5 wind projects get DOE grants

Federal officials have invested big in weather forecasting and other wind related technologies, citing a goal of doubling U.S. wind-generation capacity.

More than $5 million in grants will go to five projects, the U.S. Department of Energy said today. Two will be used to help utilities better plan around the variability of wind energy. The other three grants assist development of mid-sized wind turbines used at such locations as schools, farms and factories.

"Wind power holds enormous potential to help reach our nation's clean energy goals," said U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu in a statement. "Today's awards will help better integrate wind energy into the electrical grid and will support the development of midsize wind turbines that can be used to provide renewable electricity in communities across the country."

The move is another that beefs up one of the most promising U.S. alternative energy sources. The private sector is humming with proposals looking to expand the reach of wind farms from Montana to Chesapeake Bay. And Southern California Edison -- like many others -- is investing big bucks into new and bigger transmission lines. In SCE's case, it's to get power from growing Tehachapi, Calif.-area wind farms to the Los Angeles market.

Last month, Terra-Gen Power LLC says it secured $1.2 billion to build four wind-powered electrical generation projects near Tehachapi. Officials estimate the project will generate about 1,500 jobs and have a combined generating capacity of 570 megawatts, expanding the wind farm by about 20 percent.

DOE reported 10 gigawatts of wind-powered capacity added nationwide last year for a $21 billion investment, enough to power about 2.4 million homes. Yet wind still delivers a paltry 2.5 percent of the nation's electrical supply, DOE said.

But that is expected to grow. One of the drawbacks is the intermittent nature of wind. When it blows, energy can be produced. When it's not, another source must take up the slack.

Two of the latest DOE grants, to AWS Truepower LLC in Albany, N.Y. and WindLogics Inc. in Saint Paul, Minn., will lead teams and work with DOE and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to install "advanced atmospheric measurement systems over a broad area, provide data that allow advanced weather prediction systems to improve short-term turbine-level wind forecasts and demonstrate the value of these forecasting improvements for electric utility operations."

Better forecasting solves only part of the problem. Carl Borgquist, president of Grasslands Renewable Energy, a wind startup in Bozeman, has a high-priced proposal he believes will solve it.

Borgquist told forbes.com that wind needs a way to get the energy to market. That means costly transmission lines, and Borgquist said the only way to make them cost-efficient is to fill them up.

That means backup energy. Coal and natural gas are the most lucrative possibilities.

But Borgquist has another idea. He told Forbes about his pump-storage proposal: "Pump water uphill when there is excess power, and let it run downhill through a hydroturbine when power is needed."

It needs lakes, a hill and a lot of cash. It's uncertain if others share his vision. The cost Forbes mentioned was $3.25 billion for 1,000 megawatts of steady clean power.

Here's a detailed list of the DOE grants:
  • AWS Truepower: $2.15 million. Targets high-wind region in Texas and works with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages an electric power system with the largest amount of wind power capacity in the United States. Include Texas Technological University, North Carolina State University, University of Oklahoma and National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
  • WindLogics: $1.25 million. Spans several Upper-Midwest states and many active wind energy projects and assesses utility benefits with the Midwest Independent System Operator. Corporate parent NextEra Energy Resources will provide meteorological data from 14 wind plants totaling about 2 gigawatts of capacity. Includes South Dakota State University and National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
  • Clean Green Energy LLC of Brighton, Mich., $620,000: Bring a 200-kilowatt vertical axis wind turbine design into cost-effective mass production. The vertical turbine design will allow for distributed onsite generation near buildings.
  • Northern Power Systems of Barre, Vt., $620,000: Leveraging about $10 million in private sector capital to develop a 450-kilowatt turbine, helping to complete the final turbine design, procurement, and prototype testing within 18 months. The project is expected to reduce the cost of energy from midsize turbines.
  • Texas Tech University in Lubbock, $620,000: Adapt a turbine featuring two blades downwind of the tower. This turbine design builds available technology and scales it up to a 500-kilowatt rated output. Allows installation without cranes and seeks to compete on cost with fossil fuel power generation.