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Part 3 - Government-Sponsored R&D

Figure 11. Proposed General Electric "concept" wind turbines on the coast of Long Island, NY (late 1970's)

Making Wind a Federal Case

In the United States, the federal government's involvement in wind energy research and development began in earnest within two years after the so-called "Arab Oil Crisis" of 1973. Despite the speed with which it was initiated and began to show results, this program ultimately proved to be largely ineffective because of the interference of political factors and the withdrawal of financial support before success could be achieved.

Federal research and development activities resulted in the design, fabrication, and testing of 13 different small wind turbine designs (ranging from 1kW to 40kW), five large (100kW - 3.2MW) horizontal-axis turbine (HAWT) designs, and several vertical axis (VAWT) designs ranging from 5 to over 500 kW. The approach of this program borrowed much from the methods used to develop military aircraft, with first the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA) and then the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) selecting subcontractors to build and test machines that would be commercialized; presumably by the subcontractors.

Most of the funding was devoted to the development of multimegawatt turbines, in the belief that U.S. utilities would not consider wind power to be a serious power source unless large, megawatt-scale "utility-scale" systems were available. Not-withstanding the unusual case of the California wind farms (see below), recent events (such as the development of 1+ megawatt giants in Europe) have shown that this view was fundamentally correct.

Our discussion will resume, after a short diversion . . .

Figure 12a. "Tower? What Tower?" Hard core Darrieus advocates deny that this machine has a tower, perhaps because eliminating the tower was supposed to be an advantage of the design over HAWTs.

Pushing VAWTs

In some respects, the development of vertical axis technology serves to illustrate the difficulties of government-sponsored development programs most effectively. By the standards usually used by federal managers to evaluate program achievement, the Darrieus program was an unqualified success. Development in the U.S. progressed in an orderly manner from 5, 10, and 17-meter experimental machines to a 17-meter machine commercialized by FloWind that used much of the Sandia technology. Many high quality government reports were published.

But--beyond supporting one remnant company from the 1980's wind farm boom--a real market for this technology has never emerged.

The largest U.S. Darrieus machine is a 34-meter, variable-speed testbed (left), developed by Sandia Laboratories, and operated at the USDA Agricultural Resarch Station in Amarillo, Texas to provide experimental data. In Canada, development reached the multi-megawatt scale, with the 4-MW Project Eole turbine on Magdalen Island in the St. Lawrence River.

Recent experimental developments for Darrieus systems center around the use of pultruded fiberglass rotors because of the high cost of extruded aluminum. The flexibility of this material has forced designers away from the "troposkein" shape of the earlier machines (from the Greek "turning rope") to use an "extended height-to-diameter" (EHD) shape that limits blade flexure and increases stiffness. So far, results are mixed.

Figure 12b. Deadly winds build in
the Rockies west of an ill-fated
fiberglass-bladed Darrieus wind
turbine at the Rocky Flats Test
Center, 1981.

The lopsided pear shape of the Tumac prototype (at left) illustrates the structural problems that have been a problem for fiberglass Darrieus designs. This particular machine failed to survive the first moderately high winds it faced.

Some straight-bladed vertical axis turbines of the cycloturbine, giromill, and "H" turbine configurations were developed in the 1970s in the United States and Great Britain and into the 1990s in Germany. None of the straight-bladed designs has proved to be commercially successful because of the problems encountered in handling cantilevered rotor loads with struts and structural members that cause large amounts of aerodynamic drag.

Figure 13. The 200kW MOD-0A wind turbine at Clayton, New Mexico was a qualified success for NASA and DOE

Figure 14. In the words of one exasperated federal program manager, the 2-megawatt General Electric MOD-1 machine was built "hell-for-stout." Unpredicted low frequency sound emissions resonating in the many homes scattered through hills and valleys close to the installation killed the project.


Beginning with the 100kW MOD-0 installed at NASA's Plum Brook Ohio facility in 1975, the U.S. program rapidly moved through several generations, including the MOD-1  and the 100-meter diameter MOD-2 wind turbines (see below.)

Unfortunately, the program was burdened by an early error that took four years to overcome. In 1974, perhaps expecting to reproduce the success of U.S. rocketry development by copying advanced German designs, NASA engineers turned to Ulrich Hutter's blueprints for answers. While borrowing Hutter's two-bladed, downwind rotor configuration for their early designs, they failed to note the importance of the fact that Hutter's machines featured teetering hubs--now known to be essential for reducing dynamic loads created by tower shadow in two-bladed machines.

NASA engineers were astounded by the huge dynamic loads the first (MOD-0) machine developed whenever a blade entered the "dead" space behind the tower (which was also much beefier and blocked more wind than Hutter's). And it took several years of engineering studies, responding to outraged Congressional inquiries (from none other than Barry Goldwater), and other diversions to figure out what was going on and switch to an upwind, teetered hub configuration.

The rigid hub NASA turbines (with a probable useful machine life measured in months) none-the-less served as useful stand-ins for demonstration projects until "real" machines arrived in the early 1980's.

The program's biggest early success was the operation of four MOD-OA 200 kW machines by U.S. utility companies (Figure 13.)

The moniker "real machine" did not apply to the MOD-1 (Figure 14, at left), the program's first attempt at a megawatt-scale system. Because it was designed before the problems with the MOD-0 were understood, the design was a lame duck even before acoustic resonance problems (themselves aggravated by the lack of a teetering hub) scuttled the first and only installation at Boone, North Carolina.

Figure 14. The 3-megawatt, 100-meter diameter MOD-2 operated by PG&E in Solano, California was the most successful private operation of a multi-megawatt wind turbine until the MOD-5B in Oahu, Hawaii.

A "Real" Machine?

The first "real" NASA wind turbine was the 100-meter diameter MOD-2. Three of these machines operated for several years at a site overlooking the Columbia River in the 1980's, providing valuable engineering data and helping to pinpoint design weaknesses. Others operated at Solano, California (left) and near Medicine Bow, Wyoming. The MOD-2 was an inevitably flawed experimental machine because of the huge technological leap it represented from the MOD-1. This provided detractors with an easy target for criticism.

By 1981, the detractors of the Federal program had succeeded in getting most of the development activity scuttled, just when things were poised to get better.

Lessons learned on the MOD-2's were incorporated in the 3.2-megawatt MOD-5B, a 100+ meter behemoth that was still operating (not without problems) on the Island of Oahu, Hawaii as late as 1997.

Enertech 15kW Prototype

Figure 15. The Enertech 44/15 in
1981 at Rocky Flats. Over 600 of
these turbines (up-rated to 40 or
60kW) were operating in California Windfarms by 1983 and made a cameo appearance in the film "Rainman." It was later value-engineered to produce  the Atlantic Orient 15/50 machine.

Small "Wonders"

A small machine development effort was belatedly started in 1976, when a federal test center established at Rocky Flats, Colorado found that available machines were neither properly-sized, nor reliable enough, to do the jobs envisioned by federal application studies. Within four years, 13 wind turbine designs in five application-based size-ranges were procured, designed, fabricated, and tested:

  • 1-2 kW High Reliability
  • 4kW Small Residential
  • 8 & 15 kW Residential and Commercial
  • 40kW Business and Agricultural

Successes of this program included 1-3kW and 6kW small turbines commercialized by Northern Power Systems and still being sold for remote power uses, and a three-bladed 40-60kW machine installed by the hundreds in California windfarms by Enertech (at left).

But, in 1981, the biggest successes of the federal program were not measured in hardware, but in the number of designs shown to be unfeasible and in the amount of expertise developed in both the federal programs and in their private industry subcontractors. The ground had been laid for success.

But this was not to happen.

Federal development efforts were prematurely scuttled by the Reagan Administration, when the banking and investment industry threw its lobbying support behind wind industry efforts to obtain huge energy tax credits. There was no time for reliable hardware to evolve from exploratory developments. There was no time for a "simpler is better" philosophy resulting from the small turbine development program at Rocky Flats to permeate and rejuvenate the large machine design efforts at NASA.

While the tax credits seemed to some to be an evolutionary development, they actually amounted to a complete redirection of U.S. energies. Planning for this re-direction was left to administration officials who thought that wind turbines were a mature technology that needed no further development. And who believed the over-optimistic claims of investment-hungry wind businesses that cost-effective and reliable designs were already available.

Figure 16. Early on, the federal program had a fatal attraction to "simple," but dynamically complex designs, like UTRC's composite flexbeam rotor. The pultruded fiberglass blade fabrication technique was a "keeper" however and was
later used by Bergey Windpower in its 1.5 and 10-kilowatt designs.

A Blown Opportunity

In the seven years between 1974 and 1981, the U.S. Federal Wind Energy Program was an extraordinarily efficient and successful government research and development activity. Thirteen small systems, several vertical axis and innovative systems, and four large wind turbine designs were developed and tested in that brief period. In addition, two promising intermediate scale turbines -- which could have given the U.S. a huge technological lead -- were on the drawing board and ready for development. All of this was lost.

In the subsequent seven years between 1981 and 1988 -- despite hundreds of millions of federal tax credits -- only four new wind turbine designs were developed in the U.S. All but one (the Bergey 10kW, which didn't benefit from the credits) were based on spin-offs of technology developed by companies supported by the previous federal development effort. And even the Bergey relied for its flexible blades on a pultrusion manufacturing technique (left) developed under government sponsorship.

Finally, in 1989, the federal program -- now managed by NREL -- seized an opportunity provided by the Bush administration and resumed under-funded value engineering of some of the early 1980's designs. Some of the results can be seen at the Web site of the National Wind Technology Center.

Figure 17. The GROWIAN wind
turbine. Like the MOD-2, this
experimental machine was a
laughing stock of the wind energy world in the 1980's as small 100kW wind turbines became the darlings of the investor community.

European Development Programs

In Europe, government multi-megawatt machine development programs took longer to start, but were even less successful from a commercial standpoint. The multi-megawatt GROWIAN turbine developed in Germany is pictured at the left (Figure 17). By the early 1990's, most of the experimental multimegawatt machines developed in Germany, Sweden, and other countries were no longer operating and efforts at the network of European wind energy research laboratories had shifted to basic and applied research, the development of standards, and certification testing programs.

The proper role of government in wind energy research and development is a matter of continuing controversy.

There has been a tendency by some commentators to lose sight of the fact that no successful wind energy project -- in any country -- has been conducted without some form of government intervention in the form of financial, technical, or regulatory support. This is really no different than any other kind of power production facility.

The myth that somehow the windfarm development of the 1980's was due primarily to "private enterprise" has even been expressed by people sitting right in the middle of hundreds of European-manufactured wind turbines -- every one of them supported by U.S. and foreign taxpayers and dependent upon "sweet-heart" government-enforced power purchase requirements. But that's another story.

The fact remains that painstakingly-developed R&D programs were gutted in the early 1980's to provide funding for energy tax credits, which failed to provide sufficient impetus for broad-based private wind turbine technology development in the U.S. In the 1990's, a wiser U.S. industry encouraged renewed modest funding for research and development, primarily in programs managed by the National Wind Technology Center, operated by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory at a site just outside Boulder, Colorado.

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