FAYETTEVILLE – Developers planning to build the state’s first commercial wind farm said last week their turbine design could revolutionize the country’s growing wind power industry and Northwest Arkansas is the perfect place to start.
The CEO and corporate affairs director with Dragonfly Industries International provided details for the first time about the $100 million project they hope to build about three miles west of Springdale. The 300-acre farm’s expected capacity of 80 megawatts would be enough to power thousands or tens of thousands of homes, and the company’s officers said it could be the first of many such facilities around the world.
If all goes smoothly, construction could begin this year, with electricity flowing by 2016, CEO Jody Davis said.
“Arkansas needs what we’re bringing,” Davis said Thursday. “What we’re bringing changes the game.”
Dragonfly has been working for about five years to design a turbine that departs from the conventional, three-bladed design that tower above Oklahoma and Texas horizons, Davis said. Dragonfly’s design encloses the turbine blades in a cylindrical shroud or shell, making it look like a jet engine.
Advocates of the shrouded design say it draws more energy from the wind by funneling air toward the rotor blades and is quieter and safer for wildlife. Air flows faster when confined in such a way, and the shroud allows less energy-draining turbulence and air deflection to occur, they say. The model’s critics are widespread in the industry and say those claims are untested and unrealistic.
Shrouded turbines remain uncommon in the United States, and Davis said Dragonfly’s model is unusual even among shrouded systems.
Within the jet-engine form, each turbine would hold three sets of rotors that get smaller from front to back. The tapered shape doubles the speed of the wind without creating any suction at the front that might snag a passing bird, Davis said.
Most turbines create electricity by spinning a rod covered in coils of copper through a magnetic field, which pushes electrons through the wire in a physical process called induction. The Dragonfly design would hold its copper coils at the rotors’ edge, rotating the wires through a magnetic field within the shroud as the blades rotate.
The whole unit would be mounted in pairs on 100-foot towers and could be lowered to the ground during dangerous wind and for maintenance, Davis said.
The U.S. Patent Office granted at least seven shrouded-turbine patents in the past year, according to its online records. None have more than two sets of blades, and all appear to generate electricity in the hub. Dragonfly’s website, diiturbines.com, says the patent is pending for its design.
The Dragonfly turbine’s layout and other design details mean the turbine can generate twice the energy of a conventional turbine, even from a light breeze, while solving several problems that plague the conventional design, Davis said.
Such claims must clear a high bar of skepticism among the industry and researchers. Jim Manwell, director of the University of Massachusetts Wind Energy Center, pointed to another shrouded-design company called Ogin during an interview last month.
“They’ve been very successful at raising money,” Manwell said, but the company keeps a tight grip on results from testing of its designs. Shrouded designs are about as efficient as regular turbines as far as he can tell, Manwell said.
“Somebody independent should verify that they do what they claim to do,” Manwell added. “Otherwise I wouldn’t believe it.”
Davis said two engineering firms and a university had tested and verified his company’s design, but he declined to identify them, saying it was too early to get them publicly involved. Billions of dollars are invested in the conventional design, making people leery of new, “disruptive” ideas, he added. The jump to Dragonfly’s design will be like the jump from plane propellers to jet engines, he said.
Can It Work?
Dragonfly stoked local interest last month after talking with Elm Springs officials about annexing the project site, but Tom Lundstrum, who represents Washington County west of Springdale on the Quorum Court, said he wondered if a wind farm would work in the area.
He’s lived there 25 years and hasn’t noticed significant wind to speak of, he said.
“We’ll just wait and see,” Lundstrum said, adding he wouldn’t judge the project as bad or good yet. “I have questions about the amount of wind velocity we experience out there, and I have questions about the overall fundamental value of them, whether they actually produce enough electricity to pay for themselves when the government subsidies run out.”
The country’s windiest areas are in its midsection, from Texas to the Dakotas, where average year-round windspeeds are near 20 mph at 250 feet, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Arkansas’ best wind speeds are about a third lower, and only in patches in the northwest corner.
Texas and Oklahoma offer financial assistance to wind developers; Arkansas doesn’t.
“Somebody asked me the other day, ‘Why Arkansas?'” Davis said. “I said, ‘Why not Arkansas?'”
Davis and Jim Lefler, Dragonfly corporate affairs manager, said they’re both from Arkansas originally, Davis from Searcy, Lefler from Clinton. Both now live in the Fayetteville area. The company is relocating here from Frisco, Texas, but as of Friday wasn’t registered with the Secretary of State.
The Dragonfly design doesn’t need the Great Plains’ high winds, Lefler said. Washington County’s wind is “everything that you need” according to Dragonfly’s tests in the past six months.
The region’s power grid, already connected to Oklahoma and the rest of the South, is also ideal for the project, he said. Clean Line Energy Partners is waiting for federal permission to build a line across Arkansas connecting 3,500 megawatts of Oklahoma wind capacity to Tennessee.
As the Obama administration pushes for cleaner power sources, Arkansas’ coal plants might be on the lookout for carbon credits a wind farm could provide, Lefler added.
“The pieces fell into place,” he said. “It’s mostly a matter of timing, rather than if it’s happening.”
Alan Mantooth, professor of electrical engineering at the University of Arkansas, said it was likely a trade-off, with other areas of the state that are better connected but don’t have the same wind potential. Power lines to the windier west might be too congested, he said.
“I think it’s still a bit risky. I’ll tell you what makes it less risky: the technology they use, and is it reliable,” Mantooth said. “Ultimately these things pay for themselves, because they just generate and generate and generate.”
Lundstrum’s concerns about federal assistance touch on a broader debate about tax credits and preferences for wind energy in recent years.
The U.S. Internal Revenue Service provides a production tax credit of 2.3 cents per kilowatt-hour for a wind farm’s first 10 years. For comparison, wind energy costs between 3 cents and 8 cents per kilowatt-hour before the credit, according to a 2014 analysis by Lazard, an international financial advisory and management firm.
The production credit and other tax preferences for all renewable energy, including wind, cost about $2 billion in 2011, according to a March 2012 report from the Congressional Budget Office. That comes to about $1 out of every $1,800 spent by the federal government that year.
The production tax credit expired last year, but the IRS has said some ongoing wind projects that supply power before 2016 could qualify, locking in their assistance for several more years.
The credit has expired temporarily several times before, with wind farm installation plummeting afterward each time. This pattern has led critics from Forbes, The Heritage Foundation and other organizations to say wind energy couldn’t survive without the help.
“It would be a mistake for Congress to renew the PTC again, and it is time to let the wind industry compete with other energy industries in a fair market,” Tim Phillips, president of the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, wrote in The Wall Street Journal last November. “Congress should ignore the hot air surrounding the PTC and let it flutter away forever.”
Proponents of the credit point out similar tax credits and subsidies for fossil fuel companies have been in place for a century with no expiration date. While wind and other renewable sources have taken several billion dollars in all, oil and gas companies have received nearly half a trillion dollars since those programs began, according to a 2011 report from DBL Investors.
Proponents also say the credit worked, helping wind energy become established and efficient enough for its cost to fall 58 percent between 2009 and 2014, according to Lazard. Wind now can cost less than coal and natural gas energy in some markets even before taking the assistance into account and has lower capital costs, according to Lazard.
The production credit could be resuscitated again, but Lefler and Davis said they weren’t counting on it. The project has secured enough private interest and investment to happen, Davis said. He declined to say which private firms were interested.
“It’s not in our business plan,” Davis said of the credit. “We don’t want to rush anything. The only source of urgency is Arkansas right now is going out of state to buy wind power.”