Tag Archives: wind

Painting wind turbines black can help birds not fly into them

The white, sleek exterior of the wind turbine definitely looks good to me. But birds probably wouldn’t agree. According to a new paper, the current design of our wind turbines makes them hard to see for birds, promoting impacts.

Image credits Roel May et al., (2020), Ecology and Evolution.

Not only would such a change help save bird lives, but it would also help our bottom line. Birds in flight hit hard, and turbines are expensive to repair or replace. Taking one of them off for repairs also incurs costs (as they can’t produce power during the same time). All in all, the paper argues, painting one of the three rotor blades black is enough to help birds see the turbines and avoid collisions.

Seeing is avoiding

“As wind energy deployment increases and larger wind‐power plants are considered, bird fatalities through collision with moving turbine rotor blades are expected to increase. However, few (cost‐) effective deterrent or mitigation measures have so far been developed to reduce the risk of collision,” the authors explain in their paper.

“We tested the hypothesis that painting would increase the visibility of the blades, [which reduced bird fatalities] by over 70% relative to the neighboring control (i.e., unpainted) turbines.”

Growing awareness of climate change has prompted countries all over the world to move away from fossil fuels into clean energy sources; wind is a particular favorite, as wind farms can be installed in otherwise unusable (and quite unpleasant areas) such as windy coastal areas.

That isn’t to say, however, that wind energy is flawless. As with everything else in life, it comes with good and bad both. Although they won’t release CO2 and heat up the planet, turbines can be quite disturbing to wildlife as they’re quite noisy, they bring humans to the area, and they’re a significant collision risk for birds. We have procedures in place to ensure that the sites we choose for such farms pose the lowest possible risk to wildlife. However, as more and more wind capacity is being installed, it’s unavoidable that it will impact local animals.

The current paper tested whether painting one of the three rotor blades of each turbine can help lower collisions with birds. The experiment was carried out at the Smøla wind-power in Norway. The plant was built in two phases: 20 turbines of 2.1 MW were finished in September 2002, and an additional 48 turbines of 2.3 MW in August 2005. the team used trained dogs to look for bird carcasses in a radius of 100 m around the turbines “at regular intervals”.

Roughly 9,560 turbine searches were performed between 2006–2016, finding 464 carcasses. The team explains that “there was an average 71.9% reduction in the annual fatality rate after painting at the painted turbines relative to the control turbines”. Despite this, they note that annual fatalities fluctuated significantly. All in all, there is enough evidence to seriously consider this approach as an effective way to protect birds from impacts with wind turbines. However, more long-term research is needed to establish exactly how effective it is in absolute numbers.

“The in situ experiment was performed comparing only four treated turbines to the neighboring four untreated turbines. We must therefore be careful what we deduce from the experiment given the limited number of turbine pairs,” the authors note.

“However, the experiment ran over a long timeframe, encompassing seven and a half years pretreatment and three and a half years post‐treatment”

The paper “Paint it black: Efficacy of increased wind turbine rotor blade visibility to reduce avian fatalities” has been published in the journal Ecology and Evolution.

What causes wind and where does it come from?

Ahhh! Who doesn’t love a morning breeze?

If you had lived in antiquity and asked the ancient Greeks where the wind comes from, you would have quickly learned that it is brought by an Anemoi. These were the four wind gods in Greek mythology, each of them corresponding to one of the four cardinal directions (North, South, West, East) from which they came. But, perhaps, they would have been more correct if they had answered Helios, the Sun god. Let me explain.

The surface of the Earth is not flat and uniform. Instead, it varies in shape and consistency. Some regions have mountains, others have plains, others yet are covered in seas. What’s more, due to the planet’s rotation, not all regions get the same amount of sunlight. All of this means that there will always be local temperature differences.

When a region on the surface of the planet is heated by the sun’s rays, what happens to the air above it? Naturally, it will heat up, too. Like any gas, when the air’s temperatures increases, it will expand.

Since it now takes up more space, the heated volume of air also becomes lighter so it rises up into the atmosphere, leaving low pressure behind it.

Air pressure simply refers to the amount of force the air molecules exert on any given area. The more molecules of air, the greater the air pressure.

But something has to take up that space that is now free after the hot air rose in elevation. That something is more air — cold air from the surroundings.

This cool air rushing into the vacuum is what we all know as wind.

What’s more, as the hot air rises in the atmosphere, it will eventually cool down. As a result, the air molecules will come together more closely, causing the gas to contract and sink, and leaving behind a high pressure. Once again, cold gas rushes in the warmed area to replace hot gas, ending the cycle. This is called a convection current.

This physics explains why we feel a cool breeze at midday at the beach. The ground is a lot hotter than the sea. This temperature difference then drives the cold air above the sea towards the hot area above the ground.

So, you see, what ultimately causes the wind is the Sun.

How the wind drives storms

Most winds are caused by fairly small differences in air pressure. Gentle winds you might feel on a spring day are usually the result of a difference in air pressure of about 1% across several large regions.

However, when the air pressure difference is greater than 10% over a very small area, very dangerous and violent winds can form, such as those encountered in a tornado.

When energy and wind are released, they can either burst into a straight line or spiral. Some of the most common types of wind storms include derechos, bow echoes, and microbursts. Tornadoes and tropical cyclones are considered wind-driven events, and unlike straight-line winds from downbursts, these winds spin like a top.

Here’s some interesting stats you might find relevant the next time you hear wind speed mentioned in the weather report. At 25-30 mph, large branches sway and umbrellas are difficult to control. At 32 mph, you can see entire trees swinging. At around 40 mph, the wind is so strong you’ll feel a lot of resistance while walking in the direction of the gust; small branches may get blown off trees, so now’s the time to be extra careful. At 55 mph, storm winds are strong enough to uproot trees and cause structural damage.

The fastest wind speed was measured in 1999 inside a tornado by a doppler radar that clocked in a staggering 300 mph. The fastest wind measured outside a tornado was 253 mph during the Tropical Cyclone Olivia in 1996.

Wind speed and wind energy

Solar panels are a great way to directly convert solar energy into electricity that we can use to power our homes and gadgets. But, there’s a tremendous amount of energy that we can harness from the sun indirectly, by using turbines to capture some of that wind energy.

The faster the wind, the greater its kinetic energy. And wind turbines with a larger surface area will capture more wind and produce more power. These two parameters together can be tweaked to produce phenomenal amounts of energy. How so?

Well, kinetic energy is proportional to mass times velocity squared. When speaking about wind, its mass refers to that of the air molecules. So when you double wind speed, its kinetic energy is actually four times greater. However, when wind speed doubles, so does the amount of air pushing the turbine’s blades.

So, every time wind speed doubles, the amount of energy hitting the turbine actually increases 8-fold. This is why wind-rich countries can do so well with wind energy. Denmark, for instance, sourced 47% of its power usage in 2019 from wind energy. Similarly, Ireland sourced 28% of its domestic power demand from wind in 2018.


Solar wind plus moon soil plus meteorite impacts create water on the Moon, researchers report

Researchers are smartening up to a new mechanism of water formation, one which can explain how the liquid got to the Moon.


Image credits Patricia Alexandre.

A cross-disciplinary group of researchers has shown chemical, physical, and material evidence for water formation on the moon. The research is the product of two teams of researchers from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa working together — physical chemists at the UH Mānoa Department of Chemistry’s W.M. Keck Research Laboratory in Astrochemistry and planetary scientists at the Hawai’i Institute of Geophysics and Planetology (HIGP).

Their findings could help explain recent findings of water ice being present on the moon, as revealed by data from the Lunar Prospector and the hard lander Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite.

Actually squeezing water from a stone

“Overall, this study advances our understanding on the origin of water as detected on the moon and other airless bodies in our solar system such as Mercury and asteroids and provides, for the first time, a scientifically sound and proven mechanism of water formation,” says Jeffrey Gillis-Davis, who led the HIGP team.

Data beamed back by the two craft does indeed suggest the existence of water ice on the moon’s poles, but where this water came from was far from clear. It’s an especially interesting question for bodies such as NASA, because lunar water represents one of the key requirements for establishing a permanent colony on the moon. Water can be broken down into breathable air or hydrogen fuel, used to grow food, and is, obviously, in high demand with parched spacefarers.

Chemistry Professor Ralf I. Kaiser and HIGP’s Jeffrey Gillis-Davis designed a series of experiments to understand how the liquid got all the way to the moon. Their working hypothesis was that interactions between solar wind, the minerals in lunar soils, and/or micrometeorite impacts, might hold the key. However, due to a lack of available lunar material to work with, the team substituted it with samples of irradiated olivine, a dry mineral that is a good proxy for lunar regolith (soil). The team simulated solar wind — mainly protons — with a flow of deuterium ions.

At first, the study seemed to be a bust. Experiments using only deuterium and the irradiated samples “did not reveal any trace of water formation, even after increasing the temperature to lunar mid-latitude daytime temperatures,” explains Cheng Zhu, a UH Manoa postdoctoral fellow and lead author of the paper.

“But when we warmed the sample, we detected molecular deuterium, suggesting that deuterium—or hydrogen—implanted from the solar wind can be stored in the lunar rock.”

“Therefore, another high-energy source might be necessary to trigger water formation within the moon’s minerals followed by its release as a gas that can be detected,” Kaiser added.

The second round of testing involved more of the same — bombarding the sample with the ions, then heating them up to temperatures that would be seen on the moon — but the team subsequently blasted the sample with powerful laser pulses. This step was meant to simulate the thermal effects of micrometeorite impacts. Analysis of the gas produced by the laser showed that water was indeed present in the sample at this time.

“Water continued to be produced during laser pulses after the temperature was increased, suggesting that the olivine was storing precursors to heavy water that were released by laser heating,” said Zhu.

Hope Ishii and John Bradley from the HIGP used focused ion beam–scanning electron microscopy and transmission electron microscopy to image these processes as they were unfurling. They observed sub-micrometer-sized surface pits, some partially covered by lids, suggesting that water vapor builds up under the surface until it bursts, releasing water from lunar silicates upon micrometeorite impact.

The paper “Untangling the formation and liberation of water in the lunar regolith,” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Hubble captured the first evidence of a Great Dark Spot storm forming on Neptune

NASA has spotted one of Neptune’s Great Dark Spots as it was forming, a new study reports. This is the first time humanity has witnessed such an event.


“Does this picture make my spot look dark?”
Image credits NASA / JPL / Voyager 2.

By peering through the lens of the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA researchers have captured one of Neptune’s storms at is was brewing. While six such dark spots have been observed on Neptune in the past, this is the first time we’ve seen one during formation.

The findings will help us better understand our neighboring planets, as well as those far away — exoplanets — in general, as well as the weather patterns and nature of gas giants in particular.

There be a storm a’brewin!

“If you study the exoplanets and you want to understand how they work, you really need to understand our planets first,” said Amy Simon, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland and lead author of the new study.

“We have so little information on Uranus and Neptune.”

Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is perhaps the best-known alien storm — but it’s far from the only one. Neptune, as well as our other gaseous-if-somewhat-unfortunately-named neighbor Uranus also boast their own storms in the form of Great Spots.

Neptune’s storms take the shape of Great Dark Spots. Researchers have, so far, spotted six such Spots on Neptune since 1989, when Voyager 2 identified the first two. Hubble has spotted four more since its launch in 1990. The authors of this study have analyzed images Hubble has taken of Uranus over the past several years to chronicle the growth of a new Great Dark Spot that became visible in 2018. The wealth of data recorded by Hubble helped the team understand how often Neptune develops dark spots and how long they last, and gain a bit of insight into the inner workings of ice giant planets.

Voyager 2 saw two storms on Neptune, the (Earth-sized) Great Dark Spot and the Dark Spot 2, in 1989. Images taken by Hubble five years later revealed that both spots had vanished.

“It was certainly a surprise,” Simon said. “We were used to looking at Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, which presumably had been there for more than a hundred years.”

However, a new Dark Spot reared its head on the face of Neptune in 2015. While Simon’s team was busy analyzing Hubble images of this spot, they found some mysteriously-white clouds in the area where the Great Dark Spot used to be. Then, in 2018, a new Great Dark Spot splashed across its surface; it was nearly identical in size, shape, and position as the one seen in 1989, the team reports, right where those clouds used to be.

“We were so busy tracking this smaller storm from 2015, that we weren’t necessarily expecting to see another big one so soon,” Simon said.

These high-altitude white clouds, the team says, are made up of methane ice crystals. The team suspected they somehow accompany the storms that form dark spots, likely hovering above them the same way that lenticular clouds cap tall mountains here on Earth.

Lenticular cloud.

A lenticular cloud spotted over a mountain in the Snæfellsjökull National Park, Iceland.
Image credits joiseyshowaa / Flickr.

So the team set out to track these clouds from 2016 (when they were first spotted) to 2018 (when the Spot gobbled them up). They were brightest in 2016 and 2017, the team found, just before the new Great Dark Spot emerged. The team turned to computer models of Neptune’s atmosphere to understand what they were seeing. According to the results, these companion clouds are brighter over deep storms. The fact that they appeared two years before the Great Dark Spot and then lost some brightness when it became visible suggests dark spots may originate much deeper in Neptune’s atmosphere than previously thought, the team explains.

They also used data from Voyager 2 and Hubble to measure how long these storms last, and how frequently they occur, on which they report in a second study. Each storm can last up to six years, though most only survive for two, the paper reads, and the team suspects new storms appear on Neptune every four to six years or so. This last tidbit would make the Great Dark Spots of Neptune different from those on Jupiter, whose Great Red Spot is at least 350 years old (it was first seen in 1830).

Jupiter’s storms endure as they’re caged in by thin jet streams, which keep them from changing latitude (north-south) and hold them together. Neptunian winds flow in much wider bands, and instead push storms like the Great Dark Spot slowly across latitudes. They can generally survive the planet’s westward equatorial winds, and eastward-blowing currents close to the equator, before getting ripped apart in higher latitudes.

“We have never directly measured winds within Neptune’s dark vortices, but we estimate the wind speeds are in the ballpark of 328 feet (100 meters) per second, quite similar to wind speeds within Jupiter’s Great Red Spot,” said Wong.

Simon, Wong and Hsu also used images from Hubble and Voyager 2 to pinpoint how long these storms last and how frequently they occur. They report in a second study published today in the Astronomical Journal that they suspect new storms crop up on Neptune every four to six years. Each storm may last up to six years, though two-year lifespans are more likely, according to the findings.

The paper “Formation of a New Great Dark Spot on Neptune in 2018” has been published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Graph by Gregor Macdonald.

Solar and wind supply more than 10% of electricity in 18 US states

Although the United States is lagging behind China and the EU in terms of adding new renewable energy capacity, some states are already growing at a very rapid pace. According to data for 2018 from the Energy Information Administration (EIA), solar and wind accounted for at least 10% of electricity sales in 18 states, which is further evidence that the nation’s transition to renewable energy is fully underway.

Graph by Gregor Macdonald.

Graph by Gregor Macdonald.

The graph above was made by journalist Gregor Macdonald, where blue indicates that wind is dominant and green shows that solar leads the way in a specific state.

“While one can certainly discount the very high proportion of wind power in sparsely populated Great Plains states, (Kansas, for example, with just 2.9 million people where wind power has now reached 47.13% of electricity sales), it’s impressive that in larger states like CA, CO, TX, and MN combined wind and solar are right around the 20% mark. More intriguing is the continued level of low public awareness that wind and solar have come to not only dominate marginal growth in many domains, but have now reached volumes more typically associated with nuclear power or hydropower. In less than a decade, we have moved the needle from a time when many claimed wind and solar couldn’t scale fast enough, to new complaints these sources are growing too fast. What a great problem to have!” Macdonald wrote on his blog.

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According to the August 2018 edition of Electric Power Monthly, an EIA publication, solar in the United States grew by 28% year-on-year to reach 48 TWh – 2.4% of electricity generation nationwide. Together, solar and wind represented almost 10% of the total electricity generation, with wind output growing 11% and expanding beyond traditional strongholds in Texas and the Plains States to more Midwestern states, as well as Oregon and New Mexico. This growth is occurring at the expense of coal, whose use in electricity generation is down 6% year-on-year. Nearly 10 GW of coal was retired in the first six months of 2018 alone.

Graphic by Gregor Macdonald.

Solar and wind show no signs of stopping their upward growth trend. According to the The American Wind Energy Association’s (AWEA) US Wind Industry Third Quarter 2018 Market Reportseven US states could double their wind capacity in the near-term. Arkansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Wyoming, Maryland, and Massachusetts have all enough wind capacity currently under construction that will more than double their capacity upon completion. Meanwhile, the U.S. is expected to more than double its photovoltaic capacity over the next five years, led by growth in California, Arizona, North Carolina, Nevada, Texas, and New Jersey.


Future Moon colonists could produce water from regolith and sunlight

Future moon settlers could produce all the water they need — by capturing solar winds.


Image via Pixabay.

Streams of charged particles propelled from the surface of the sun (known as ‘solar wind’) slam into the Moon’s surface every day. It’s not a gentle process — these particles reach speeds in excess of 450 kilometers per second (nearly 1 million miles per hour) — but it does enrich the lunar surface with the building blocks of water, a new study reports.

Water from a stone

“We think of water as this special, magical compound,” said William M. Farrell, a plasma physicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, one of the study’s co-authors. “But here’s what’s amazing: every rock has the potential to make water, especially after being irradiated by the solar wind.”

The team ran a computer simulation to see what chemical changes take place in lunar rocks under the effect of solar winds.

Solar wind is basically a flow of protons. It continually blasts the Moon’s surface, breaking the bonds among molecules in regolith — lunar soil — pulling apart the atoms of silica (SiO2, basically sand) and iron oxides found within the majority of the Moon’s soil. Some of these protons also grab onto electrons in the lunar surface, producing hydrogen atoms. These atoms then work their way up through the regolith leeching the released oxygen. Together, hydrogen and oxygen make the molecule hydroxyl (OH), which is two-thirds of the water (H2O) molecule.

The findings should help further our goal of sending humans up to the Moon to establish a permanent presence there, says Orenthal James Tucker, a physicist at Goddard who led the research.

“We’re trying to learn about the dynamics of transport of valuable resources like hydrogen around the lunar surface and throughout its exosphere, or very thin atmosphere, so we can know where to go to harvest those resources,” he explains.

The research drew on infrared measurements performed on the lunar surface by several spacecraft — including NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, and India’s Chandrayaan-1. These readings offered us insight into the chemistry of the lunar surface, all of them finding evidence that water or its components — hydrogen and hydroxyl — were present in the regolith.

Exactly how such compounds wound up on the moon, however, was still a matter of debate. It was possible that they arrived on the back of meteorites impacting its surface, or that these impacts initiated the chemical reactions that created hydrogen, hydroxyl, and water. Tucker’s simulation, which traces the life cycle of hydrogen atoms on the Moon, supports the solar wind hypothesis.

“From previous research, we know how much hydrogen is coming in from the solar wind, we also know how much is in the Moon’s very thin atmosphere, and we have measurements of hydroxyl in the surface,” he says. “What we’ve done now is figure out how these three inventories of hydrogen are physically intertwined.”

The findings also helped us understand why spacecraft have found fluctuations in the amount of hydrogen in different regions of the Moon. All the hydrogen atoms created by solar wind bombardment eventually escape into space (since it’s much less dense than all other compounds). However, hydrogen tends to accumulate predominantly in the Moon’s colder areas since it gets energized by sunlight, making it escape much faster.

“The whole process is like a chemical factory,” Farrell said.

A key implication of the findings, Farrell said, is that every exposed body of silica in space — from the Moon down to a small dust grain — has the potential to create hydroxyl and thus become a chemical factory for water.

The paper ” Solar Wind Implantation Into the Lunar Regolith: Monte Carlo Simulations of H Retention in a Surface With Defects and the H 2 Exosphere” has been published in the Journal of Geophysical Research.

Credit: NASA-JPL Caltech.

InSight beams back first recording of Martian wind

NASA’s InSight probe, which just recently touched down on the Red Planet, recorded the first instance of Martian wind. The feat was totally unplanned but NASA engineers took advantage of the opportunity nevertheless, as the wind whizzed across the probe’s solar panels.

The unaltered recording is in the lower range of what humans can hear, which is why you’ll need a subwoofer or some quality headphones to hear the rumble. An edited version, which you can hear in the video posted here, has been raised two octaves to make it perceptible to the human ear.  

InSight is equipped with two very important sensors: a seismometer that measures ground motion and an air pressure sensor that detects mechanical vibrations. Both sensors can record sounds, which is essential vibration propagating through a fluid.

The air pressure sensor, which is primarily meant for meteorological observations, recorded the Martian wind directly. The seismometer, on the other hand, recorded lander vibrations caused by the wind moving over the spacecraft’s solar panels.

The funny thing is that InSight’s solar panels look a lot like a giant pair of Mickey Mouse ears.

“It’s like InSight is cupping its ears and hearing the Mars wind beating on it,” said Tom Pike, InSight science team member and sensor designer at Imperial College London.

Credit: NASA-JPL Caltech.

Credit: NASA-JPL Caltech.

InSight’s recorded the Martian wind on Dec. 1, when it was blowing with 10 to 15 mph (5-7 meters a second), from northwest to southeast. That’s consistent with the direction of dust devil streaks from the landing area, observed from above by NASA’s orbiting spacecraft.

In a couple of weeks, the seismometer will be placed on the planet’s surface by InSight’s robotic arm. It will still be able to detect the lander’s movement, though channeled through the Martian surface.

The seismometer is also the probe’s most important instrument. Over its two-year mission, InSight will stay put in a single place, where it will drill and ‘listen’ for marsquakes. By studying these slight seismic waves, scientists want to determine what makes up the planet’s mantle and core. Basically, InSight will study seismic waves as they pass through the Red Planet, using that information as a sort of ultrasound to find out what is lurking underneath the crust.

InSight will also help scientist come to a better understanding of how the solar system formed and evolved. Both Mars and Earth are rocky planets that had lots of water on their surface during their rich history. However, the two planets look very differently today — Earth is wet and teeming with life while Mars is barren and probably dead.


Wind farm.

Europe’s grids will feed primarily from wind farms by 2027, predicts the International Energy Agency

Wind is poised to become the dominant energy source in Europe, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reports.

Wind farm.

Image via Pixabay.

Last week, the IEA’s executive director said at the Global Wind Summit that Europe is likely to rely on wind as its primary source of energy by 2027 — and its role in the grid will only increase from then on.

The European Union today draws roughly one-quarter of its energy from nuclear generators. Coal and gas supply a further 20% (one-fifth), with wind generating around 10% of the energy EU countries guzzle up. By 2027, however, the last shall be first, says the IEA.

Forecast: windy

According to its forecasts (document at the end of the article), wind will be the main source of energy for the EU by that year, supplying roughly 23% of total power. Other renewables — such as biomass plants — will contribute around 20%, gas a further 20%, nuclear will fall just shy of 20%, while coal will decline to just about 10%. Solar energy will account for about 6% to 7% in the IEA’s forecasts.

The European Union is already a global leader in wind energy, especially in the offshore wind department. Europe boasts a lot of coasts, and offshore turbines can be larger than their land-locked counterparts. They’re also usually spun by stronger and more consistent winds than the latter. Last year, the EU had 15,780 megawatts (MW) of offshore wind capacity; to reach the IEA’s forecasts, that capacity will have to increase to roughly 200 gigawatts (GW) by 2040, which is quite sizeable.

However, and this is a big “however”, the most exciting thing about the IEA’s forecasts isn’t the wind generation itself — it’s what it would entail. Should their prediction come to pass, the IEA is confident that “ongoing cost declines” associated with wind-generated power would “open prospects for the production of ‘green’ hydrogen” — and green hydrogen has the ability to spark a wide-reaching energy revolution.

Now, the thing about hydrogen today is that it’s mostly produced via natural gas reforming and, because of emissions associated with the production process, it is a net contributor of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. One other way you can produce hydrogen, however, is through water electrolysis — the use of an electrical current to split water molecules into their hydrogen and oxygen components.

In the context of abundant energy supplied by wind farms, all that (green) power could be diverted to electrolysis and jump-start a hydrogen revolution. The drain on the grid could be mitigated by mostly running this process at night when demand for electricity is typically low. An ample and steady supply of green-generated, no-emission fuel could finally help ‘greenify’ a sector that’s traditionally resisted attempts to de-couple from fossil fuels: transportation.

“Decarbonization efforts are disproportionally focused on the power sector […] and not enough on heat and transport,” the IEA’s slides said. The agency noted that the electricity sector in the EU “accounts for just 20 percent of energy use.”

The transport sector has been difficult to decarbonize because it’s highly decentralized, and any real effort would have to draw heavily on subsidies and tax breaks (for which political will is very often lacking). But Europe does seem intent on pursuing decarbonization — Germany recently put the world’s first hydrogen-powered train in service. Green hydrogen should definitely help in that regard.

Gone with the wind

With great renewable generation also comes great responsibility to maintain grid integrity, however. There are concerns that solar and wind energy, being more fickle than fossil fuels, could impart significant instability to the grid after prolonged periods without wind or sun. In order to determine how much effort each country needs to put into protecting their grids, the IEA splits them up into distinct ‘phases’ — each depending on how much wind and solar energy goes into a country’s grid makeup.

Phase 1 and Phase 2 countries have so little wind or solar power that they don’t really need to take any precautionary steps. The US, according to the IEA, is currently a Phase 2 country.

Phase 3 countries need to start making significant investments in complementary tech and infrastructure — such as battery storage, flexible power plants, demand management solutions, and advanced grid technology. The UK, Italy, and Germany are examples of Phase 3 countries.

Topping off the chart, Phase 4 countries (like Ireland and Denmark) rely so heavily on solar and wind energy that maintaining grid stability becomes both very challenging and very important. Such countries need to deploy “advanced technologies to ensure grid reliability,” the IEA says.

“As shares of variable renewables rise, more flexible power systems and appropriate market design will be needed for reliable and cost-effective system integration,” the agency writes.

Needless to say, should the EU really draw primarily on renewables by 2027, it will have to invest heavily in such technology and safety systems. GreenTechMedia, however, notes that it’s unclear whether the IEA’s forecast will stay true should Britain actually exit from the European Union. The United Kingdom is currently one of the EU’s major contributors to offshore wind numbers.

The IEA’s forecasts can be seen here (PDF document).


Massachusetts and Rhode Island to build new offshore wind farms totaling 1.2GW

The US is set to build two new — and significant — offshore wind farms.


Middelgrunden offshore wind farm, Denmark.
Image credits Kim Hansen / Flickr.

The states of Massachusetts and Rhode Island have both awarded major offshore wind contracts this Wednesday, a testament to the economic shifts that are making this renewable source of energy too attractive to ignore any longer. The two farms will have capacities of 800MW and 400MW, respectively.

Energy from thin air

The Massachusetts installation — christened “Vineyard Wind” — will be constructed in state waters some 14 miles (22.5 km) off of Martha’s Vineyard and is planned to be ready surprisingly fast: the farm is earmarked to start feeding the grid as soon as 2021, reports Green Tech Media. The two companies who won the contract — Avangrid Renewables and Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners, both based in Europe — will share ownership of the project equally. The two will begin negotiations for transmission services and power purchase agreements shortly, according to a joint press release.

Vineyard Wind comes as part of Massachusetts’ recently-approved goal of building 1.6GW of wind energy by 2027 — and should cover half of that pledged capacity. Overall, it’s expected to reduce the state’s carbon emissions by over 1.6 million tons per year, roughly equivalent to the exhaust of 325,000 cars.

The project is likely to propel further offshore wind development in the area, similarly to what we’ve seen happen in Europe. The port of New Bedford has already been retrofitted to handle the immense load of traffic and infrastructure that development of Vineyard Wind will require, notes the New York Times — which is likely to make further development even more attractive and convenient.

The second contract, awarded by Rhode Island to Deepwater Wind, aims to provide 400MW capacity — although not on such short notice. Construction on the farm, called Revolution Wind, could begin “as soon as 2020” writes Megan Geuss of ArsTechnica, citing a company spokesperson. Deepwater Wind is an US-based firm that has previously collaborated with the state of Rhode Island to built the first offshore wind in the US: the 30MW unit off the coast of Block Island.

The added capacity from this farm will help Rhode Island to reach 1GW of renewable energy by 2020, a goal that state Gov. Gina Raimondo recently called for. Deepwater Wind will also need to start power purchase negotiations and get federal regulatory approval before construction can begin. Revolution Wind, like Vineyard Wind, will be built in state waters.

What’s next?

Block Island offshore.

Aerial view of the Block Island offshore wind farm.
Image credits Ionna22 / Wikimedia.

Judging by what happened in Europe, however, both Massachusetts and Rhode Island stand a lot to gain in the long term from these offshore wind developments. Europe currently hosts roughly 15.7GW of offshore wind, and the experienced energy companies have gleaned here has consistently knocked down installation costs — which made the tech is so attractive even in the US.

Similarly, the early experience and logistical base these two states will gain could provide them with a decisive edge in further offshore developments in the US — which are bound to pop up as installation costs drop. For example, the Department of the Interior recently opened 390,000 acres of federally-controlled waters off the coast of Massachusetts for offshore wind. New Bedford is ideally suited to provide shipping and support for developments here without any further investments — so Massachusetts will surely stand to benefit as more actors join the US offshore wind market.

And more are joining already — the state of New Jersey is also eager to plug its grind into offshore wind farms, with Governor Phil Murphy signing into law a commitment to 3,500 MW, the largest state offshore wind policy to date, on Wednesday, as well. The Union of Concerned Scientists applauds the developments-to-be, writing that these will likely spur states such as Connecticut, New York, Maryland, or Virginia into dipping their toes in offshore wind.

But it’s not just about what states gain. We’ve written before about the benefits renewables bring to local communities. These range from jobs (here and here), air quality improvements, reductions in carbon emissions, and a lower energy bill once the projects are up and running. All good things, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Burbo Bank Turbine.

UK’s massive wind turbines are setting the course for a cheap-energy future

The UK can now boast to have the biggest wind turbines ever seen — no fewer than 32 of them at that. These massive installations are set to propel wind energy towards becoming the cheapest source of energy.

Burbo Bank Turbine.

Image credits Dong Energy.

There’s nothing little about the UK’s latest wind turbines. Taller than the London Eye, 34 of these metal giants were installed at the Burbo Bank wind farm seven kilometers from the Liverpool Bay area. Each stands 195 meters (640 ft) tall, some 53 meters (174 ft) taller than a standard turbine, and have a mammoth wingspan of 164 meters (538 ft).

Bigger is better

Which is all very good news if you’re a fan of cheap clean energy since, for wind turbines, size means efficiency. A single rotation of these beasts’ turbines is enough to power an average household for more than a day. They’re designed to stay in motion over 80% of the time, and at peak capacity, Burbo Bank can power 230,000 homes.

“They’re extremely powerful machines,” says Benj Sykes, UK manager Dong Energy, the offshore energy firm which operates Burbo.

“It’s got a very big rotor, it’s more efficient at catching energy from the wind over a wider range of wind speeds. They cut in at quite low wind speeds – four or five metres a second.”

You’d imagine something this huge would take a lot to build, but they’re actually more cost-efficient than their smaller counterparts. While their upfront installation costs — these include manufacturing costs, the cost of pouring their foundation on the sea floor, and plugging them into the grid — are comparable or higher, they churn out much more energy, sweetening the deal in the long run.

“The more power you can get out of each turbine, the more power you can get out of each foundation, out of each array cable, and so it drives the cost down across all of those elements,” Skyes says.

The biggest hurdle they’ve had to overcome, Skyes says, was getting the turbines out to sea. Dong Energy used a special “jack-up vessel” that can lift itself out of the water. The ship carried the turbine parts from Belfast to the Burbo Bank, and once there used its legs to rise up and lift the equipment in place using an onboard crane. Initially, the company needed 36 hours to install a turbine, but by the end of the project they got it down to one per day.

Burbo shows how efficient big turbines can become — pushing wind energy even closer to being the cheapest form of power generation around. So we’re bound to see even bigger turbines popping up in the future.

Wind vs coal.

Nobody is going to make coal great again, says Bloomberg New Energy Finance founder

With new technologies hitting the markets every day, renewables are becoming cheaper far faster than anyone anticipated. This trend puts clean energy in investors’ cross-hairs and spells the end of coal as the mainstay of power grids around the world.


Image via Pixabay.

Michael Liebreich, founder of the Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), says clean energy will take the cream of future investments, leaving fossil fuels in the dust. In a presentation he held at the research group’s conference this Tuesday in London, Liebreich said emerging tech is making clean energy more economical than fossil fuels for utilities in many countries around the world. In light of this trend, he estimates that the clean energy sector will attract 86% of the $10.2 trillion likely to be invested in power generation by 2040.

BNEF first took shape as New Energy Finance, a data company focused on energy investment and carbon markets research based in the United Kingdom and was purchased by Bloomberg L.P. back in 2009. When the company first began collecting data in 2004, it could already spot a trend towards larger machines and installations in the wind energy sector, all designed to deliver more power to the grid. A trend that is continuing even today, with both Siemens and Vestas Wind Systems working on plans for huge turbines, with wingspans larger than that of the world’s biggest aircraft, the Airbus A380.

This trend also carries with it the promise of even greater cost-efficiency, so much so that offshore wind developers in Germany are promising electricity without subsidy for their upcoming projects.

“One of the reasons those offshore wind costs have come down to be competitive without subsidies is because these turbines are absolute monsters,” Liebreich said. “Imagine a turbine with a tip height that’s higher than The Shard.’’

The cost per unit of energy from photovoltaic solar panels is also continuing to drop, making them more and more competitive against fossil fuels. That’s why Liebreich predicts two “tipping points” in the future, which will make fossil-fuel-generated power increasingly unattractive from an economic point of view.

“The first is when new wind and solar become cheaper than anything else,” Liebreich said.

“At that point, anything you have to retire is likely to be replaced by wind and solar,” he added. “That tipping point is either here or almost here everywhere in the world.”

Wind vs coal.

Image credits Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

These tipping points won’t happen everywhere at the same time, and their exact dates aren’t set in stone; it’s a process. A slide from Liebreich’s presentation, however, shows we could expect Japan to reach this milestone (i.e. building a PV plant will become cheaper than building a coal-fired generator) in 2025, while India will pass it by 2030, but for wind power.

Further down the road, the second tipping point will come when running costs for coal or gas plants become higher than those of solar or wind. According to this chart published by BNEF, that point may arrive sometime in the middle of the next decade in both Germany and China.

Running costs clean vs coal.

Image credits Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Energy prices vary quite considerably from country to country, so it’s difficult to make a precise estimation of when renewables will overtake fossil fuels in supplying power grids. Still, Liebreich is convinced that the economics of solar and wind are becoming attractive enough to overtake coal’s dominant position in the global power equation, no matter what incentives President Trump imposes on the US.

“This is going to happen,” Liebreich said, reffering to the transition to clean enery. “Coal is declining in the US. Nobody is going to make coal great again.”

Solar Powerplant.

Earlier this month, California broke yet another green record using over 67% renewable power

California’s largest grid broke a renewable energy grid this May by sourcing more than 67% of its energy from renewables on the 13th.

Solar Powerplant.

The sunny state’s effort to go green is paying off bigger and better each time, as it claims yet another milestone in the renewable energy department. On the 13th of May the California Independent System Operator (CISO), its largest grid, drew 67.2% of its power from renewable sources, not including hydropower or rooftop solar. With hydropower factored in, this figure goes up to 80.7%, an achievement which can only help cement renewable energy in the eyes of the rest of the US.

The grid is greener on this side

CISO controls around 80% of the state’s power grids, meaning that if it draws primarily on renewable energy California, for all intents and purposes, draws on renewables too. The company had a bit of help sent its way by providence as 2017 has had plenty sunny days with ample winds (the state set a new wind power generation record on May 16 with 4,985 megawatts), hydroelectric reservoirs were full and in good order, and energy generation was goaded along by a rise in solar facilities (both traditional and roof-mounted).

These factors should make 2017 a year of more record-breaking as far as renewables are concerned in California.

“It’s going to be a dynamic year for records,” CISO spokesperson Steven Greenlee told SF Gate. “The solar records in particular are falling like dominoes.”

“The fact that the grid can handle 67 percent renewable power from multiple sources — it’s a great moment, and it shows the potential we have,” Center for Sustainable Energy director of policy Sachu Constantine told SF Gate.

Funnily enough, CISO was contending against the company’s own previous achievements. The record was set in March, when CISO filled 56.7% of demand with renewables, a record which in turn broke a previous CISO accomplishment.

And California is in an enviable position in other areas of clean energy, too. Last year, one power company contracted Tesla to construct a series of Powerpacks which would ensure a steady supply of clean energy on a (well, literally) rainy day. San Francisco’s public transport system is also set to go fully green by 2045, and is already cutting down on fossil fuel use.

And getting greener on the other side too

California is certainly making huge strides for clean energy and is probably leading the US in this regard, but the country is following suit. Atlanta officials recently committed to powering their city 100% with green energy by 2035 and Massachusetts plans to do the same. Chicago, too, pledged to reach the goal by 2025, Hawaii by 2045, and Nevada pledged to 80% renewables by 2040.

New York State has seen an 800% increase in solar use, Block Island is running on full-wind power and has shut down its previous diesel plants. This February, the US as a whole has had days when wind supplied more than 50% of power demand — and could run on mostly renewable energy by 2050 according to estimates by the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Renewable energy isn’t only better for the environment — it’s also becoming cheaper every day. Battery storage, the simplest way to compensate for fluctuations in energy production and a perfect mate for solar and wind, is doing the same. The industry creates many more jobs and distributes wealth better to those it hires, not just CEOs — so it’s easy to see why governments are looking to build on clean energy.

And everyday folk are joining in on the transition more than ever. Certain types of renewable energy, chiefly solar, can easily be installed at home, will save you money on the bills (or turn a profit), help the planet, help you feel better at the same time, and the whole thing clearly pisses off the president and his backers something fierce. What’s not to love?

All in all, things are looking pretty swell on the renewable front. I’m hopeful that clean energy has a well-established future with so much support, especially considering that it mainly flows from the bottom up.


Wind energy could generate a quarter million new jobs by 2020 in the US alone, and an economic impact of $85 billion

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Across all 50 states, the wind industry now employs over 100,000 people and is set to expand dramatically. According to a recent market forecast by Navigant Consulting, an additional 248,000 jobs should be generated by the wind industry over the next four years, amounting to $85 billion in economic activity.

The analysis was reported alongside a white paper released by the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). It concludes that despite unfriendly governance towards renewable energy, installed wind energy capacity is set to grow significantly, just like is the case of solar. By 2020, 35,000 MW of new wind capacity ought to come online judging from current trends.

Wind: America’s largest renewable energy source

Overall, 2016 was a landmark year for the wind industry in the United States. Turbines supplied more than 5.5% of the country’s electricity in 2016, and in states like Iowa, South Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, and North Dakota, wind covered more than 20%. There are now over 52,000 wind turbines operating in the United States. Over 99% of these wind turbines — essentially all of them — are located in rural America, thus providing a great economic boom in areas which are nowadays overlooked by investors.

“American ingenuity and hard work have driven the cost of wind down by two-thirds since 2009, propelling wind to contribute 30 percent of power plant capacity added over the last five years. The policy certainty provided by the 2015 Production Tax Credit phase down has allowed the industry to make long-term investments in the American workforce and manufacturing to further bring costs down,” said Tom Kiernan, CEO of AWEA, in a statement for the press.

Overall, the US saw $13.8 billion invested in the wind industry for the year 2016 and Navigant forecasts $24 billion in annual economic impact through 2020. Over the next four years alone, $8 billion will go to the US government as new taxes in addition to the tax revenue already being generated by existing wind projects.

All of this huge economic boom can ultimately be pinned down on job creation. The number of jobs in the wind industry grew by 17 percent in 2016 and by 2020 an additional 248,000 jobs will be generated. It’s expected 33,000 new jobs will be made available in factories supplying parts, 114,000 in construction, operation, and maintenance of the turbines, and 102,000 jobs in services supported by the wind industry.

Navigant expects developers to aggressively expand deployment of new wind capacity as the Production Tax Credit scheme is set to expire in 2020. Congress previously passed a five-year extension of PTC which also comes with a phase-out. Credit will gradually be phased out on an 80-60-40 percent schedule starting in 2017. The year 2019 will be the last year wind energy will be installed with a dedicated federal incentive — the only major source of energy in this situation in the United States. Hopefully, by 2019, someone in Congress will be brave enough to ask for a new extension or a new subsidy scheme entirely. With today’s leadership, however, nothing is ever certain.


Flapping wind turbine mimics hummingbird to produce electricity


Artist impression of a field packed with hummingbird-like wind turbines. Credit: TYER WIND

Generating energy from wind can be very lucrative. In Denmark or Scotland, for instance, wind is no longer an alternative energy source — it is the energy source. Indeed, the industry has matured immensely, employing millions of people and operating hundreds of thousands of turbines. That’s not say there’s no room for experimentation, though. Right now, in Tunisia, the weirdest looking turbine is busy producing energy. Instead of catching gusts with a three-bladed boring turbine, this design uses the wind to make the turbine literally flap.

It’s a design inspired by the world’s only bird capable of hovering and backwards flight — the gorgeous hummingbird. According to Tyer Wind, the company behind the project, this turbine is comprised of two vertical axis wings made from carbon fiber, each 5.25 feet long. The two wings can sweep an area of nearly 12 square feet to convert kinetic energy into electricity. The turbine installed in Tunisia has a rated power output of 1 KW.

This is the first time the hummingbird’s flight dynamics have been mimicked by a mechanical device, the company stated.

“Million of years of natural selection have turned hummingbirds into some of the world’s most energetically efficient flyers. It has a unique morphology and kinematics that allows him to flap its wings between 50 and 200 times a second when in flight. Hummingbirds are the only group of birds with the ability to hover and to fly backwards. The motion of the Hummingbird wings (infinity in 3D) have intrigued many researches who have been struggling to mimic it,” Tyer Wind states on its website.

Tyer claims that this design “is a highly efficient wind converter”, according to in-house test. Central to its performance is its aerodynamic features which supposedly allow the turbine to generate work during both downstroke and upstroke.

Preliminary results suggest the hummingbird-turbine works as expected, performing well both in terms of power efficiency and aerodynamics. These results, however, haven’t been released publicly yet, Inhabitat reported, which can be a bit frustrating. Does it perform better or worse than conventional turbines? How worse or better? These are important questions which will hopefully be answered soon and verified by independent bodies. Until then, Tyer’s design looks like a promising design but it wouldn’t be the first ‘experiment’ to fail miserably.

Renewables just surpassed coal as the largest source of new electricity

It’s been a long and crazy ride, but coal’s time seems to be finally fading away. According to data released by the International Energy Agency (IEA), renewables have become the largest supplier of new electricity, growing much more than expected and surpassing coal.

Renewable energy in the California Desert. Image credits: Bureau of Land Management.

The shift actually occurred in 2015, but the data analysis was completed just recently. About half a million solar panels were installed every day around the world in 2015. In China, the biggest driver of new renewables, two wind turbines were installed every hour in 2015.

“We are witnessing a transformation of global power markets led by renewables and, as is the case with other fields, the center of gravity for renewable growth is moving to emerging markets,” said Dr Fatih Birol, the IEA’s executive director.

Indeed, 2015 was a turning point for renewables. Led by wind and solar, renewables represented more than half the new power capacity around the world, reaching a record 153 Gigawatt (GW), 15% more than the previous year. The landmark Paris Agreement, in which countries agreed to curb greenhouse gas emissions, also helped push forth and set a good field for following years.

But the main reasons for this are purely economic. Renewables have simply become a good investment, and in many places, they’re already cheaper than fossil fuels – especially coal. The IEA estimates that both solar and wind will continue to become significantly cheaper in the next five years, by 25 and 15 percent respectively. The IEA writes:

“Renewables are expected to cover more than 60% of the increase in world electricity generation over the medium term, rapidly closing the gap with coal. Generation from renewables is expected to exceed 7600 TWh by 2021 — equivalent to the total electricity generation of the United States and the European Union put together today.”

Infographic by IEA.

But not all is rosy. There is still ground for caution, especially on the political side. Political instability is a great deterrent to renewable investments, as is lousy policy. Donald Trump’s statements to “bring back coal” have brought a shadow of doubt over the future of renewable investments. It’s also worth remembering that we’re still just starting to scratch the surface of renewable energy generation – the world has much more potential than we’re using.

“I am pleased to see that last year was one of records for renewables and that our projections for growth over the next five years are more optimistic,” said Dr. Birol. “However, even these higher expectations remain modest compared with the huge untapped potential of renewables. The IEA will be working with governments around the world to maximize the deployment of renewables in coming years.”

China covered all its new energy demand with renewables in 2015 — and there was still plenty left to spare

China is drawing more and more power from renewables — in fact, new data collected by Greenpeace shows that in 2015 the country’s growth in wind and solar energy more than exceeded its increase in electricity demand.

Ningxia Wind Farm in Northern China.
Image credits Land Rover Our Planet / Flickr.

“Eco-friendly” probably isn’t the first word most people would use when describing China. But for all the smog and pollution, the country is actually putting a lot of effort into going green. Greenpeace reported that China’s electricity consumption rose by half a percent last year, from 5522 TWh (terawatt hours) to 5550 TWh. All this new demand was easily met by wind and solar power, which produced 186.3 TWh and 38.8 TWh of power in 2015, compared to 153.4 TWh and 23.3 TWh the year before — that’s an increase of 21% and 64%, respectively.

To put these numbers into perspective, China installed half of the world’s new solar and wind capacity last year. Its wind farms alone could have met half of the UK’s needs in 2015 (304 TWh.) According to the data, the extra 48 TWh of solar and wind China installed in 2015 alone could have powered two Irelands (24 TWh consumption) for the whole of 2015.

Image credits Greenpeace.

But the Chinese aren’t just beefing up their renewable capacity, they’re also cutting down on coal. The new clean energy plants being installed along with a shift away from heavy industry means that coal use in China has been dropping for three years in a row.

China, however, remains the biggest emitter of CO2 in the world, but they’re working on that too — last week, the country announced that it was ratifying the Paris climate agreement, alongside the United States.

So hats off to the Chinese! Hopefully, their achievements will spur the United States to catch up in the race to lead the post-fossil fuels global economy.

Why the first, tiny offshore wind farm in the U.S. is a huge step forward

The U.S. has finally begun following Europe’s example in green energy with the country’s first offshore wind project, the Block Island Wind Farm, completed last week. While relatively tiny, the farm marks the start of a new American industry, and will feed power into New England’s electric grid.

Image credits Phil Hollman.

It has only five turbines and can power an estimated 17,000 homes — which isn’t much for a power plant of this type. But the inconspicuous Block Island Wind Farm is a U.S-first, and many hope that its example will lead to the creation of a new, cleaner energy industry in the country.

We’ve seen several European countries invest heavily in off-shore wind farms over the past few years, and for good reasons. Installing the turbines offshore is more expensive, but they can harvest the energy of the sea’s strong, steady winds. This means they can produce more power, and produce it more reliably, than their land-locked counterparts. There’s also the advantage of taking the turbines away from populated areas, limiting noise pollution and the risk of accidents.

But the U.S. never got its hands on a piece of this very profitable pie. While European countries were installing these machines by the thousands, proposals in the U.S. faltered due to a lack of expertise in the field (which drove installation costs up), opposition from locals who didn’t want their view of the ocean ruined by the turbines, and a murky legislation about the use of seafloor.

“People have been talking about offshore wind for decades in the United States, and I’ve seen the reaction — eyes roll,” said Jeffrey Grybowski in an interview on Block Island. “The attitude was, ‘It’s not going to happen; you guys can’t do it.’”

Jeffrey Grybowski, CEO of Deepwater Wind of Providence, R.I., has now proved that they can. With backing from the political leadership of Rhode Island, which took up the torch for this newly born industry ahead of bigger states like New York of Massachusetts, the company set up the Block Island Wind Farm.

They’ve also been helped by improving legislative conditions — starting from a law passed by Congress in 2005 and signed by President George W. Bush, the Obama administration has been clarifying the ground rules for off-shore turbine farms. They’ve also been leasing out large patches of ocean floor for wind-power development, so there are nearly two dozen such projects currently in development — setting the stage for the United States to dramatically expand on offshore wind.

Even at state level governments have begun making big pushes towards renewable power, driven by a growing sense of urgency regarding climate change. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York set a goal of drawing 50 percent of the state’s power from renewables by 2030, and the state will probably need large offshore wind farms to help achieve that. Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts also signed a bill ordering the state’s utilities to develop contracts with offshore wind farms for an immense amount of power — 50 times the expected output of the Block Island Wind Farm. Other states, too, are looking to cash in on wind power and the Department of Energy believes that many thousands of these turbines could one day circle the United States coastline.

Right now, the focus in on the Northeast. There are a lot of power-hungry cities here so energy sells well, but there’s fierce opposition to building new power plants on land — thankfully, its coastlines have some of the world’s fiercest winds and the water stays relatively shallow for miles off shore so turbines can be installed where they won’t be seen from the beaches.

The Unites States might also have to profit from the extensive expertise others have on offshore wind turbines. The technology has been proved in Europe, with each turbine now costing up to $30 million to build, install and connect to the power grid. It’s a billion dollar industry, and the companies that install them have developed accordingly. Where European nations once used to promote wind farm by agreeing to sell the power at a premium price, they now use competitive bidding to drive down the cost of the projects. While installation will still be pricier than in Europe because local companies don’t have the technical base and the same know-how, the U.S. will still save a lot of money off of these falling costs — the Block Island turbines were built overseas by a division of General Electric and were installed by a ship from Norway, brought over at a cost of millions of dollars, with help from an American vessel.

The hude Fred Olsen Windcarrier helped install the turbines.
Image credits kees torn / Flickr.

However, if the plans laid down right now follow through, the costs will fall dramatically as domestic industry groups scale up to meet the demand. For the Block Island project, a company in Houma, La., won the contract to build the metal foundations in the water, and several Gulf Coast businesses specialized in offshore oil structures see wind power in the Northeast as a potential new market.

A future being decided right now, with the 5-strong Block Island Wind Farm sending a clear message: the U.S. can be powered without choking our air with smog.

“I do believe that starting small has made sense,” said Bryan Martin, Deepwater Wind’s chairman and D. E. Shaw’s head of United States private equity investment. “I would say that the next projects are going to be substantially bigger.”

Initial financing for the $300 million project came from the D. E. Shaw Group, a big investment firm based in Manhattan. The turbines are locked for now, but they will be turned on sometime in October and after a few weeks of testing and fine-tuning, America’s first offshore wind farm will begin pumping power into the New England electric grid.



wind pipes

Eerie musical instruments played by the wind from around the world

A wind or Aeolian harp is exactly what the name implies: the only musical instrument played by the wind. An Aeolian harp is a small wooden box with a sounding board and strings attached to two bridges. People leave them outside an open window or place them inside their gardens to enjoy the distinct, ghostly tunes plucked by the wind. But some artists really took it to the next level.

wind pipes

Image: Flickr

A prime example is the aptly named Singing Ringing Tree, a 3-meter-tall musical sculpture made of galvanized steel pipes. Erected above the English town of Burnley, the pipes which swirl to form the shape of a tree are blown by the wind to produce a melodious hum.  The sound produced by these twisted metal trees covers several octaves and is said to be simultaneously discordant and melancholy, and intensely beautiful.

Some of the pipes are primarily structural and visual elements, while others have been cut across their width enabling the sound. The harmonic and singing qualities of the tree were produced by tuning the pipes according to their length by adding holes to the underside of each.

The tree was designed by architects  Mike Tonkin and Anna Liu, and was completed in 2006. In 2015, it was chosen as  one of 21 landmarks that define Britain in the 21st Century, as voted by the public.

The Wave Organ in San Francisco. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Wave Organ in San Francisco. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Lodged in the eastern edge of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco, lies one of the cities most obscure tourist attraction — the  Wave Organ. The view alone is worth the journey, but those who venture this far are also treated with a work of environmental art created by Peter Richards and George Gonzales in 1986. “Someone made a recording of the sounds made by water going in and out of a concrete dock in Sydney, Australia. I’d been wanting to add an audible component to my art, and that tape gave me the idea for the Wave Organ,” Richards said in an interview.

Hundreds of volunteers excavated the site and installed PVC tubes to create the organ. These stick up like periscopes creating a sound akin to listening to the world’s largest sea shell — a distant hum and quiet thunder.  Visitors are encouraged to position themselves on the many stone slabs with an ear propped against any of the dozens of listening tubes.


Credit: Exploratorium, San Francisco

Not too far from the Wave Organ in Frisco, at the Exploratorium, lies the 27-foot-tall Aeolian Harp. It was designed and built by local artist Doug Hollis in 1976. “The artist specifically sited this piece to take advantage of the natural wind tunnel here between Piers 15 and 17. The wind picks up every day at around two or three o’clock and that’s when it really sings,” says curator Shawn Lani.

wind harp

Credit: Flickr, AJ Batac

One of the most amazing wind harps can be found in Forks, Canada. This is the meeting place of the Winnipeg community, and the Forks Aeolian Harp — one of the largest in the world — provides an unique and compelling attraction. Crowds gather especially during the autumn equinox and the summer and winter solstices.

Aeolian Harps Physics

Named after the Greek god of the wind Aeolus, aeolian harps were invented by a German Jesuit at Rome, Athanasius Kircher, in the seventheeth century. The aeolian harp became a subject of European-wide scientific study and middle-class marketing during the Enlightenment and Romantic periods, but have since fallen out of fashion.

A common misconception about the wind harp is that its strings are tuned to different pitches. In fact, they are all tuned alike, but because they have different diameters, they vibrate in response to a common wind velocity at different frequencies.

To explain how it works, it’s worth briefly explaining a bit of music theory. The Greek mathematician Pythagoras found if you shorten a string to exactly half its size it will produce a tone an octave above its original note. Halve its length once more and you’ll get another octave higher.  Other divisions of a string will result in other interval relationships, like fifths and thirds. These related notes above the fundamental note are harmonic overtones.

When a string is plucked, we hear mainly the fundamental note, but in addition, the harmonic overtones are also present. When the wind plays a string, it does not play the fundamental tone, but only the series of overtones. This makes the sound high-pitched and eerie. Bigger wind harps, like the ones featured in this article, will sound a bit lower and more mysterious since the strings are really long.

The wind plays the harp by creating little spirals of air called vortices that move to either side making oscillations. The strings of an aeolian harp are tuned to the same note, which means these will vibrate only when the wind’s  frequency of the oscillation matches the frequency of the string tuning. In other words, an aeolian harp will only make sound for a particular wind speed.

To make the physics even more interesting, the strings are said to be driven by the von Kármán vortex street effect which describes the creation of periodic vortices downstream . Lord Rayleigh was the first to explain how the aeolian harp works in a paper published in the Philosophy Magazinein 1915.

The von Kármán vortex street



titan saturn dune

Saturn’s Moon Titan has Strong Winds and Hydrocarbon Dunes

New experimental research found that Saturn’s largest Moon, Titan, has much stronger winds than previously believed. These rogue winds actually shape the hydrocarbon dunes observed on its surface.

titan saturn dune

Cassini radar sees sand dunes on Saturn’s giant moon Titan (upper photo) that are sculpted like Namibian sand dunes on Earth (lower photo). The bright features in the upper radar photo are not clouds but topographic features among the dunes.
Credit: NASA

Titan is, along with Earth, one of the few places in the solar system known to have fields of wind-blown dunes on its surface. The only other ones are Mars and Venus. Now, researchers led by Devon Burr, an associate professor in Earth and Planetary Sciences Department at the University of Tennessee, Knoxvillehas haves hown that previous estimates regarding the strength of these winds are about 40% too low. In other words, Titan has much stronger winds than previously believed.

Titan is the only known moon with a significant atmosphere, and just like Earth’s atmosphere, it is rich in nitrogen. The geological surface of the moon is also very interesting, with active geological processes shaping it. The Cassini spacecraft captured spectacular images of seas on Titan, but before you get your hopes up, you should know that the seas are not made of water, but of liquid hydrocarbons. However, many astronomers believe that Titan actually harbors an ocean of liquid water, but below its frozen surface – the surface temperature is –290° F (–180° C). It’s actually so cold, that even the sand on Titan is not like the sand on Earth – the sand is also made from solid hydrocarbons. But the thing is, we don’t really know where those grains come from.

“It was surprising that Titan had particles the size of grains of sand — we still don’t understand their source — and that it had winds strong enough to move them,” said Burr. “Before seeing the images, we thought the winds were likely too light to accomplish this movement.”

But the biggest mystery was the shape of the dunes. The Cassini data showed that the predominant winds that shaped the dunes blew from east to west. However, the streamlined appearance of the dunes around obstacles like mountains and craters  suggested that the winds blow from the opposite direction.

In order to figure this out, Burr and his team spent six years refurbishing a defunct NASA high-pressure wind tunnel to recreate Titan’s surface conditions. After the restauration was complete, they used 23 different varieties of sand in the wind tunnel to compensate for the fact that we don’t know exactly what the sand on Titan is made from. The first thing they found is that for all the likely varieties of sand, the winds have to be much stronger than believed.

“Our models started with previous wind speed models but we had to keep tweaking them to match the wind tunnel data,” said Burr. “We discovered that movement of sand on Titan’s surface needed a wind speed that was higher than what previous models suggested.”

They also found an explanation for the shape of the dunes.

“If the predominant winds are light and blow east to west, then they are not strong enough to move sand,” said Burr. “But a rare event may cause the winds to reverse momentarily and strengthen.”

According to the models, this wind reversal takes place every Saturn year – which is 30 Earth years. This also explains why Cassini missed this reversal.

“The high wind speed might have gone undetected by Cassini because it happens so infrequently.”

Journal Reference:

  1. Devon M. Burr, Nathan T. Bridges, John R. Marshall, James K. Smith, Bruce R. White, Joshua P. Emery. Higher-than-predicted saltation threshold wind speeds on Titan. Nature, 2014; DOI: 10.1038/nature14088

California’s storm depicted in a brilliant animation

What you see above is a rendering of California’s winds, as derived from data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data and rendered in Web developer Cameron Beccario’s “Earth.” The website showcases a brilliant depiction of global winds, and I highly recommend you checking it out. Truly breathtaking!

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