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The Edge of Wind


Freeing the Wind

October 13th 2008

Energy / Environment - Wind Farm

 If you've done any reading at all on renewable energy, you'll have heard the marvelous phrase "The U.S. is the Saudi Arabia of wind." Like the Saudi Arabian oil, lying almost entirely under their country's Empty Quarter, the wind resources of the United States are found in our Empty Quarter—the plains from north Texas up through the Dakotas.

When natural gas exists in small pools or in oil field caps with too little volume to be economically exploited it is referred to as stranded gas. When wind resources exist in areas without the transmission lines required to send their power somewhere else and without local consumers to use them they are said to be stranded as well.

The Stranded Wind Initiative, founded in Iowa's wind patch during the last days of 2007, has set out to do something about this.

The winds of the American plains blow steady and strong, peaking in the winter and bottoming in the summer, sadly just as air conditioning demands peak. Steady is a relative thing, with sites that produce a third of the time or more being deemed developable, and those producing forty percent of the time considered excellent. This variability is the curse of the wind industry. In consequence, coal, nuclear, and hydro must provide the 'baseload,' or constant generation, which is needed to support consumers' usage patterns.

There are two cures for the variability of wind. The first and most common practice has been to stitch wind farms into the electric grid over very broad areas, smoothing their overall output. This approach is right and good as it will lead to fewer coal plants being built over the long haul, but it takes time to build transmission lines. The high paying construction and maintenance jobs are welcome in wind farm country, too, but the economic effect would be so much more if there were only a way to use the power generated locally.

The Stranded Wind Initiative has been hot on the trail of local use methods since its inception and promoting wind-driven electrochemistry is their forte. Wind country is also corn and wheat country, where ammonia use for fertilizer consumes sixty tons per square mile. Modern ammonia production uses natural gas as a source of hydrogen, but the process has its roots in electrolysis (the use of electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen). Norsk Hydro ran a plant using just this technology from the 1950s until cheap gas from the North Sea killed it in 1991. Natural gas supplies are dwindling and fragmenting, which will lead to a renaissance in electric based production methods.

The key to exploiting stranded wind is finding both processes and situations that are amenable to the variable nature of the power available. The volunteer staff of the organization have applied for patents related to the opportunistic synthesis of both methanol and ammonia. Methanol is a vital input for biodiesel, making up roughly 10% of the total volume of this type of fuel, while ammonia can serve as a carbon free fuel as well as a fertilizer.

Not every location in the United States has a stranded renewable but those that do should see economic growth as some of the raw materials needed for agriculture and manufacturing are created using the available power.

Neil Rauhauser is an analyst and consultant on energy and telecommunications. He is a member of Stranded Wind, which is devopted to stranded energy and other energy enterprises. He can be found at www.strandedwind.org

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