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06.09

IEEE Goes Green: Coverage of the First Annual IEEE Green Technology Conference

By Patrick E. Meyer

In April, I had the pleasure of attending the First Annual IEEE Green Technology Conference in Lubbock, Texas. The two-day event included a detailed wind power tutorial, a full day conference, and two field trips — one to Brazos Wind Farm and another to the American Wind Power Center and Museum. The conference was enlightening, interactive and had that one characteristic that some conferences lack: it was fun! Summarized below are several of the presentations as well as some of the lessons learned from the conference.

The event began with the Introduction to Wind Power Systems Tutorial, which was designed to provide an overview of current wind power technology, including technical, operational, geographic, and economic aspects. Typically the course is a three-day endeavor, but in this case the presenters attempted to condense the course into a single-morning session. The result was a whirlwind of information presented in a fast-paced and highly informative form.

Andrew H.P. Swift, director of Texas Tech's Wind Science & Engineering Research Center (WISE) and professor of civil engineering at the university, began his presentation by pointing out that Texas is the wind capacity leader of the country and Lubbock, Texas, is at the epicenter of a tremendous level of growth and development of wind power, hosting some of the world's largest wind farms in near proximity. In 2007 and 2008, Texas was the top wind producer in the United States, with more than 3,953 wind-generated megawatts (MW) installed (SECO, 2009). It seems that there could be no better place in Texas, or possibly the country, to learn of the inner-workings of wind power.

Wind power, according to Swift, just makes sense. Wind has the third highest "energy payback," following only hydropower and run-of-the-river hydropower. It takes only about nine months to pay back the investment of a wind turbine. The payback period for wind is a fraction of that of other fuels; nuclear power, for example, can have a payback period of up to 40 years (NRDC, 2007). Further, when one considers that essentially all major dammable rivers in the United States have already been dammed, and that damming new rivers is met with extreme resistance, wind just makes sense.

Swift's co-presenter, Jamie Chapman, research professor at Texas Tech, insisted that we must all think about a wind turbine as a converter of flowing wind power into electrical power delivered to a load (typically the utility grid with its customer loads). When phrased this way, wind power seems much simpler. But modern wind turbines are far from simple, and they are becoming increasingly more complex. The increased complexity of turbines has lead to many turbine design challenges according to Chapman, including determining the steady-state average value of the wind, determining loss of the wind turbine load, estimating the minimal installed capital cost, working with problems associated with unusual reliability, ensuring designs that meet the required operational life of about twenty years, and competing with low-cost conventional energy sources. Despite the challenges, turbines are relatively maintenance free. Chapman contended that, whereas a helicopter may have more than one maintenance hour per one operation hour, a wind turbine has a more favorable ratio of about twenty maintenance hours per 4,000 operation hours.

Swift and Chapman covered many technical subjects including momentum theory, thrust coefficients, induction factors, airfoil stall, dynamic stall, complexity of wake, and others, providing an extremely useful wind overview to the crowd of mostly engineers. They concluded by pointing out that even though wind power has become widespread and commercially successful, there are still tremendous opportunities for technological advancement. "There is a lot of work still to be done," according to Swift, including advanced aerodynamic thinking, the development of curved blades, and other futuristic technological improvements. The future is full of opportunities for advanced wind.

The Brazos Wind Farm

In the afternoon of day one, we had the pleasure of taking a field trip to the Brazos Wind Farm in Fluvanna, Texas. The Brazos Wind Farm, also known as the Green Mountain Energy Wind Farm at Brazos, is a moderate-sized wind farm of 160 turbines. Each turbine at Brazos is rated at 1 MW and is supplied by Mitsubishi. Completed in 2009, the farm is relatively new, and supplies power to approximately 30,000 homes in Texas. The wind farm is an important place, having measurable real-world impact on energy and the environment. In 2004, wind energy from the Brazos facility helped avoid the emissions of over 144,000 tons of CO2, which is the equivalent of taking about 25,000 cars of the road annually (greenmountainenergy.com, 2009). At Brazos, the group toured the administrative facilities as well as the farm itself, giving the conference attendees an up-close and personal interaction with one of the largest wind farms in the state.

The Main Event: IEEE Green Technology Conference

The IEEE Green Technology Conference represents a momentous event. Never before has IEEE held a conference with a singular focus on green technology, sustainability, and/or renewable energy (Meyer, 2009). While many IEEE conferences have included sections on sustainability, the Green Technology Conference is special in that it fills a need within IEEE for sustainability-oriented conferences and study, and has gotten off to a good start at accomplishing those goals.

The IEEE Green Technology Conference began with a plenary session with speaker Dr. William M. Marcy, former dean of Texas Tech's College of Engineering, who discussed the role of public policy in promoting green technologies; ethical issues which may arise from development of renewable energy; and the special role of engineers in the realm of green technology. Marcy focused on aspects of green technology that he thinks other engineering professors are hesitant to incorporate into curriculum. This hesitation, according to Marcy, could have catastrophic results because there are urgent environmental concerns in which engineers could play a role in correcting, such as reduction of greenhouse gases and reduction of coal, oil and natural gas consumption.

The question Marcy presented to the audience was a simple one: is there actually enough renewable energy available to make a difference in the way that we power our society? The answer, according to Marcy, is absolutely "yes." For example, there is so much solar power available that it would take only about nine percent of the land of the state of Nevada to power the entire nation with renewable electricity. Conversely, wind power could provide 5,800 quads of energy each year, which is significantly more than what humanity currently consumes. Researchers at MIT have argued that geothermal energy alone could provide more than 100 million quads of energy worldwide. Currently, the world consumes less than 400 quads ,and even if the entire world consumed fossil fuels at the rate at which OECD nations consume, global fossil energy consumption would be only slightly more than 1,000 quads (EIA, 2004).

In the future, according to Marcy, we have to look at the myriad of consequences that follow technological change. With technological change, we must assess whether the risks can be controlled and safety reasonably assured. Engineers are pivotal because of their education and experience, which allows them to anticipate benefits and forecast risks. Further, engineers have a special education and ability to conduct things that are virtuous. Professional autonomy, technical competence, discernment, and practical wisdom are engineers’ strong points and they are the points that will propel renewable energy forward, making it a cornerstone industry of the engineering realm.

On the “Green Track,” conference attendees were acquainted with Rahim Khoie, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of the Pacific, who presented on a novel method for evaluating and selecting renewable and non-renewable energy technologies. Khoie began by asking: “What will they say about us in 100 years? Will they think of us as people who just burned everything? That we were highly inefficient? Or perhaps that we actually care about the environment and chose to make a difference?" Khoie argued that we are all part of the “techno-globo-socio-econo-geo-politico phenomenon,” and that in the drama that comprises this phenomena, there are consumers, companies, scientists, officials, actors, states, companies, and, of course, endangered species. Each has their own role at making a difference.

When evaluating and selecting renewable and non-renewable energy technologies numerous factors need to be considered, such as those pertaining to the economy, efficiency, technological development, environmental impacts, clean-up costs, renewability, and abundance of the resources at hand. In the work that Khoie presented, he quantified each technology option by weighing the criteria; essentially, Kohie assigned a letter grade to each of the aforementioned parameters based on reigning industry opinions of the technology. The ultimate question that Khoie is trying to answer with his rating system is whether we, as a society, can actually afford to go renewable. However, what it comes down to is more of a determination of whether society can afford not to go renewable. According to Khoie, the answer to the latter is almost certainly “no.”

In a very unique presentation, entitled "History and Economics Provide Better Renewable Energy Strategies,” Donald Morris provided a historical perspective on renewable energy, and explained how we can learn from past mistakes. Many societies, according to Morris, have histories of short periods of great success through the utilization of wood as a primary energy source, but almost all of these societies had long-term supply shortages and, in some cases, devastating consequences. Deforestation has occurred throughout history — the mountains of Lebanon, Spain, Chaco Canyon, Greenland, Easter Island, and England — and each historical example provides a particularly useful lesson. Easter Island provides an exceptionally compelling analogy when one considers the nature of the society’s demise. On Easter Island, the population used a vital and limited resource until it was completely eradicated. Modern humanity faces a similar situation in which we rely primarily on one limited resource (i.e. fossil fuels). The difference which will allow humanity to survive is that fossil fuels are not vital — alternatives exist. The challenge is to shift to alternatives before it is too late.

Morris argued that cost of energy will be the ultimate determining factor that forces a transition away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy. A cost-influenced shift has successfully saved other nations; throughout history, when a resource became scarce, the resultant drastic price increases for that resource forced a shift in resource consumption, but only for those nations capable of such a shift.

Ruby Mehrubeoglu, assistant professor at the Texas A&M University Engineering Technology Program, presented a stimulating discussion on advances in ocean wave energy. Ocean wave energy systems convert kinetic and potential energy of moving waves to a usable form of energy. Three categories of wave power exist: (1) shoreline; (2) near-shore; and (3) off-shore. For all three categories there are many devices in development and production, and Mehrubeoglu sees ocean power as an area with tremendous potential. It has been estimated, says Mehrubeoglu, that there are 90,000 Terawatts of potential energy in the ocean, which would provide enough energy for all of humanity with huge reserves to spare.

Over the course of the conference, attendees certainly must have experienced a growing sensation of hope and excitement for the future. It seemed that one presenter after another painted a picture of green technology that made one wonder why all technology was not green technology. The conference presenters convinced us that green technology was more efficient, easier to install, less capital dependent, and sometimes less expensive than traditional fossil fuels. Which begs the question: why has adoption of green technology been relatively slow to date?

The bottom line is that policy is still needed to propel green technology. Although it may be cheaper, cleaner and easier, green technology development must contend with more than 100 years of fossil fuel dependence. Fossil fuel use is so utterly engrained in our society that alternatives to the status quo face formidable barriers.

Bill Williams, Senior Legislative Representative at IEEE-USA, provided a legislative overview of the current energy policy realm covering recent and future energy legislation and the actions of the Obama Administration. The Obama Administration and the current Congress, according to Williams, have shown commitment to new energy initiatives by upholding the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, and then crafting the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA). ARRA is particularly important because the legislation includes appropriations aimed at getting things accomplished in the near term. In the energy arena, ARRA has battery grants, defense energy and efficiency programs, transmission congestion studies, investment tax credits (accessible to all renewable energy types, not just solar power), advanced energy manufacturing credits, credits for plug-in electric drive vehicles, and measures for alternative fuels and electrification of the transportation system. In sum, ARRA is a $787 billion appropriations and tax bill with enough firepower to propel the nation to the next stage of renewable energy development.

On 20 May, at the end of his first quarterly meeting of the Economic Recovery Advisory Board, President Obama said that the United States must take the lead on green energy, citing the "enormous job creation potential that exists." Also, Obama will almost certainly participate in the Copenhagen talks in December in an attempt to reach agreements on a post-Kyoto climate change treaty. Still, questions about the Administration's long-term energy plans persist, particularly the notable absence of funding for nuclear power development in the stimulus legislation. Williams reported that IEEE-USA has sent letters to Congress to push the nuclear issue, but getting nuclear through will be difficult. The Obama Administration is certainly pro-renewable, but seems less-than-enthused about nuclear energy.

The conference concluded with a visit to the American Wind Power Center and Museum right in Lubbock, Texas. The museum is a facility dedicated to preserving wind turbines, water pumping windmills, and other related historical contraptions. With 90 windmills inside and a dozen outside, the museum presents the entire history of the American water-pumping windmill, from the 1860s to current production. Truly a one-of-a-kind place, the museum provided the conference-goers excellent entertainment for the evening. The visit included a dinner and refreshments, as well as a self-guided tour of the facilities and a guided tour of the facility's 1-megawatt turbine, which looms above the antique turbines scattered on the property, bringing a touch of modernity to the historical museum. Worthy of noting, the turbine provides 100 percent of the power used by the facility, plus some extra which is exported to the city. A truly renewable and sustainable facility, the museum provided conference-goers with an awesome example of environmentalism done right.

The First Annual IEEE Green Technology Conference successfully brought together bright and enthusiastic engineers seeking to make the world a greener place. Presenters were enthusiastic and attendees were attentive. The field trips made this conference more interactive than most, and reminded us all that green technology can be exciting and fun, as well as practical. Next year’s conference will be held 15-16 April 2010 in Dallas, and seeks to be even more comprehensive than the inaugural event. Hope to see you in Dallas!

References

EIA. (2004), World Energy Use and Carbon Dioxide Emissions, 1980-2001, Washington, DC: Energy Information Administration.

"Wind Power Lighting Up Texas: Green Mountain Energy® Wind Farm at Brazos," Green Mountain Energy, Retrieved 10 May 2009, http://www.greenmountainenergy.com/texas/brazos_windfarm.shtml

Meyer, P. E. (2009), "Greening IEEE: The Institute’s Contributions and Future Pathways towards Sustainability," IEEE Technology & Society Magazine, Forthcoming.

NRDC. (2007), Nuclear Facts: Natural Resources Defense Council.

SECO. (2009), Texas Wind Energy. State Energy Conservation Office, Retrieved 18 May 2009, http://www.seco.cpa.state.tx.us/re_wind.htm

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Patrick E. Meyer is a doctoral student and research associate at the University of Delaware’s Center for Energy and Environmental Policy and is also a research associate with Energy and Environmental Research Associates, LLC., Pittsford, New York, specializing in energy and environmental life-cycle analysis. Meyer also serves on the IEEE-USA Communications Committee and is IEEE-USA Today’s Engineer Energy, Environment & Sustainability Editor.

Comments on this article may be submitted to todaysengineer@ieee.org.

Opinions expressed are the author's.


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