The US House Science and Technology Committee passed the Wind Energy Research and Development Act of 2009 (H.R. 3165) earlier this year. The bill lays out a research program which would be funded at a level of US$200 million annually between fiscal years 2010 (starting 1 October 2009) and 2014.

The current Department of Energy (DOE) budget for wind energy is about US$50 million a year augmented by a one-time addition of US$118 million in fiscal 2009 via the stimulus bill Congress passed last winter, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. A House appropriations committee had increased that US$50 million for 2010 to US$70 million, but it is not clear whether that US$20 million add-on will carry through the full House and the Senate.

The need for a permanent DOE budget in the range of US$200 million annually rests on a couple of recent reports. First, the DOE wrote a report in May 2008 entitled 20% Wind Energy by 2030 which concluded that current US land-based and offshore wind resources are sufficient to supply the electrical energy needs of the entire country several times.

However to expand from today’s proportion of electric generation from wind (less than 2 percent) to a scenario where the US generates 20 percent or more of its power from wind energy would require several significant advances including:

  • improved wind turbine technology;
  • improved wind forecasting capability;
  • improved energy storage;
  • expansion of transmission systems to deliver wind power from resource centers to centers of population.

In turn, these changes in the power generation and delivery process may involve changes in manufacturing, policy development, and environmental regulation. A plan to surmount some of these technical challenges was produced in March 2009 by an American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) Research and Development Committee report called Action Plan to 20% Wind Energy by 2030.

H.R. 3165 would put that plan in motion, both by specifying particular areas of research and authorising a solid US$200 million a year. It must be emphasised, however, that, as is true for any authorisation for any new federal program, if the authorisation bill passes Congress, there would have to be a second congressional step: a congressional appropriation. And that is no slam dunk in this instance given the huge federal deficits from various Obama administration spending programs such as the stimulus bill.

Technological shortcomings have limited the capabilities of deployed wind systems and led to early failures of some of them. Steve Lockard, ceo of TPI Composites, a manufacturer of rotor blades for leading wind turbine makers including GE Energy and Mitsubishi Power Systems, told the Senate energy and environment subcommittee on July 14, “Last year, at a time when most U.S. industries were shedding jobs, the wind industry added 35,000 jobs and deployed over 8,500 MW (enough to serve the equivalent of more than 2.5 million homes nationwide). This record growth amounted to more than 40 percent of the country’s new electricity generating capacity.” But he quickly added, “Our job is far from complete. Wind power is still constrained by difficulties in market acceptance and needed improvements in cost, performance, and reliability.”

John Saintcross, program manager, energy and environmental markets, New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, expanded on some of the problems Lockard alluded to. Saintcross described New York’s successes with wind energy but admitted “progress toward renewable energy goals has been deferred as well.” He added, “If it were not for under-performance by one large wind farm, New York would be at 32 percent of its RPS targets rather than at 30 percent.”

There are numerous reasons for that under-performance. Saintcross gave one example: the replacement of gear boxes for one make of turbines in New York after less than two years of operation. “European experience shows that the mean time to failure for key turbine components such as gear boxes, main bearings, generators and rotor blades can be less than 10 years for a technology that was designed to have a life of 20 years,” he explained.

Research programs authorised under H.R. 3165 include those devoted to the following areas:

  • New materials and designs to make larger, lighter, less expensive, and more reliable rotor blades;
  • Technologies to improve gearbox performance and reliability;
  • Automation, materials, and assembly of large-scale components to reduce manufacturing costs;
  • Low-cost transportable towers greater than 100 meters in height to capitalise on improved wind conditions at higher elevations;
  • Advanced computational modeling tools to improve the reliability of aeroelastic simulations of wind energy systems; and understanding of the interaction between each wind turbine component;
  • Advanced control systems and blade sensors to improve performance and reliability under a wide variety of wind conditions;
  • Advanced generators, including medium-speed and low-speed generators; direct-drive technology; and the use of advanced magnets in generator rotors;
  • Wind technology for offshore applications;
  • Methods to assess and mitigate the effects of wind energy systems on radar and electromagnetic fields;
  • wind turbines with a maximum electric power production capacity of 100 kilowatts or less.