Learning Renewable Energy

An Evening with the Technical Director of the Great Lakes Energy Institute

Last evening I attended a talk from Dr. Larry Viterna, director of the Great Lakes Energy Institute (GLEI), titled “Wind Energy Technology and Its Adoption by Industry and the Public”. It was hosted by the Cleveland IEEE, the Case Student chapter of IEEE and the EECS department of Case and it was spectacular.

Let me tell you, even though I was excited from the energy in the room at Sustainable Cleveland 2019 summit last week, this event really topped it. Perhaps it was just my perception. I was trying to explain why this was a big deal to me to my girlfriend later in the evening and this is what I came up with:

Even though the Sustainable Cleveland 2019 summit was full of people with energy and great ideas, this was different. This was a group of people all in the same room that spoke the technical language, that knew or were involved in the research behind some of the technologies being discussed…and were still super excited about sitting there. It gave me hope when I had been previously disappointed that there weren’t more engineers at the summit.

Not only that, it was one of those events where the content was things you’ve never heard before because the person telling them to you discovered them. As an example, Dr. Viterna told us of an empirical method he devised while at NASA back in the late 70s/early 80s that empirically defined when a wind turbine would stall out. Prior to that point, estimations had all been based on a 2D model of the turbine blades; past a certain amount of power you cannot accurately predict when a fixed-blade turbine will stall. He presented at a conference but nothing came of it (his words were that he was laughed off stage, though I hardly believe that). It was only years later that he discovered his method was being used regularly in the explanation of how and when wind turbines would stall out; that data can then be used to control the power output of the turbine, especially useful in high wind situation (so it doesn’t bust into a million pieces). Where else would I find that kind of personal content in a talk?

While I could go on from my notes about the detailed talk that Dr. Viterna gave, I will instead bullet point some of my favorite facts and notes:

  1. Denmark decided in the early 80s to move towards a completely renewable energy situation (even after oil prices dropped) because they were importing up to 60% of their oil at the time and were particularly hard hit by the oil crisis of the late 70s. (Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?)
  2. The US just passed all other countries in terms of wind energy capacity. We also have a growth rate per year in wind energy capacity of 45% compared to a global average 25%.
  3. A wind turbine is equally effective with two blades or three as long as the same amount of area is swept by the blades; convention is currently 3 blades as pioneered by companies in Denmark.
  4. Power generated by a turbine is proportional to the area covered by the blades and also proportional to the cube of the velocity of the wind. So big blades are good, but big gusts of wind are better.
  5. The limiting factor of wind turbines currently is the drive train assembly and the stresses that are placed on it. The fluid dynamics (of the wind) around a turbine system and the extreme stresses it places on the turbine are beginning to limit the overall power that can be converted by a turbine without catastrophic failure (see video above).
  6. The first mulit-megawatt turbine was first pioneered in the late 70s into the early 80s by NASA. No turbine had been able to match the power output up until a few years ago.
  7. While wind energy could never compete on a cost basis with dirty coal (even with subsidies), the relative costs are close to the costs of new, regulated, “clean coal” plants (which don’t yet exist).

I was very lucky to be in that room with 50 or so other engineers last night to hear Dr. Viterna speak. I also had the opportunity to personally pitch the idea to him about the Laboratories for Advanced Energy Commercialization (LAEC or “Lake”); he indicated that something would need to be in place, though he didn’t mention whether LAEC would specifically be viable. He also mentioned that GLEI is still quite young and that there is a lot of development that needs to be done on the research side of things to really get money flowing through the region and bring in more research companies.

Cleveland, Case and the whole community is lucky to have Dr. Viterna heading up the GLEI. I belive his leadership and his passion for energy will really help drive development in the energy arena and help boost Cleveland to the forefront of the advanced energy research scene. Please leave any thoughts you might have in the comments, including other facts about wind energy or local research I may have missed.