United States

United States

Prospecting for wind pits man against machine

Like searching for gold, wind prospectors take to the field to advise developers and utilities where to put their wind turbines for the best returns. Accurate they must be. High tech they are not.

Google Translate

Bob Baker can often predict annual wind speed by simply examining a site's vegetation. In Oregon's Columbia River Gorge, for example, the notorious gusts leave their mark on fir and pine trees: few tree limbs survive the constant lashing from the east winds, which leave the evergreens bare on one side. In Baker's world this is evidence, to be used in consideration of ridges and fields that may serve as future wind farm sites.

A long-time "wind prospector," Baker searches for dunes shaped by gusts and grasses flagged by breezes. He seeks out farmers who like to chat about how storms lash their crops. He pours over meteorological data and topographic maps. In the end, his recommendation-to utilities, developers or research organisations-is often based on a feeling. "It's a lot of intuition," says the meteorologist, who has worked for wind farm developers Kenetech and SeaWest. Baker is now a consultant, heading up Impact Weather in Washougal, Washington. "I've done this since the mid-seventies, and over the course of my work I've seen a lot of territory. I've seen a lot of wind."

Baker is one of a dozen or so wind prospectors in the United States, most of whom were trained at Oregon State University (OSU). Their job, Baker says, is to "promise" power by predicting when, how and where the wind is most likely to spin wind turbines. Utilities or developers generally hire wind prospectors to be the first on the job at a potential site or area.

"Quite often we do a lab exercise before we go out and do field work," Baker says. "We try to gather available information to help establish our feeling at that point of time, given the area of interest." From there, wind prospectors head to the hills with compass, hand-held wind meter, binoculars and topography map in hand. Scouting a site in person often yields better results than relying on computer models, which do not provide reliable results in complex terrain, he notes. These programs lack some of the critical data a wind prospector gathers with his eyes and ears-clues to the nature of the wind, such as turbulence and shear, and how it will affect a turbine's operation. "If it's dusty, it may be hard for the turbine to produce energy. If the wind moves up and down, it may shut the turbine on and off," says Baker.

Wind prospectors' low-tech siting efforts often dispel myths about wind energy, he says. For instance, many people assume that wind speeds increase with height. "But that's not always true," he points out, adding that much depends on topography. "Sometimes you get the best wind speeds at lower elevations. You have to understand what drives the wind." In addition, many people do not understand how subtle changes in wind speed translate to significant changes in turbine energy generation. "If I under predict mean annual wind speed by five percent, my estimate of a facility's annual energy production will likely be short ten percent. A small error is the difference between making money and losing money. That's why you can't rely on a model. You have to get accurate measurements in the field. Otherwise, you may play Russian Roulette and lose," he says.

A fading field

OSU's program to teach people about the wind's whims, foibles and potential powers began in 1971 in the institution's Department of Atmospheric Science, with grants from state utilities Central Lincoln People's Utility District and the Eugene Water Electric Board, says Stel Walker of OSU. The program was a joint effort between the atmospheric science experts, who focused on how to identify potential wind farm sites, and OSU mechanical engineers, who studied ways to improve the wind turbine.

After the wind energy program gained some experience, the Bonneville Power Administration in the late 1970s provided funding to identify potential wind farms at 200 to 300 sites, says Walker. These included Oregon's Vansycle Ridge, which was recently developed by Portland General Electric (Windpower Monthly, January 1999), and Juniper Point in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge-an area currently under consideration, but which has been met with opposition (Windpower Monthly, December 1998).

Many US wind prospectors were trained in the 1970s and 1980s, but the OSU program is not as active now. When the industry picks up again, as Baker believes it will, wind prospectors will be in demand once again. He expects that colleges and universities will offer new wind prospecting training courses as part of their atmospheric science programs. With his experience, Baker says the ideal training program will not only include meteorology, but another, just as important skill: public relations with landowners. "When I was with Kenetech, I was the first one in the field," he says. "I tried to make friends with landowners. This was critical. Until you had a piece of land, the utilities did not want to talk to you." Many of the landowners that Baker met during this period invited their extended families to help decide whether or not to offer their land as a wind farm site, he says. "We were asking for thirty-year leases. Most ranchers had ten more years to work their land and then would hand it off to their children. It was a family decision."

Dead end road

Today, finding sites for wind farms is more complicated than it was in the past, he notes. Developers must contend with stricter environmental and zoning regulations from local, state and federal governments. "You don't want to walk down a dead end road. You need to make some reasonable investigations up front," Baker says.

Whether Baker is working as a public relations expert, a site finder or a myth dispeller, the wind energy business takes him right where he wants to be, he says. He likes meeting the farmers and ranchers, people who live and die by the weather. He prides himself on his accurate, gut-based wind speed predictions. And the business gives him the opportunity to explore the countryside. "I grew up in the city but always wanted to be in the country and experience the weather, the beauty of the landscape and wildlife, and meet the people who rely on the land for their livelihood," he says.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles
and free email bulletins.

Sign up now
Already registered?
Sign in