UH Competes to Bring Wind Turbine Research Facility to Texas

It's down to Texas and Massachusetts. The Department of Energy wants to build a new large-scale wind turbine research and development facility and it has its list of potential sites pared down to two. Houston Public Radio's Rod Rice reports the University of Houston led Lone Star Wind Alliance is confident of winning the project.

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"We got a whole team of people who are experts in pieces of the puzzle of wind energy, so we're a very powerful group and that's where we'll win it because we think we have the best group."

Raymond Flumerfelt is dean of the Cullen College of Engineering at the U of H. The research and development facility would be located somewhere along the Texas Gulf coast. It would be for turbines that are much larger then those currently being used.

"As you in crease the size of the blade or the turbine your efficiency goes up, it goes up basically as the square of the radius of the blade. To get more and more power more effectively and efficiently people go to larger systems but the U.S. right now has no place to test such blades and to do research on those kinds of blades."

That creates a problem for the wind generating industry because bankers and insurers what to know the technology they are financing will get the job done and have an economical lifespan. Flumerfelt says that means blades have to be over engineered to satisfy the money people. They have to be larger and stronger and therefore less efficient than might be the case if there was a place to do research on bigger blades or turbines. These large turbines could be used for off shore wind generating and that's one reason the Texas General Land Office is a strong supporter of the project. Jerry Patterson is the Land Commissioner.

"The Land Office is responsible for leasing state owned lands, and of course a substantial amount of those state owned lands are submerged in the Gulf of Mexico. In the past that's all been oil and gas royalty revenue. However, the potential to have offshore wind farms, and we already have two leases for offshore wind farms, makes this a logical place. If we can get that blade test facility here that's gone to bring more business to Texas, more wind energy to Texas, more jobs and a cleaner environment."

Patterson likens the economic impact of the blade research center as being equivalent to NASA establishing the Johnson Space Center here.

"It has the potential. Wind energy is an $80 billion industry and while we are leading the nation as far as the number of megawatts of installed wind capacity, I don't want to lead the nation just in how much wind power we produce, I want to lead the nation in manufacturing, research and development, all of those things. Why should we build the turbines and ship them from overseas to here? Why don't we just build them here and install them here."

Wind power is a popular renewable energy option but there is one large drawback. The effect on wildlife: birds in particular. Dean Flumerfelt says studies show the bird kill from wind turbines is a tiny fraction of that from buildings, particularly structures with a lot of glass.

"Just like you don't stop building buildings because you have that problem, you deal with it. You try to adjust to it. You try to minimize it. Certainly you would not what to put wind systems in flyways of migratory birds. You wouldn't want to do anything that would impact wildlife in a major way."

Flumerfelt says environmentalists would have to play a role in the development of wind systems. The Department of Energy's selection of either Texas or Massachusetts could be announced as soon as this summer.

Bio photo of Rod Rice

Rod Rice

Local Anchor, Morning Edition

Rod Rice became fascinated with radio at an early age, while sitting on his Grandfather’s lap listening to his "programs" on the big Emerson Radio...