Teaching Wind Turbines Altruism to Rev-up Wind Farms

“Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” So declares Spock, Star Trek’s Vulcan hero, as he sacrifices himself to save the Starship Enterprise and its crew in the 1982 film Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. Today Stanford University researchers presented the clearest proof to date that self-sacrifice can also benefit wind farms. In their demonstration at an Alberta wind farm, one turbine sacrifices a fifth of its generating potential to enable better performance by neighboring turbines, boosting the group’s collective output.

And while Spock’s heroics necessitated a major plot twist to revive his character for the next Star Trek sequel, teaching turbines to behave altruistically requires just a small (but intelligent) tweak to their control systems. What they learn is how to share the wind. Continue reading “Teaching Wind Turbines Altruism to Rev-up Wind Farms”

Broken Bats: Wind Power and the Damage Done

Last year, IEEE Spectrum profiled an ultrasonic alert for wind farm operators designed to let them know when bats are nearing their turbines. The potentially bat-saving technology can’t be ready soon enough according to this week’s issue of the journal Bioscience. University of Colorado ecologist Mark Hayes estimates that at least 600 000 and possibly more than 900 000 bats were killed by wind turbines last year in the U.S.

Hayes’ report is a statistical reassessment of data on bat carcasses found at wind turbine sites. His figure lends credence to a March 2013 mortality estimate of 880 000 deaths per year by Sacramento-based ornithologist and consultant Shawn Smallwood. That figure was well beyond previous estimates, which had ranged as low as 33 000. “My estimates, using different methods and data, bracket Smallwood’s 888 000 estimate,” writes Hayes in an e-mail to Spectrum. Continue reading “Broken Bats: Wind Power and the Damage Done”

A Mighty Extreme Wind for Offshore Turbines

In January we reported that winds across the Northern continents were losing some of their punch, and that climate change threatened to weaken them further — altogether bad news for wind power. In stark contrast, Australian researchers report today in the journal Science that gusts are accelerating over Earth’s oceans.

Unfortunately the trend offers offshore wind power a mixed bag: stronger but also more dangerous winds. “Mean wind conditions over the oceans have only marginally increased over the last 20 years. It is the extreme conditions where there has been a larger increase,” says Ian Young, vice chancellor at the Australian National University in Canberra and principal author of today’s report. Continue reading “A Mighty Extreme Wind for Offshore Turbines”

Wind and the Whale

Humpback whales are surprisingly agile, executing tight banking turns in spite of their 40-ton hulk. How? One factor may be ten or so fibrous ‘tubercles’ protruding from the leading edge of their pectoral flippers. These protruding, oversized knuckles (a humpback’s flippers are analogous to your arms, but most of the length is finger) alter the airflow over the flipper. The result is an airfoil that is largely immune to the sudden loss of lift or ‘stall’ can trip up fighter pilots when they try to carve into turns too aggressively.

What does all that have to do with our energy future? Toronto-based airfoil designer WhalePower Corp. thinks that the serrated profile of the humpback fin could hold the key to smoother-running pumps, fans and wind turbines. Find all that a bit much? Would you believe the scientist behind this novel airfoil design is Frank Fish?

Read more about the promise of this technology in the current issue of Discover Magazine (see “Wind Turbine That Imitates Flippers Could Increase Efficiency”).

A note of caution: Convincing risk-averse wind turbine builders and buyers to try something new will require some, “pretty hard test data,” according to Bob Thresher, director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Wind Technology Center. In other words WhalePower has plenty more work ahead than the hopeful tagline on its website – “A Million Years Of Field Tests” – would suggest.

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