By Gar Secrist
Modern wind turbines are massive machines, with towers over 250 feet and individual blades over 140 feet, longer than three school buses combined. Building such a structure is an engineering challenge, but through a unique partnership with wind energy industries, the University of Delaware has built a full-scale turbine on its Lewes campus. In addition to running campus buildings and providing power to the surrounding community, the turbine brings education and research opportunities to the University.
Jeremy Firestone, director of the University of Delaware (UD) Center for Carbon-Free Power Integration, has been conducting research on wind energy policy at the University since 2003. He was interested in bringing a turbine to the UD campus as a research tool for developing offshore wind technology, which he sees as the key to generating clean energy on the east coast. “Delaware doesn’t have good land-based wind,” Firestone explained. “It has to be along the coast.”
In other parts of the United States, such as the Midwest, expansive wind farms containing hundreds or even thousands of turbines take advantage of strong winds over land to generate enough energy to power over 9 million homes nationwide. To generate significant wind power in the east coast, turbines will need to be built offshore. The coastal setting of the University of Delaware’s Lewes campus provides an opportunity to study the conditions to which such offshore turbines would be exposed, providing insight on how to build more efficient and longer-lasting turbines.
While it provides a unique research opportunity, building a full-scale wind turbine at a university campus had never been done before. “Obviously it’s a complex process,” said Firestone, “and it has to be well planned.”
To plan for the wind turbine, UD partnered with two sustainable energy organizations. The first step was determining if a possible turbine on the campus could generate a significant amount of energy. UD worked with Sustainable Energy Developments Inc. (SED), which conducted a feasibility study for the project. This included measuring wind speed in the area to calculate potential power generation. After the study showed that a 2-megawatt turbine would produce more than enough energy to power the Lewes campus, the University partnered with Gamesa Technology Corporation, Inc., to construct the turbine. With continuing oversight from SED, Gamesa began construction in March 2010, and the turbine become operational the following June.
“There are not many universities that have projects anything like this… the partnership with a turbine developer,” Firestone explained. “There’s not a lot of history of that kind of thing.”
Research conducted on the turbine by the University is helping Gamesa to better understand the challenges of building wind farms offshore, such as the effects of saltwater corrosion on turbines. While UD’s turbine is not quite offshore, it experiences “some of the same effects, [such as] marine aerosols, which the turbine will help partially identify,” said DeAnna Sewell, a graduate student at UD conducting research on the turbine. She said the presence of a wind turbine on UD’s campus definitely influenced her decision to apply for graduate school there. “The main draw was the offshore wind opportunities,” she said.
Sewell works as a Student Research Climber on the turbine. After an extensive safety training program, she now climbs the turbine to install equipment and collect samples. For her research, she uses accelerometers to measure wind pressure on the turbine, in order to determine how well the structure holds up over time.
Other UD students are studying the impacts of the turbine on the ecosystem by using microphones to monitor birds and bats around the turbine. UD also has courses on wind power and meteorology that include tours of the turbine.
In addition to the research and education opportunities, Firestone believes one of the greatest benefits of the wind turbine project is breaking new ground in building the partnerships that will make clean energy a reality. “To solve the most complex problems that society faces, [we] need good collaboration between academia, industry, and government. That was probably the crowning achievement.”
Gar Secrist is graduate student at Virginia Institute of Marine Science. He contributed this article as part of his course work toward obtaining Marine Policy Sub-Concentration.