Three years of senior projects, graduate school projects and faculty research will come to life when the blades of the Cal Poly Wind Power Research Center wind turbine start spinning by the end of this quarter.
Associate professor of mechanical engineering Patrick Lemieux directed the creation of the Cal Poly Wind Power Research Center, a 70-foot-tall wind turbine.
“The wind turbine is a very practical development that matches well with what we do here at Cal Poly,” Lemieux said. “It is constructional, learn-by-doing wind power.”
The wind turbine’s three kilowatts of power could light 30 100-watt bulbs, said Joseph Mello, associate professor of mechanical engineering. Mello said he focused on the development of the carbon epoxy blades.
“This little research turbine could easily take care of power needs for the off-the-grid cabin I have been building near Shaver Lake, if I only could export some Central Coast wind,” Mello said.
The components of the wind turbine, excluding the electrical generator, are entirely Cal Poly-designed, Lemieux said.
Faculty and students engineered the complete package, from the 4,000 pound steel tower to the three, six-foot blades and each part in between.
The wind turbine blades will spin at 210 revolutions per minute in winds that reach average speeds of eight to 10 miles per hour, Lemieux said.
There were all kinds of technical troubles to be solved. The 70-foot tower was too large for transportation, so they created a discontinuity, splitting the tower into two 35-foot sections connected by a bolted flanged joint, Mello said.
“How are we going to get a 70-foot tower from Wisconsin, or maybe it was Minnesota, to here?” Mello said. “Well, we had to put a joint in it. And then that joint becomes another question.”
John Ridgely, associate professor of mechanical engineering, contributed to the development of computerized sensors which measure the strength of wind and the performance of the turbine.
The coastal fog caused corrosion, cows chewed on wiring and bird droppings landed all over the gear, Ridgely said.
“You design and build something, then you put it out in the field and give Mother Nature a chance to break it — and she usually does,” Ridgely said. “So you improve it and try again and again until it works reliably.”
Several countries in Europe get 10 percent of its energy from wind power, while the United States gets approximately 2.5 percent, he said.
Lemieux said the United States has the potential for growth in the wind power industry.
“The United States has been described as the Saudi Arabia of wind,” Lemieux said.
But for the United States to regain a leadership position in the wind power industry, a highly competent workforce is needed, Ridgely said.
“That’s where Cal Poly excels — in educating the people who will get the job done,” he said.
The Cal Poly Wind Power Research Center was funded by the California Central Coast Research Partnership grant from the Office of Naval Research, Lemieux said.
The wind turbine will benefit future students of wind power, Mello said.
“The tower is designed so that we can tilt it up and down,” Mello said. “So, we can try different aerodynamic shapes, so we can redesign this blade or that joint, so that we can give students this hands-on advantage.”
Although the Cal Poly Wind Power Research Center is intended primarily as a hands-on teaching device, the wind turbine’s secondary goal is to power water wells at Escuela Ranch for the department of animal science.
The 1,820-acre Escuela Ranch, operated by the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Science, is located about eight miles north of the Cal Poly campus off of Highway 1.
The wells are powered by electricity purchased from Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), but the wind turbine is expected to begin powering the wells in a couple of years, assistant director of energy, utilities and sustainability Dennis Elliot said.
Harnessing the potential energy of wind is a step toward a more energy efficient university, Lemieux said.
Cal Poly reported that 16 percent of the university’s total energy is renewable in the “Sustainability Third Biennial Progress Report 2010.”
About 1 percent of that renewable energy is produced on campus through solar paneling on the roof of the Engineering West building. The solar paneling generates 135 kilowatts of renewable energy.
The other 15 percent of renewable energy is purchased from PG&E.
The facilities department is currently planning to build another solar panel system and minimize Cal Poly’s reliance on PG&E. This addition will generate 1 megawatt of power, about 5 percent of the university’s needs, Elliot said.
The Cal Poly Wind Power Research Center inspired facilities to also look into wind power. The current Escuela Ranch site and Poly Canyon Village are being tested as possible locations for a future wind farm, Elliot said.
Another factor taken into consideration when making the wind turbine was bird-turbine deaths. Birds die in collision with turbine blades at a median rate of approximately 2.2 birds per megawatt per year, the American Bird Conservancy website said. Since the Cal Poly Wind Power Research Center turbine will produce 3 kilowatts, or .003 of a megawatt of power, the American Bird Conservancy estimates an average .0066 of a bird killed yearly.
Although the possible impact on bird and bug migrations has not been looked into, bird fatalities are not expected for this class of wind turbine, the American Bird Conservancy said.
Lemieux said he is optimistic about the future of the Cal Poly Wind Power Research Center.
“The greatest success of this is knowing it will be complete,” Lemieux said, “The greatest success is right now, that it’s all coming together.”
This article was written by Aryn Sanderson.