What's in store for wind? Tyler Hamilton - August 25, 2008

Wind energy has its problems. It only comes when the wind blows. This reality this Achilles' heel - makes wind a nuisance in the eyes of power-system

operators, who have the challenge of trying to balance electricity supply and demand on the grid.

This means we need to adapt the grid so it becomes easier to predict and manage such an intermittent, yet crucial resource. Too many jurisdictions including Ontario - try to shoehorn wind and other renewable technologies into a 100-year-old electricity system designed for big central power plants. For this reason, wind bears a burden it inherited, and takes blame for inflexibility it didn't create.

The question that should be asked is: what kind of innovations can take place on the grid and around renewables like wind before a new nuclear plant in the province can be built and switched on? And how could the $6 billion - minimum the government plans to spend on a new nuke plant be used to accelerate and adopt such innovations over this expected 10-year period?

It's an intellectual exercise we shouldn't ignore, and it's one that environmental groups will ask the Ontario Energy Board to take on as it begins

weighing next month the economic pros and cons of the Ontario Power Authority's 20-year power system plan.

Storage is often highlighted as the one wild card that could level the playing field for wind. Will a better, cheaper lithium-ion battery come along? Will

high-voltage ultracapacitor storage be the killer breakthrough? Are there any unexplored opportunities for hydroelectric pump storage?

Perhaps something we haven't considered will come about from an unexpected corner of the world - like Canada's oil patch. Seriously, an Alberta-based

project that recently snagged funding from Sustainable Development Technology Canada "aims to demonstrate a cost-effective 1 megawatt hydraulic wind turbine with 2 megawatts of energy storage capacity."

The Edmonton-area company behind the initiative, Lancaster Wind Systems, says it has come up with a wind-turbine design that draws more power from wind than conventional turbines using "robust equipment from the oil field drilling industry," according to the project description.

The system, it continues, "locally stores wind energy using a hydraulic accumulator in conventional high-pressure pipeline storage banks, enabling its

use as on-demand peak power." An added bonus: the storage portion can also be retrofitted to existing turbines or wind farms.

Lancaster is keeping quiet on its technology, at least until all patents have been filed, but company president Daniel Kenway says the goal is to take proven knowledge and manufacturing capabilities in the Alberta oil patch and apply it to the construction of a new type of turbine. The University of Alberta and Wind Energy Institute of Canada are partners in the project.

Wind turbines developed over the decades in Europe are great feats of engineering, he says, but by being "beautifully precise" they're also delicate

machines. When the wind gets too fast or rough they're forced to dump some of that energy as a kind of self-protection mechanism. It's a waste of good energy, says Kenway.

Lancaster's plan is to build a more rugged turbine - a Chevy truck versus Europe's BMWs - using locally made gearboxes, wind towers, drive shafts and

other industrial parts not uncommon to the oil patch. And unlike European turbines, which have all the precision components high up in the turbine's

nacelle, Lancaster would put that complexity on the ground beside the turbine base.

Philosophically it's an entirely new approach to turbine design, but the advantage is that it's easier to service and maintain complex machinery when

it's on the ground and easy to access.

So where does the energy storage angle come in? Kenway remains incredibly secretive on that front, saying only that hydraulic pressurization plays a role.

Oil-industry engineers are experts at using hydraulics creatively. Almost every large turning element in the oil field is hydraulically controlled.

He says the SDTC project will demonstrate two megawatt-hours of storage - that is, if the turbine stops spinning a megawatt of electricity can still be

dispatched for two hours. But that can be scaled up by "orders of magnitude" to the point where dozens of turbines on a wind farm can be economically paired with a large-scale storage system, Kenway says.

He figures the company's turbine-storage combo could eventually produce electricity with reliability similar to a fossil-fuel plant, either by storing

wind energy when it's not needed and dispatching it when it is, or simply smoothing the output from a wind farm by using the storage as a buffer.

"I'm not speaking idly. If there's enough storage so that when the wind is not blowing you can supply for days or weeks, then the necessity of using a

carbon-producing means of electricity will disappear." It is conceivable, he continues, that with the current rate of investment in wind power, "we could be completely renewable by 2050."

Let's remember: this is coming from a company whose founders and investors have their roots in the oil industry. Co-founder David McDonnell used to be a manager on an offshore oil rig. He's no tree hugger.

Lancaster has a lot to prove and like any risky new venture it has a greater chance of failure than success. But the company is just one example of the

creative thinking that's rushing to solve the problems of a relatively young renewable-energy industry, which by the way has oodles of room to mature.

To paraphrase a now-famous line from Wayne Gretzky, Ontario needs to go where the puck will be, not necessarily where it is. So before the energy board signs off on a 20-year plan heavily weighted with nuclear and natural gas generation, it should at least get a sense of where the puck is heading.

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