Wednesday, August 17, 2005

An interesting twist on wind energy

The typical wind turbine is a propeller sitting atop a tall pole. It makes a fair amount of noise, apparently from vibrations that also require frequent maintanence of the turbine. It's difficult to get this kind of wind turbine installed in urban settings because of the noise. Yet, wind energy is inexpensive and becoming cost competitive with the major power systems.

Urban Wind Visionary University of Illinois professor says the answer to cities’ energy needs are blowin’ in the wind (Conscious Choice, August 2005)

Bil Becker, a University of Illinois professor, has invented a radically different sort of wind turbine. One that's ultra simple, ultra reliable, small enough to be installed anywhere, flexible in orientation, dead quiet, able to operate over a wide range of wind speeds, and rather safe for wildlife. Sounds great!

His company is Aerotecture, Ltd., and the turbine is this spinning sculpture (it's so beautiful and graceful, "sculpture" is the only word I have for it) inside a cylindrical cage. It can easily run in wind blowing from any angle. It is meant especially to capture the gusting winds that occur around tall buildings in urban settings.

Part of the story is distributed generation of electricity. This idea is being fought by the major power companies because, well, obviously it would render them somewhat obsolete. But it makes a lot of sense.

With distributed generation you create the electricity near where it is going to be used. For example a factory with a large rooftop could have these turbines or solar panels on the roof.

Among the advantages is that you avoid the power loss that comes when you transmit electricity long distances over wires. This loss is unnavoidable due to resistance in the wires, unless you come up with some kind of high temperature superconductor. The transmission power loss can be pretty dramatic, and if you stop to think about it, rather consternating. See, most ways of generating electricity involve some kind of environmental degradation like poisinous exhaust from burning fossil fuels, toxic waste from nuclear plants, or dammed up river valleys. To think that a large portion of that environmental degradation is attributable to transmission loss is, well, making me angry. You can avoid all that with local generation.

This turbine seems especially suited to local generation.