American wind energy is ramping up

When the wind shifts in Sarita, they know about it on the 40th floor at 1600 Smith in downtown Houston. Same thing when lightning strikes in Northern California or threatens the Canadian plains of south-central Manitoba.

This isn’t idle gossip, but critical information for Pattern Energy, which operates electricity-generating wind farm plants in each of these places and is about to break ground in seven locales even more far-flung. Since December, the company has monitored its entire fleet of sleek wind turbines from a sophisticated operations center in Houston that is staffed around the clock.

The center, visible through a glass partition but accessible only with a badge and fingerprint identification, is dominated by a 6-foot-by-20-foot wall of flat-screen displays that include camera views of the wind farms, all relevant meteorological data and a turbine-by-turbine accounting of how close to optimally each one is operating at any given moment.

"We’re talking about a technology that is 3,000 years old — using the wind energy for work," center supervisor Dean Fagan said. "Our focus now is taking what we have and making it more efficient."

When the wind is blowing just right, Fagan explained, you want your wind turbines spinning at capacity. When the weather isn’t cooperating, that might be a good time for repairs or maintenance. But when there’s lightning headed in, you need to get work crews down pronto. The "smart-screen" weather map on a side wall provides further data, including lightning strikes, in real time.

The U.S. added 1,100 megawatts of wind power generated capacity during the first quarter and had 5,600 more megawatts under construction, the American Wind Energy Association reported last month. The latter figure is nearly twice what it was during comparable periods last year and in 2009, the association said,suggesting a return to more robust growth after a dip in new wind farm capacity in 2010.

"American wind energy is ramping up, and these first-quarter figures indicate an industry poised for a renaissance," the industry group’s CEO, Denise Bode, said in a statement announcing the results.

The U.S. wind industry now has 41,400 megawatts of capacity, the group said, enough to cover the energy needs of at least 10 million homes. Yet wind energy remains more expensive than power generated by fossil fuels such as natural gas and coal, and it accounts for a fraction of current production.

Fagan said two things can help close the cost gap now or in the reasonably near future: scale and efficiency. Pattern is working on both. The company last year raised $800 million for wind farm project development and has more than 4,000 megawatts of renewable-energy projects in the "development pipeline," a spokesman said by email.

Fagan offered an example of how Pattern’s centralized operations center improves efficiency: At its Gulf Wind farm project in Sarita, on the Kenedy Ranch in South Texas, Pattern runs 118 wind turbines that can rotate 360 degrees with angled blades that adjust themselves to get the maximum "bite" of available wind. Analysts working 12-hour shifts in Houston keep tabs on the computer monitors to ensure that each turbine is working as close to capacity as possible. Slowdowns can be spotted quickly, investigated and addressed by a maintenance crew on site.

Fagan said that sort of active management can allow the producer to get 2.4 megawatts out of a wind turbine that is formally rated for 2.3 megawatts. "When you’ve got 118 wind turbines, that adds up," he said. The last step in cost control, Fagan said, will be storage.

Wind doesn’t blow all the time and when it produces more than the grid needs, the excess is often shunted directly to the ground. Technical advances, in such areas as batteries or use of excess power to pressurize air that can drive a turbine generator later, could drive costs down further.

Pattern, a private company with base operations in San Francisco, has 110 employees, including 38 in Houston. Its operations center has three desktop workstations, and Fagan said the number of analysts will grow as the company adds wind farms.

By Ronnie Crocker,