PSU taking wind power for a whirl
Testing - A Portland inventor's vertical-axis generators will be placed on four buildings
Thursday, April 26, 2007
In one vision of the future, the roof of your office building will be a colorful garden of toplike electrical generators whirling in the wind.
The silent, cheap "urban turbines" will feed the building a steady drip of current, cutting the amount of electricity the building draws from a utility company. And at night, when everybody goes home and the building's dark, the generators will still turn, sending power back to the utility's distribution lines.
The beginnings of such a rooftop wind farm will take root in Portland next week when four 40-inch-tall fiberglass turbines will be planted on buildings at Portland State University.
The bright green turbines, designed by Portland inventor Toby Kinkaid, will be evaluated with the help of PSU faculty and students in what is believed to be the first field test of its kind by a university on the West Coast.
Portland is likely the only city on the West Coast where the urban rooftop turbines are being looked at, says Ron Stimmel, small-wind advocate with the American Wind Energy Association.
The project is intended to find out whether wind -- which blows freely around downtown buildings -- could be harnessed and eventually help to supplement or replace increasingly expensive power generated by gas- and coal-burning plants.
The prototypes designed by Kinkaid, co-founder of Oregon Wind Corp., are radically different from the familiar generators that capture wind with airplane-style propellers. The Helyx uses two precisely twisted "wings" of fiberglass rotating around a vertical axis like a child's top.
Vertical axis generators come in a variety of shapes and sizes since their development in the early 20th century. Kinkaid says his is especially designed to take advantage of low wind speeds.
He and other believers in the vertical axis generators say the devices are better suited than the propeller versions for urban areas. They're quieter, vibrate less and can capture the fluky city wind coming from any direction, he says.
Eventually, he says, thousands of urban wind turbines might be linked together to form a "virtual power plant," providing a substantial amount of energy to the utility grid.
These first devices will power 40-watt generators and send out data over a wireless computer network telling researchers how efficient the devices are and whether they have a place in PSU's active sustainable energy program.
Students and faculty members will measure the output of the generators at various places on the roofs, finding just the perfect windy spots for them.
Dresden Skees-Gregory, coordinator of PSU's sustainability program, hopes the turbines eventually could shave a few dollars off of the school's $3.6 million annual electric bill.
"I believe we're the first ones in the West to be doing field research on these micro-turbines," she said.
Skees-Gregory said one turbine each will be placed on the roofs of the Fourth Avenue Building, the terrace of the Urban Plaza Distance Learning Center and the Ondine and Broadway House residence halls.
She said the only turbine visible from street level will be on the Urban Plaza terrace.
Kinkaid estimates the devices can be mass produced for $1.50 per watt, meaning a 40-watt machine would cost $60, excluding installation. He said the prototypes cost about $200 each because they're made one at a time, by hand.
One crucial factor in the success of wind power is the length of time it would take a generator to pay for itself.
That's devilishly hard to calculate, says Stimmel of the wind power association. It all depends on how often the wind blows and how much utilities charge for their power.
Portland General Electric, for example, charges 8.1 cents per kilowatt hour. If the 40-watt generator was spinning to capacity all of the time it would take about two years to generate $60 worth of electricity. The less wind, the longer the payback time.
Stimmel said that's optimistic, saying the small-wind industry payback times run anywhere between six and 30 years.
While PSU is exploring the wind possibility of its rooftops, Tri-Met officials are considering using the Helyx turbines to dress up the south end of the new downtown transit mall.
Bob Hastings, project architect, said he'd like to place nine of the devices on 20-foot poles that will support transit power lines. The turbines would generate as many as 360 watts -- a drop in the bucket for TriMet -- but they'd look pretty and would send the message that TriMet cares about energy conservation, he said.
"Marginal" for wind power
While big propeller wind turbines dot the hills along the windy Columbia Gorge, there are questions about whether there's enough wind in downtown Portland to make the smaller turbines effective. A "wind resource map" published by the U.S. Department of Energy shows that Portland -- and most of the Willamette Valley -- is "marginal" for wind power production.
Other micro-turbines are in use in other parts of the country.
In the "Windy City," Chicago architectural firm Aerotecture International Inc. aims to incorporate vertical axis turbines into the design of buildings.
Robbie Harris, a spokesperson for Aerotecture, said the company has installed generators at half a dozen sites -- most of them in experimental settings.
The company, formed in 2001, is completing negotiations with Chicago city officials to place turbines on the top of the 650-foot-tall Daley Center, in a 16-month feasibility test.
Other turbines were built into the roof of a Chicago housing project for homeless people which opened in early March. Barry Mullen, a vice president of Mercy Housing Lakefront, which owns the building, said he expects the devices to generate almost $4,000 worth of electricity a year. But so far, he said, the units are too new to provide a solid track record.
Most of Aerotecture's turbines are 10 feet long by 5 feet wide. Under ideal conditions, with a 30-mph wind, Harris said, each device can generate 1,000 watts, enough to light up 10 100-watt light bulbs.
The turbines cost about $20,000 each, including site analysis costs and installation. But those costs are expected to drop to one-tenth of that when mass production begins, she said.
"Right now when we make a turbine we're making it in a one-off kind of way," she said. "Once we start mass production the costs will come down. They're simpler to build than a bicycle."
So far, she said, there has not been a big demand for small wind turbines on commercial and industrial buildings. In most places, the cost of electricity hasn't risen high enough to financially justify the cost of installing turbines, she said.
Stimmel, of the American Wind Energy Association, says small vertical axis turbines have been a source of controversy.
"A lot of people soured on the vertical axis because the efficiency data isn't always reliable," he said. "A lot of the claims aren't supported by testing."
To answer the efficiency questions, the association is developing a certification body for small wind generators. The U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., would test the devices.
Stimmel said the best data available shows that more than 43,800 small wind turbines -- all but about 1 percent of them propeller-driven -- have been installed in the U.S. during the past 15 years. He expects that number to grow rapidly -- particularly if power prices rise dramatically. That would encourage more people to buy the turbines, triggering the efficiencies of mass production and lowering the cost of the devices.
Stimmel doesn't expect hordes of buyers until electric prices take a substantial jump, however.
While interest in small wind generators is growing, they're likely to be overshadowed by advances in solar power, says Mark Kendall, senior policy analyst for renewable resources with the Oregon Department of Energy.
Big technological advances are expected to bring sizeable improvements in efficiency and cost to solar arrays, he says. Wind power, on the other hand, is a well-developed technology.
"We don't see those kinds of improvements in bearings and aerodynamics and lightweight materials," he said. But electricity prices are on the rise, he said, making any alternative energy source more attractive.
Stimmel says that even if the economics of the small turbines don't attract buyers, the idea of energy conservation will.
"More and more people are becoming environmentally conscious," he said. "They want independence from the grid and from volatile energy prices. It's a highly visible way to show your neighbors that it can be done and this is what's happening."
Patrick O'Neill; 503-221-8233; firstname.lastname@example.org