the sun isn’t always shining and the wind isn’t always blowing.”  But if wind farms could only deliver on their expectations, they could provide a vital supporting role that slowly expands as grid storage grows.  But according to Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT) wind farms recently installed in the U.S. have been missing their promised average capacities by seven to nine percent — a catastrophic shortfall from a cost perspective.
The company — best known for its work for the U.S. Air Force building jet fighters and other high tech weapons of war — is interesting in diversifying into the commercial sector and has issued press releases describing WindProspector.


The new system uses WindTracer, a lidar wind prospecting system.  Lidar is indeed, quite literally “rocket science”.  It was invented by the U.S. government in the 1960s and was used heavily in the Apollo Moon exploration program.  The technology is a line of sight technology that shines a laser beam on an object you’re analyzing and then collecting data on the observed illumination.
WindTracer already has a proven track record in the commercial sector, serving as a weather monitoring solution at many top airports worldwide, including the international airports of Hong Kong, Tokyo, Osaka, London, New York, San Francisco, and Las Vegas.
The Lidar solution is able to detect the breeze via substantial improvements in speed and sensitivity versus its predecessors.  It is capable of generating roughly 750 infrared pulses (1710 nm) in the millijoule range per second.  It has a maximum range of about 400 meters — roughly a quarter of a mile — and a minimum range of 100 meters.
How does the Lidar sensor literally see “thin air” moving about?  The answer is that the air isn’t as breezy and barren as one might think.  Lockheed describes the technology in a brochure, writing:

Lidar infographic

That precision has become a vital technology for detecting and warning pilots of shear winds: strong, sudden winds that often whip up in airport flats.  Lidar has also been heavily used in self-driving cars research as is being explored to detect the presence of explosives at security checkpoints.
Now Lockheed Martin thinks its super-precise wind meter can be used to find the best spots in the country to build wind farms.
II. Fierce Competition
Traditionally wind farm developers used anemometers — but these tools can produce very flawed measurements.  After toying with experimental first generation mast-style lidar technologies Lockheed Martin and others are now developing more advanced, reliable, and cost-effective second generation lidar solutions.
Dr. Michael Margulis is directing the WindTracer program at Lockheed Martin.  He remarks:

The tech company’s idea to use lidar for wind surveying isn’t unique.  A number of smaller startups — such as Lidar Wind Technologies LLC (maker of the “WindCube”) and Catch the Wind Inc. (maker of the “Vindicator” sensor); foreign firms such as SgurrEnergy (maker of Galion Lidar); and also a number of academic institutions — including the University of Maryland — are all looking to establish themselves as top wind prospectors.

Lidar wind cubeVindicator
Germany Galion

The Ocean University of China perhaps had the most novel application of oceanic lidar, using it to monitor winds and safeguard sailors at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

And yet while competition is fierce, Lockheed Martin remains one of the most experienced entities at using lidar for a variety of applications, having been involved with the technology since its earliest days.  Lockheed Martin says the tool will be used to provide:

Skywalker program UMD
A survey by the Skywalker Program at the Univ. of Maryland. [Image Source: UMD]

This data can be used to determine what’s the ideal maximum high to build turbines to tap into the most high-energy, faster move currents.  This helps farmers develop plans to deploy installations composed of a scarcer number of larger, higher power turbines.  And that in turn means less of an offshore eyesore, and less “not in my backyard” (nimby) style protesters.
The company already has an enthusiastic early adopter in the form of Fishermen’s Energy LLC.  The company looked to build an off-shore Atlantic wind farm on the breezy coast of Margate, New Jersey.  In addition to having to deal with the usual — concerned landowners, environmentalists, etc. — the coastal wind project had a far worse problem.  It was struggling to convince financiers that it was worth investing in.  Potential investors had grown wary after getting involved with past wind projects.
III. Offshore Wind Excitement in the East
So Fishermen’s Energy brought in the WindTracer Lidar, mounting it to the top of a seaside building.  By measuring the bay and the vertical shear winds whipping up, the startup was able to convince big money backers that it’s an effort worth investing in.  Now it may actually get built.
The project — which looks to build 25 Megawatts worth of turbines roughly 2.8 miles off the coast of Atlantic City, New Jersey — is racing to become the nation’s first offshore wind farm.  It is in a friendly competition with an even bigger project in the Massachusetts Nantucket sound, which is backed by $2B USD in venture capital from the Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, Inc.’s (TYO:8306) Bank of Tokyo, which aims to install 468 megawatts of capacity 6 miles offshore.

Lockheed Martin and Fishermen's Energy
Lockheed Martin and Fisherman’s energy install the wind sensor atop a high rise on the coast.
[Image Source: Fishermen's Energy LLC]

Thanks to the successful test, Fishermen’s Energy scored a full permit in June 2012 to move forward with the offshore development.

Offshore windfarm permit

They also inspired New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to sign the Offshore Wind Economic Development Act (OWEDA).  At a signing event the governor bragged:

The Offshore Wind Economic Development Act will provide New Jersey with an opportunity to leverage our vast resources and innovative technologies to allow businesses to engage in new and emerging sectors of the energy industry.

Developing New Jersey’s renewable energy resources and industry is critical to our state’s manufacturing and technology future.  My Administration will maintain a strong commitment to utilizing energy as industry in our efforts to make our State a home for growth, as well as a national leader in the windpower movement.

Governor Christie
Gov. Chris Christie [Image Source: Fishermen's Energy LLC]

The OWEDA authorizes the state to fund development of up to 1.1 gigawatts of installed offshore wind capacity, which will be blended in as a percentage of consumer electricity.
IV. International Success Puts Pressure on U.S. Wind
Leveraging wind power is a crucial objective for the U.S. alternative energy industry.  Currently the U.S. is not only struggling with wind farm efficiency, but also with low levels of commercial interest.
Currently, China is an emerging power in coastal wind power generation with 3 offshore wind farms.  That number is expected to expand in coming years thanks to the Asian nation’s deep financial commitment to alternative energy.
The world’s remaining 22 wind farms are all located in Europe, providing 3,600 megawatts of power from 1,600 offshore turbines.  Most of those installations are in the coastal waters surrounding EU member state England.  But in the U.S. the feedback loop of disappointment and disinvestment has made offshore wind appear to be a pipe dream.

China wind
A crane installs an offshore turbine in China. [Image Source:]

Lockheed Martin, Fishermen’s Energy, and their partners believe otherwise.  They believe you just have to get a little smarter about scouting your wind farm location.  Rutgers Univ. alternative energy Professor Richard Dunk is very excited about the new opportunities lidar prospecting brings. 

While using turbines with built-in lidar operational tuning has been shown to substantially lower costs, prospecting is the first lidar alternative energy technology to approach market readiness.

Professor Dunk comments:

And that kind of evidence planning may help fearul inventors see what Bob Dylan sang on many a stereo over the years — “the answer my friends, is blowing in the wind, the answer is blowing in the wind.”

Sources: Lockheed Martin, Fishermen’s Energy

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