Exploring the power of wind

WESEP_Wind Tunnel Tour
WESEP tour of the wind tunnel

The Wind Energy Science, Engineering, and Policy (WESEP) summer Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) almost didn’t happen.

The National Science Foundation did not approve WESEP until March and participant applications were due in April.  With only one month to advertize the program, organizers hurried to publicize the opportunity and hoped for about 50 applicants.

Gene Takle, professor of agronomy and of geological and atmospheric sciences, and WESEP program coordinator, realized WESEP had “hit the nail on the head” when 269 students from 33 states applied for the research experience.

“There is a need for this type of program and a large demand for it because of issues that need to be resolved so wind energy can be used more efficiently,” says Takle.

He iterates that wind energy is intricate, interdisciplinary, and takes a variety of people and skills to get one wind turbine to function. One emphasis of the program was to show how vital each role is and that one cannot function without the other.

Takle gives simplified examples. Meteorologists want to know wind patterns and speeds. Materials engineers want to continue to improve the materials used in turbine blades. Manufacturers want to know how to build and transport the materials. Electrical engineers want to know how much energy turbines will produce. Construction engineers want to know how to get the blades up high enough. Policy makers want to come to agreements with communities, legislators, and landowners. All of these elements, and more, have to fit together for one turbine to be constructed.

Jessica Bruce, environmental resources engineering student from Humboldt State University, spent her summer looking at the noise aspect of wind energy. “Noise research is an important part of the future development of wind energy,” says Bruce. “This type of energy depends largely on community acceptance and noise disturbance is a main barrier we need to overcome to achieve that.”

In addition to individual research, students worked in interdisciplinary groups to find answers to common questions, but those often created many smaller questions that must be answered first. For example, transporting a large blade down a small county road creates its own worries: Will the truck fit down the road? If not, can the road be widened? Whose responsibility is it to pay for that construction? Will the energy produced from that turbine make up for that construction cost?

Those kinds of questions challenged WESEP students to think creatively and explore how public policy affects wind energy. Although the science behind wind energy is rapidly improving, students learned that dealing with politics, land issues, taxes, safety, responsibility, and more is vital to ensuring the further development and expansion of this natural resource.

In addition to educating these young researchers on the power of wind and all it takes to harness it, Takle admits the REU is a great advertisement for Iowa State. “This REU is not conceived as an end in itself, but as the first part of a sequence of programs,” says Takle. “It is a gateway to potential education, research, and careers at Iowa State.”

He adds, “It’s hard to get excited about a lump of coal or a gallon of gasoline, but a wind turbine is iconic. We want students to take away from this how powerful wind energy is and how much of a difference their work with it can make.”

Students who want to continue their wind energy education should look no further than Iowa State. WESEP is scheduled to continue for two more summers, selecting new groups of student researchers each spring. New wind energy courses have already been developed and a minor in wind energy directed toward students in physics, engineering, and meteorology is in the works. For those interested in a PhD program, Iowa State just received funds to develop a WESEP PhD program from the National Science Foundation Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship program.