Wind Turbines: Change is in the Air for Manufacturing

by Marjorie Steele, Editor for IQS

Marjorie Steele Author Pic

Included in President Barack Obama’s historical inauguration speech was a striking statement on his vision for the future of our energy industry.

“We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.”

Perhaps this statement sounds a little over-the-top to you – a little too epic. But honestly, what could be more epic than shifting the world’s energy source from petroleum to wind energy, solar power and compressed air?

So far it seems President Obama is making good on his word. According to an article published today in the Washington Bureau, the U.S. Interior Department has “cleared the way” for domestic offshore wind farms by finalizing guidelines. Projects are being considered for constructing wind farms off the United States’ Atlantic coast, namely Rhode Island and Massachusetts. A project long delayed by the previous administration’s procrastination in laying out legislative guidelines for offshore windfarms (and by the Kennedy family’s distaste for having the view from Martha’s Vineyard off Cape Cod marred by wind turbines), it looks like a shift from offshore oil fields to offshore windfarms are soon to be underway.

For the manufacturing community in our current economic spiral, this is nothing but good news. National Public Radio has recently run specials on auto parts manufacturing plants who have transferred manufacturing to wind turbine parts, and how good the returns have been for such companies. As reported by the American Wind Energy Association, 2008 saw 13,000 direct jobs created for the wind turbine and component manufacturing industry. While this industry is still in its beginning stages, wind power development accounted for 42% of the electricity industry’s growth last year. With dozens of advanced turbine technologies and hundreds – perhaps thousands – of patent pending turbine designs surfacing, the AWEA claims that it is up to President Obama’s challenge to double renewable energy production over the next three years.

The latest developments in wind turbine technology are staggering to the imagination. Neodymium magnets have been used for several years in standard horizontal axis wind turbines (HAWT) to create an alternating current between the stationary rare earth magnets and rotating copper coils. This alternating current is converted into a direct current in order to be stored as electric energy. But the creation of alternating currents is not the only function neo magnets serve in the latest wind turbine inventions.

The vertical axis wind turbine (VAWT), a less common turbine which rotates around a vertical axis (some models have been referred to as “egg beaters”), although highly efficient, has traditionally been considered less reliable due to its short life span. The weight of VAWT is supported on its own bearings, causing fast wear which requires frequent servicing. The VAWT changed forever in 2006, when Chinese developers unveiled the world’s first permanent magnet levitation wind turbine at the Wind Power Asia Exhibition. Levitating on two sets of neodymium magnets which have been polarized to repel one another with incredible strength, the “MagLev Generator” generates as much as 20% more power than a HAWT with a lifespan far longer and virtually maintenance free. Many other forms of the MagLev have been developed since 2006; instructional videos and kits are even available to hobbyists who want to build their own small levitating VAWT at home. MagLev Wind Turbine Technologies, Inc. has developed a massive model of the levitating VAWT which would be capable of generating one gigawatt – enough to power 750,000 homes – at a cost of roughly one cent per kilowatt.

So, will wind turbine manufacturing step up to fill in the holes created by our failing domestic auto production? The answer is a solid “maybe”. If developments in other areas of alternative energy sources such as pneumatic-powered cars, solar energy and kinetic wave energy grow as quickly as wind energy has, it’s very possible that auto manufacturing plants could be reemployed in various alternative energy industries – including and especially wind turbine manufacturing. Neo magnet manufacturers are sure to see a huge boost in production if magnetic levitation VAWTs hit the mainstream market.

Still, the wind turbine industry has not grown as quickly as it might have in a better economic climate. Many researchers and developers have lost their funding due to backers going broke in the credit market and on Wall Street. Wind energy developers and manufacturers are petitioning President Obama’s administration for a chunk of the bailout money earmarked for alternative energy development, and while tax breaks have already been doled out, how much – if any – will be handed out to turbine manufacturers is still being debated in the White House.