College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

ME graduate student aims to aid in wind energy development

Although wind is a plentiful resource in Iowa, harnessing the invisible power is not as straightforward as it may seem. Planning and implementing a wind farm requires the consideration of many factors, but one particularly central group of people has not been the focus of much research or attention: landowners.Le Chen

Looking to change that trend, Le Chen, PhD candidate in mechanical engineering, is dedicating her research to improve landowner participation in the development phase of wind farms.

She says landowners are vital to the success of wind farm operations in Iowa, and that’s why she is modeling the impact of their participation decisions on wind power output, and also modeling impacts on noise production and other concerns landowners may have.

“When I first came to ISU, Dr. (Erin) MacDonald helped me identify the many different directions I could go with my research,” says Chen. “I chose wind energy because I believe the prospect of the technology is very promising. I also realize landowners are an overlooked resource in the wind energy process, and I want to do something helpful with this research.”

Traditionally, when developing a wind farm site, implementers approach individual landowners of a proposed site and ask for their participation in the project. However, at the time of this discussion, the developer doesn’t know what the efficiency for using that particular land will be. If site developers can identify the most crucial plots of land prior to this negotiation process, they can focus on building a positive relationship with those landowners and improve the overall efficiency of implementing the wind farm.

Using a wind farm layout optimization model, Chen’s research aims to identify the best positions of turbines for specific wind farm cases, stemming from the notion that certain land parcels allow for greater energy generation, less cost, and more efficient wind farms. With this information, she can also determine which landowners own the plots that are most crucial to the success of a wind farm project.

The models will be enhanced further to give landowners a better idea of the noise that the farm will produce and compensation levels that are reasonable for participation in the farm. Another enhancement will allow developers and landowners to work together to give landowners a better idea of where turbines will be placed early in the development project, and potentially give them more control over specifying “off-limits” areas of their land.

“Right now, during the negotiation process, developers are unsure of the final design of the farm and can only offer landowners a contract without guarantees on the placement of turbines on the land,” Chen explains. “For landowners, this means they are offered a compensation package that is difficult to value. Our new process would be a decision-making tool that could give landowners an idea of where turbines are likely to be placed on the land, as well as the visual and audio impacts.”

Chen’s model is customized for an entire wind development site and can generate several optimal layouts for a given wind farm. This aspect is especially useful if a landowner identified as crucial opts not to participate in the site. Developers can then refer back to the alternative layouts and quickly begin work on their next-best option.

“We think this will help facilitate the negotiation process between developers and landowners, make the process more transparent and predictable, and help both parties work together to move forward,” she explains.

Chen is currently trying to collaborate with Professor of Agronomy and of Atmospheric Sciences Gene Takle to use real wind farm data from an operation in Story County.

With a more realistic model, her recent findings, and continued investigation, this research will be revolutionary in saving the resources of site developers, helping landowners, and better channeling Iowa’s wind.