Commentary: Everett students work on energy’s winds of change

WSU, EvCC and AMTEC students will put their turbine up against others in a national competition.

By Gordon Taub / For The Herald

To transition from fossil fuels to a cleaner, more sustainable future, society must demonstrate that such a shift holds economic rewards along with the environmental gains.

Government policy plays a role, but real change in the energy sector will occur only when renewable energy sources prove themselves to be more affordable and profit-generating than dirtier forms of energy production.

No fundamental law of physics or economics will prevent this transition from happening. Indeed, thanks to research and entrepreneurship, it has already started. According to a report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, published in February 2019, new onshore wind power plants will provide electricity at the same wholesale price of $42.80 per megawatt-hour (MWH) as conventional combine-cycle natural gas power plants when they enter service in 2023. Solar photovoltaic power is not far behind at $48.80 per MWH.

This type of progress does not happen in a vacuum, and it does not happen because of one or two breakthroughs. It occurs through small, incremental improvements thanks to countless hours of research and toil from individual scientists, entrepreneurs, engineers, technicians, policymakers and students. It is vital that a new generation of students be trained in the skills necessary to sustain this improvement in the science and the economics of renewable energy.

Washington State University Everett is doing its part. This summer, the first WSU Everett Wind Energy Team will fly out of Paine Field to Denver, Colo., to compete in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Collegiate Wind Competition 2020. The competition challenges teams from across the country to research, design, build and test a fully functional, small-scale wind turbine. Each team must also develop and perform a financial analysis of a 100-megawatt wind farm located in eastern Colorado.

The team is a collaborative group of students from WSU Everett, Everett Community College and its Advanced Manufacturing Training and Education Center. It brings together students from diverse areas of study including mechanical, electrical and software engineering as well as business, communication and manufacturing.

Our students are designing a cycloturbine, a type of vertical-axis, variable-pitch wind turbine that shows advantages over more traditional designs. The team will conduct live testing in an onsite wind tunnel, ensuring that it can withstand speeds up to 22 meters-per-second during operation and up to 25 meters-per-second when parked if winds are too strong for operation. In the economic analysis phase of the competition, our students are analyzing the economics of commercially available turbine designs. They are being generously mentored by industry experts who are working to covert Colorado brownfields for renewable energy use.

The competition is held at the annual American Wind Energy Association CLEANPOWER Conference, creating opportunities for our students to learn from the wind-industry professionals who will also judge each team’s site plan, financial presentations, and turbine design.

In addition to the mentorship provided by industry professionals, the students receive support through the public and private sector, including a $20,000 federal Department of Energy grant to compete and a $28,000 grant from the WSU Everett-housed Joint Center for Deployment and Research in Earth Abundant Materials, which will allow the University to purchase a wind tunnel for student research.

The innovative, experimental work being done by our local students is precisely the type of opportunity — for students, energy professionals and entrepreneurs — that will help us take those incremental steps toward a cleaner energy future.

Dr. Gordon Taub is a clinical assistant professor for the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering in the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture at Washington State University Everett.

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