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Wind's potential


Professor studies energy source

Sun Staff Writer

Central Michigan University could help create a statewide wind energy movement if a planned research study confirms one professor’s suppositions.

Associate professor of physics Frederick Phelps plans to conduct a two-year wind study of the central and northern Michigan area at dozens of sites to determine if wind velocities are sufficient to make wind turbines economically feasible.

“Wind power does not pollute and it does not run out,” said Phelps, who started at CMU in 1970.

“Civilization depends on our ability to generate energy. The price of the fuel is what I like and it never goes up.”

Phelps, who worked with NASA on wind turbines for two summers in the early 1980s, said a trip to his alma mater reunion at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., sparked the idea for a CMU wind farm.

Carleton College had installed a 1.65-megawatt turbine that is now producing 40 percent of the energy the college uses, Phelps said. It is producing five million kilowatt hours of energy.

Although the Danes have been using and researching wind power turbines for 20 years, the cost to install and maintain wind turbines – combined with low costs for electricity and natural gas – limited the technology’s appeal in the United States, Phelps said.

But in the cost to produce wind energy is 10 times less than it was in the 1980s and the power generated by the turbines has increased four times in the last two years.

“Like any technology, you start on a slow slope and then it takes off,” Phelps said. “The technology has developed to the point where it might be economically feasible.”

The major limiting factor to such technology, of course, is the velocity and duration of wind in the area wind turbines are installed. Too little wind and the cost to install a turbine will be too high to save any money, Phelps said.

The traditional view of central Michigan, however, of being a marginal wind area, may not necessarily be true.

A “broad brush” average wind power map from the U.S. Department of Energy puts Mt. Pleasant in a border area for wind energy that is classified as marginal.

Carleton College is in a similar though slightly better position in Minnesota, according to the same maps.

But those maps do not take into account the elevation of the wind turbines, Phelps said.

Using wind speed maps at 30 meters, 50 meters, 70 meters and 100 meters, moves the central Michigan area from marginal into the “Good” category of wind speed, increasing with height. The Lake Michigan, Lake Huron and Lake Superior shorelines were considered “Outstanding” and “Superb,” the top two categories available.

“The higher we go, the stronger the winds are,” Phelps said. “What might be a poor area based on the first maps, might be viable depending on the (turbine) height. But you don’t go putting up a million dollar turbine without knowing what you’ll get.”

To obtain more accurate information on wind speeds, Phelps plans to install wind meters at various heights on CMU-owned Public Broadcasting towers throughout the state.

The information will be used to not only to guide the board of trustees in making a decision about CMU-based wind turbines, but could also generate a lot of money for CMU, Phelps wrote in a report in June.

“If CMU could obtain data from 15 different towers and at six different heights on each tower, this would lead to a major advance in our knowledge of wind regimes and some very interesting possibilities open up,” Phelps wrote. “In particular (a commercial developer) is interested in having data from multiple heights at all of CMU’s Public Broadcasting tower sites in northern Michigan because these data have enormous commercial value. They can be sold to a lot of different people, in a lot of countries, for a lot of money.”

Phelps envisions a potential wave of wind farms in Michigan if his research proves his ideas valid.

“The cost of natural gas will double for CMU once the contract expires and electricity has risen 54 percent,” Phelps said. “This is a serious problem for all of the universities and school districts in the state. I think we all should work together to put up some wind farms to help with utility costs.

“The state doesn’t have the money to keep putting into colleges and schools districts to keep up with rising utility rates. I think this has some real economic potential to benefit the university and other areas in the state. I have hopes this will turn into something big.”