IRA FLATOW, host:
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
You know, today's report on climate change sets the stage for the work of my next guests and what they are doing: trying to develop clean sources of power that can satisfy our huge appetite for energy without pumping more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. And according to them, the wind is the key. First, the Cape Wind Project, a controversial project to harness offshore wind to power parts of Massachusetts. The second, a wind-to-hydrogen project masterminded by the Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Xcel Energy.
And that addresses a shortcoming of wind power: how to store the electricity generated when you don't really need it. You know, maybe you're generating electricity at night, the demand is low. How do you store it up for use during times of peak energy demand, and their answer is to turn it into hydrogen, which you can turn it back into electricity later. If you'd like to talk about wind and wind storage of the power there, our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK.
Jim Gordon is president of Cape Wind Associates in Boston and in Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts. He joins us today here in our SCIENCE FRIDAY studios in our spanking new NPR studios in New York. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
Mr. JIM GORDON (President, Cape Wind Associates): Thank you, Ira. Good to be here.
FLATOW: You're welcome. Benjamin Kroposki is an engineer and senior project manager in the Electric System Center at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado. He joins us by phone from Atlanta. Welcome to the program.
Mr. BENJAMIN KROPOSKI (Senior Project Manager, Electric System Center at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory): Thank you, Ira.
FLATOW: Jim, your company has been trying to get these offshore wind turbines set up for quite a while and you've run into opposition in Massachusetts. Tell us about the state of - where it stands now.
Mr. GORDON: Well Ira, the Cape Wind Project is America's first proposed offshore wind farm. And the reason that we proposed this project six years ago was because we felt that the issues of climate change, our energy security and dependence on foreign energy, and the increasing pollution levels drove us in the direction of trying to find a utility scale renewable energy project that would produce a significant quantity of energy for a particular market. And Cape Wind, on average, will produce over 75 percent of the Cape and island's electricity with zero greenhouse gas emissions. Actually no pollutant emissions at all.
FLATOW: But you ran up against some pretty heavyweight opposition from people like the Kennedy family and the former governor of Massachusetts.
Mr. GORDON: Well I think when you - we've been developing energy projects in New England for over 30 years and it sort of goes with the territory that any energy proposal will have some opponents. This certainly has some high-profile opponents, but a lot of them came out in opposition back in 2000, when the project was first announced, before any of the environmental reviews and the scientific evidence had been put on the table about what public interest benefits Cape Wind would deliver.
I can tell you now that the overwhelming majority of Massachusetts' citizens along with the major national environmental organizations like NRDC, Greenpeace, the U.S. public interest research groups, labor unions, citizens advocacy and consumer groups are supporting Cape Wind.
FLATOW: Including the new governor.
Mr. GORDON: Yes, Governor Patrick has a vision for where he sees the energy future of Massachusetts going, and he wants to establish Massachusetts as a worldwide leader in renewable energy technology.
FLATOW: We've talked a lot on this program about the potential for wind power in the states - in the plains states. A lot of wind blowing there - Texas, Kansas, the Dakotas - and how if you just hook them up, a few of those, they could supply all the electricity we would need from those states. You believe we could do the same thing offshore?
Mr. GORDON: The problem with that, Ira, is that you'd have to build huge transmission lines to transport that power from the plains states to the coastal states, and you'd have huge losses. Twenty seven coastal states consume 78 percent of the nation's electricity. And in a study released September 2005 by the Department of Energy, they validated that there is 900,000 megawatts of offshore wind potential off the U.S. coast. To put that in perspective, Ira, right now our total installed electric generation capacity in the U.S. is slightly over 900,000 megawatts.
Now I'm not inferring that offshore wind is going to replace all of America's electric generation, but it certainly can be a major component of our energy future. And with today's report from the IPC, where people are saying that we have to reduce carbon emissions by 60 to 80 percent by 2050, it's imperative that we start developing offshore wind technology as well as other renewable energy technologies.
FLATOW: How soon can - let's say you got the go-ahead to build all these offshore power plants, how soon could they all be put together?
Mr. GORDON: Well, the Cape Wind Project hopefully will finish it's permitting process - this is five years now - by next year, early next year. And we could actually have Cape Wind up and running within 18 to 24 months.
FLATOW: It doesn't take very long to build these does it?
Mr. GORDON: It doesn't take very long to build it. And again, in order to satisfy carbon-free electric growth - and our electric growth is going to grow by 40 percent over the next 20 years - so the question is: Do we build more nuclear, heavy oil, coal or natural gas plants or do we start transitioning to a more sustainable energy future with offshore wind?
FLATOW: One criticism of wind power, Ben Kroposki, is that it's intermittent. You only get it when the wind is blowing. And you're working on a project at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory that solves this problem that has found or is experimenting with a way to store up the electricity that is in excess. Tell us about that.
Mr. KROPOSKI: That's right, Ira. The project that we have is a small pilot project where we're integrating wind turbines to hydrogen generators - which are called electrolyzers - which take the electricity from the wind turbines and split the water into hydrogen and oxygen. We then store that hydrogen - we actually compress it, store it and the use that hydrogen in our project to generate electricity during peak demand periods. So what we're doing is basically using the hydrogen to store the wind energy for use when the actual electrical demand is high.
Now another key aspect to that is that we can actually - since we are just storing the hydrogen, if we had, for example, vehicles that needed hydrogen, for example, fuel cell cars, you could then use clean renewable technologies like wind to produce that hydrogen for the cars to replace the - as a transportation fuel.
FLATOW: And how far - and what do you aim - what will be success? What would you clarify success in your experimental program?
Mr. KROPOSKI: Well in our particular project we want - what we're trying to do is optimize the complete system from wind to hydrogen generation, then to storage, and then back into electricity. And so what we're doing is just making sure that we can get all of those components working together in the most efficient manner. What we plan to do as a next step and what we would consider a success for the project is that utilities would then see the opportunity here and look at scaling this up to the larger megawatt, multi-megawatt wind farm sizes so that the could use this technology for thee large-scale wind farms that are going in through the Midwest.
FLATOW: And you're in partnership with Xcel, with Xcel Energy, which makes a lot of these wind farms.
Mr. KROPOSKI: That's right. So a key partnership on this is with Xcel Energy, and they are becoming one of the premiere utilities that are integrating wind into their system. I think they have on plans by next year to be the largest installer of wind energy onto their electrical power system.
FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's go to the phones. Let's go to - let's see. Let's see if I can get Frances(ph) in Rochester. Hi, Frances.
FRANCES (Caller): Hello.
FLATOW: Hi there.
FRANCES: Hi. I have a question. I don't understand how wind energy can be promoted as though it is without environmental impact. With the huge scope of wind energy planned it seems to me there's great danger to birds and especially migrating birds. My understanding is that the scope of their vision does not allow them to perceive descending blades, even slowly moving ones.
Mr. KROPOSKI: Well Frances, we need to put this in context. First of all, scientists say that the greatest threats to birds and wildlife is global warming and climate change. With rising sea levels, we could be wiping out important bird habitat, animals may have to migrate to different regions without the right food sources. Fossil fuel burning has a terrible impact on wildlife. So every energy project has some impact. There is no perfect energy solution.
But with the new multi-megawatt wind turbines that revolve very slowly we have seen - and particularly in the extensive avian research that we've done on Cape Wind - that there's significant bird avoidance. They just really avoid the blades. And if you site the project where there are not a lot of birds, that's another plus. So I think when you look - put it into context, I think that wind power is probably a very friendly technology to wildlife.
FRANCES: Well, can I ask a question - is there no way to either use sound or light to alert the birds that migrate mainly at night that this is an obstacle that they need to navigate?
Mr. GORDON: Well, I can tell you that a recent study came out from the Danish government on years of operating experience from the Nysted Offshore Wind Farm and the Horns Rev Offshore Wind Farm, which have been, you know, fairly large offshore wind farms, and they have shown that the bird mortality has been insignificant - very few birds - and they don't have sound on there. They really do avoid the blades.
FLATOW: All right, thanks for calling, Frances. 1-800-989-8255. Ben Kroposki, how will we know when your experiment is over? And where would you go from there? Let's say it is a success and you showed that you can simply take the electrodes that leave - I'll oversimplify - that leave the wind turbines, stick them in some water, make hydrogen, and it works?
Mr. KROPOSKI: Well, currently, for the most part, we are integrating existing commercially available technologies. Now we are doing some specific research on how to better optimize the integration of wind turbines to electrolyzers, because both of them either use or consume DC electricity, which is direct current electricity.
So we are looking at on our particular project how to make that optimization happen. I think a key thing would be, you know, are we - at our scale, on the demonstration site that we're doing, we plan on putting this and testing it for approximately one or two years. But after that we really want to scale up to the wind farm level so that you may even have integrated electrolyzers basically built into wind turbines, potentially even maybe doing some of your hydrogen storage potentially in wind turbine towers as a big space where you can do some of the hydrogen storage.
So there's a lot of opportunities there to really integrate those technologies and come up with a very efficient system to make hydrogen.
FLATOW: We're talking wind this hour in TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News with Ben Kroposki who's at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, and Jim Gordon, president of Cape Wind Associates. Jim?
Mr. GORDON: Ira, I think the work that Ben and DOE are doing is fantastic and urgent. But here's a another thing: With land-based wind turbines and offshore wind turbines you could actually use the existing electric grid infrastructure and use that to fuel plug-in hybrid automobiles, and the equivalent cost of that would be like one third the price of gasoline. So there's a real opportunity not only to produce hydrogen, to desalinate water, but also to fuel plug in hybrids, to try to make them as carbon-free automotive transportation, as possible.
FLATOW: We're talking about wind this hour on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. Jim - Ben Kroposki, is America ready for a hydrogen-based economy?
Mr. KROPOSKI: Well, I think that's a key question. Because if you look out there right now, the entire transportation industry is the key component of what you would want to convert over to a hydrogen-based system. I think that there's still quite a bit of work that needs to be done on the fuel-cell side to get the cost down where those are competitive with, you know, current automotive prices.
So I think that we're maybe a little far away in terms of getting that installed in the near term. I think there are some demonstration sites in California that are looking at hydrogen-powered automobiles and the filling station and the infrastructure that it takes to get that installed and going.
FLATOW: Jim, there are other offshore wind projects being talked about - Long Island - usually the first reaction you get from people is it's going to wreck the view. What would you see for either - let's say off for Cape, if you're living in Massachusetts?
Mr. GORDON: Well, I think that the aesthetics is very subjective. There are some people that think wind turbines are beautiful and graceful, interacting with the natural environment, a symbol of hope in the future. And there are other people that don't like the looks of wind turbines. But one of the things Cape Wind is doing is taking them miles from the nearest beach, so that if you were looking at the horizon - and it would have to be a very clear day for you to see these wind turbines - they would appear about a half inch off the horizon.
Now, offshore wind turbines have been located off of beautiful seaside communities in Europe and it has not harmed tourism, property values. In fact, the communities have embraced them and they have become tourist attractions.
FLATOW: In fact, Texas is trying to outdo you all, is it?
Mr. KROPOSKI: Is it?
FLATOW: Well, Texas has built the biggest offshore wind farm in the country.
Mr. GORDON: Texas is the cradle of America's energy industry and they recognize that oil and gas are finite resources, and they are moving as swiftly as possible to try to capture the offshore wind industry. And that's why Massachusetts and New York and the East Coast really have to get going, because we don't want to follow so far behind the Europeans by - the European Union says that by 2030 there's going to be over 40,000 megawatts of offshore wind in Europe. They're really moving quickly and making it a major component of their energy future.
FLATOW: Well, I don't think there's a day goes by when I don't read about a new, you know, a new wind farm that's going up some place around the world.
And I want to thank you both…
Mr. GORDON: Thank you.
FLATOW: …for taking time to be with us today. Ben Kroposki, who's engineer and senior project manager in the Electric Systems Center at the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden; Jim Gordon, president of Cape Wind Associates in Boston and in Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts. Thanks for being with us today.
Mr. GORDON: Thank you, Ira.
Mr. KROPOSKI: Thank you, Ira.
FLATOW: We're going to take a short break and actually keep up our theme on energy and renewable energy, alternative energy sources and talk about what would happen if we took all the brain power in Silicon Valley, took it away from making transistors and invested all at brain power money into renewable energy. They've already gone there, we'll talk about how that's percolating now. So stay with us, we'll be right back.
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I'm Ira Flatow, this is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.