Change Is in the Air

Wind Energy Joins the Electromechanical Revolution

Mike BacidoreBy Mike Bacidore, Managing Editor

What’'s with all this crazy talk about these newfangled wind farms and the “green energy” they produce? It’'s finally happened. The hippies have taken over. If we’'re not careful, they'’ll have us running our Volkswagen Beetles on hydrogen.

Far out, man.

How in the world did it come to this? And why should controls engineers care?

Windmills, of course, have been around for a long time. Most of us think of the Dutch versions, used for drainage pumps and grain mills, some dating back more than 700 years. But machines were built to harness the wind and perform tasks prior to the Roman Empire. Still, it wasn'’t until almost 1900 when someone figured out how to turn kinetic energy into mechanical energy and then turn that into electricity. And that brings us to controls engineers.

If you’'re a mechanical engineer, you'’re probably addressing more electrical issues than your education had prepared you for. The same holds true in reverse for EEs. Machine builders are confronted with a variety of electromechanical component choices, especially when it comes to motion control. So, what does all of this have to do with wind energy?

Automation suppliers know. They already understand the potential depth of this market and are diving in.

One of ABB'’s largest orders in 2007, —valued at more than $400 million,— came from Germany's biggest utility, for technology that will link the world’'s largest offshore wind farm—, Borkum 2—, to the country’'s power grid. "Besides being 130 km out to sea and connecting 80 wind turbines, the station will also transmit power to a receiving station on land via undersea cables and landlines,"” said Karl-Heinz Lampe, managing director for E.ON Netz Offshore.

Land-based wind power accounts for about 7% of the country'’s electrical production, which makes Germany the leading wind-power nation in Europe. The government aims to double wind-power capacity by 2020, and a large part of the additional power is expected to come from offshore farms, of which this is the first.

Siemens also is very focused on green markets. At the company’'s Automation Summit in Chicago this past July, Dr. Heinrich Hiesinger, CEO of Siemens’ Industry Sector business and member of the Siemens board of directors, said he believed the green market would grow by at least 10% per year. “Drives for wind power will be up by 20%, limited only by capacity,” he said. Siemens’ Industry Sector, which includes industrial automation, drive technologies and industry solutions, produces €40 billion in revenue and employs 210,000 people globally.

“We'’re increasing our manufacturing of gearmotors for the wind market, and we'’re making blades for the turbines,” said Dennis Sadlowski, Siemens E&A’s president and CEO.

“It’'s a staggering fact that motors driving conveyors, belts and pumps are responsible for 70% of all industrial power consumption globally,” explained Raj Batra, vice president of Siemens Energy & Automation’s Automation and Motion Division. “And yet until recently, most plants didn'’t pay much attention to this because the cost and the price of energy made it less than 2% of overall operating costs.”

OK. Automation suppliers are selling components to the energy industry. That doesn'’t impact controls engineers at OEMs, does it?

Here'’s a little something to put in your pipe and smoke. Before World War I and prior to their inclusion in power distribution systems, windmills were used by farmers to generate their own electricity. Make electricity, not war, man.

Is it that far-fetched to envision major manufacturers with their own wind farms on-site, not only harvesting energy to run their plants but sending power back to the grid? You think I’m crazy?

BP'’s Netherlands Refining (Nerefco) includes a 22.5 MW wind farm that contributes power to the Dutch grid. Yes, that’'s right. An oil refinery has its own wind farm. And where else but in the country that tourists often visit to see its windmills. A country that would be underwater, if not for its engineering prowess.

At least now we know what happened to all of the hippies.