Developing California's wind energy resources will be the aim of a new consortium based at the University of California, Davis. The first year of the consortium will be funded by a grant of $330,000 from the California Energy Commission to UC Davis engineering professors C.P. (Case) van Dam and Bruce White. The consortium will have a physical presence as the Wind Energy Institute at UC Davis.
The Institute will bring together UC Davis engineers, wind energy companies, utilities, state and federal government officials and environmentalists to build expertise in wind energy and support development of the wind energy generating capacity in the state, van Dam said.
Although the threat of blackouts has receded, California still faces hard choices on its sources for electric power. California has the largest wind energy industry of any state in the U.S., with about 1700 megawatts of generating capacity installed. But wind accounts for just 4 percent of all electricity generated from renewable sources in the state, or about 1 percent of total electricity generated, according to van Dam.
New technology has pushed the cost of generating wind energy down to around 4 cents per kilowatt-hour, making it a profitable enterprise for generators, said van Dam.
"It's on the verge of being cheaper than gas-fired power plants," he said. There is currently a lot of interest in both new wind generating plants, and in re-powering old plants, van Dam said.
Unlike the old wind farms in locations like Altamont pass, new turbines are much larger, quieter and turn more slowly. This reduces the visually distracting flickering effect and the impact on wildlife. The latest turbines, on towers over 50 yards high, have a generator nacelle the size of a recreational vehicle and can generate up to 1.5 megawatts, said van Dam.
"You can walk right up to them, and you really don't hear them," said White.
The U.S. has generally lagged behind European countries in developing wind power, said van Dam. For example, Denmark aims to generate 50 percent of its power needs from wind by 2020, White said.
Initial tasks for the institute will be to revamp the state's system for collecting generation reports from wind farms, converting it from paper to a Web-based system; prepare a series of white papers that describe the potential and problems of wind energy; set up training courses for wind energy technicians; and establish a program to actually map out California's wind resources.
Data on wind resources in the state is over 20 years old, said White. The consortium will develop and implement a program to loan wind speed gauges (anemometers) to locations throughout the state, to collect better information on local winds. Researchers will also build computer models to predict wind patterns at specific locations under different conditions.
Under California's power deregulation law, electricity generators have to declare by 6 a.m. every day how much power they are going to produce. An under- or overshoot of more than 5 percent results in heavy fines. Effective April 1, 2002, this will change to plus or minus 20 percent, but that's still a problem for wind generators without good data on which to base their predictions.
At the moment, most generators base their expected output on wind conditions on the same day in the previous year, White said. Better forecasts would help generators deliver tomorrow what they promise today, reducing the risk of financial losses, he said.