Innovative start-ups catching the wind

Emission-free wind power has come a long way since the technology first emerged in old Europe as a way to pump water and mill grain.


How can we get more energy out of the wind and at the same time make it a more reliable source of electricity for the grid?

There are many innovators determined to answer that question, and they are an important reminder of how much room there is to improve upon a technology that first emerged in old Europe as a way to pump water and mill grain.

One example is a new laser-based wind sensor developed by Catch The Wind Inc., a start-up based in Virginia but traded on the TSX Venture Exchange. It can measure the speed and direction of wind about 20 seconds before it hits a wind turbine, allowing the machine to angle its blades and position itself to avoid the punishing forces that come from gusts and wind shear.

The wind industry already uses something called a Light Detecting and Ranging system, or Lidar device, which shoots a laser beam into the sky in the shape of a cone and can measure the speed and direction of the wind as dust-like particles cross its beam. But these are bulky and complex systems that sit on the ground and are used mostly to gather historical wind data at a site before a wind farm is developed.

Catch The Wind has adapted Lidar technology so it's light, small and rugged enough to be built directly into a wind turbine and its control system. The device projects its beams up to 1,000 metres in front of a turbine's blades and provides the seconds of advance warning the turbine needs to change its orientation. The company claims this can improve turbine power output by 10 per cent, lower maintenance costs and extend the operating life of wind farms.

In Vancouver, a company called ExRo Technologies Inc. says it has come up with a dramatically new generator design for converting wind energy into electricity. Most wind turbines today contain a gearbox that adjusts to changing wind speeds so that the generator shaft turns at a steady speed. The gearbox essentially smoothes out the variability of the wind and keeps the generator running as efficiently and stable as possible.

But the gearbox also adds enormous cost to a turbine. ExRo has come up with a generator that doesn't depend on a gearbox's mechanical transmission. Instead, the generator is built with its own internal electronic transmission.

To understand how this is different, we need a refresher on how a typical generator works. Basically, magnets attached to a shaft are encircled by copper coils, which are connected together. When the shaft turns electric current is created as the magnets pass by the coils. More current results when the shaft spins faster; less when it spins slower. Failure to smooth out this speed can cause a lot of instability and this is where a gearbox is needed.

ExRo takes an entirely different approach. The coils in its generator, instead of being connected together, are kept separate and can be turned on and off electronically and pretty much instantly. When a light wind hits some of the coils can be switch off, and more coils can be turned on for faster winds. Essentially, the guts of the generator adapt to the wind and hence shaft speed rather than forcing the shaft speed to adapt to the needs of the generator.

ExRo says this approach allows turbines to tap winds at much lower and higher speeds, and over a year can lead to a 50 per cent or more increase in power generation. And one could easily see Catch The Wind's device integrated with the electronic switches in ExRo's generator to improve efficiencies even more.

There are other innovations bubbling up. This column has already profiled Toronto-based WhalePower Corp., which has a new design for wind-turbine blades that mimic the aquatic efficiency of a humpback whale's flipper. The company says the blades, which are distinguished by the humpback-inspired bumps on their edge, can capture more energy out of the wind while lowering the wear and tear on turbine components.

On a final note, the potential of energy storage is always a hot topic. There is tremendous work going on in universities, government labs and in the private sector to develop a form of energy storage that's economical and can be scaled up to hundreds of megawatts.

A stealthy battery developer in Massachusetts called Premium Power claims it has developed a new type of flow battery based on a zinc-bromide chemistry that is fully recyclable, has three times the energy density of lead-acid batteries, and can operate about 30 years with little degradation.

It runs on zinc and salt water, making it non-toxic and safe to handle. The company is beefing up its system so it can be used to store power generated from utility-scale wind and other renewable energy systems. Two major utilities one in Canada, the other in the United States have ordered $200 million (U.S.) worth of these batteries, according to one source.

This kind of storage, together with the other advancements highlighted above, bode well for the future of wind power.

It's a reminder that green-energy technologies on the market aren't frozen in time and that shortcomings we may identify today shouldn't preclude these technologies from our long-term plans.

Indeed, a determination to overcome these shortcomings should be a clear part of the plan.



HALIFAX Independent wind producers are facing big hikes in debt costs, raising doubt on whether ambitious construction goals will be met over the next few years, say financing experts.

Chris Gifford, a vice-president with Allied Irish Banks in Toronto, says worrisome signs for the industry came recently when EarthFirst Canada Inc. the proponent of a major wind farm in British Columbia declared it was seeking creditor protection.

"I think it's a warning sign, what happened to them (EarthFirst) could happen to other people," he said in a telephone interview.

The German bank WestLB AG has said it intends to "enforce security" on its $131-million loan to the Calgary-based wind firm.

Meanwhile, a news release issued Thursday by EarthFirst says attempts to find fresh financing had been "severely hindered by the unprecedented crisis in the global financial markets."

In addition to the Dokie 1 wind farm in B.C. and the smaller Nuttby wind project in Nova Scotia, the company also has permits for further projects in B.C. and Ontario.

Scott Urquhart, vice-president of corporate finance at Jennings Capital in Halifax, says the problem facing Canada's independent wind producers is they are heavily reliant on debt, borrowing between 70 to 80 per cent of their financing.

He has assisted small Atlantic Canadian energy and mining firms to find lenders and investors in the past few years. However, he said when he was recently approached by two wind firms in Nova Scotia, he advised them to wait out the storm. "Some of the banks are ... not doing deals at all, and it's going to be into the new year before you can talk to the banks about doing some of these projects," he said.

Urquhart said last year banks and insurers were financing the projects at rates in the range of 6.5 per cent. But he estimates interest costs are now above 8 per cent, and lenders are offering shorter terms for smaller loans.

- The Canadian Press

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