PALM DESERT, CALIF.—At the American Wind Energy Association’s (AWEA) Fall Symposium, Nov. 19-21, 2008, in Palm Desert, Calif., the mood was bullish, in spite of the current financial crisis. Keynote speaker Wesley Clark, past presidential candidate, four star general, and now heavily involved in wind and renewable energy, noted, "We are, in this business, in an ideal position." When asked about the outlook for civil engineers, General Clark remarked on the timeliness of the 50-year cycle of infrastructure works, and said, "It’s a great time to be an engineer in America."

Many forces have aligned to make feasible a wind energy boom on a much grander scale than the record U.S. growth of recent years. Chief among these forces is a long-term stable national policy anticipated from the Obama administration in 2009. According to AWEA, this will inspire investment and confidence in wind energy firms, and financial interests, supply chain enterprises, transmission authorities, and electricity utilities.

The effort is being cast as a national imperative both for national security via energy independence, and for the global strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The road map for this growth is the heralded May 2008 report by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), "20 Percent Wind Energy by 2030." Twenty percent wind represents taking 140 million automobiles off the roads, in terms of fossil fuel consumption, according to AWEA. The growth projection in the next four years calls for a doubling of the current rate of annual installed capacity.

According to the DOE, by 2018, "the wind industry is on track to grow to a size capable of installing 16,000 megawatts (MW) per year, consistent with the latter years in the 20-percent wind scenario." Using the common modern wind turbine as a reference, a 2-MW turbine with a typical height of 300 feet, Americans could expect to see approximately 8,000 new turbines per year at the peak to the projected development.

The implications for civil engineers are enormous, in facilities, roads, permitting, logistics, and project management. Civil engineers will be needed en force to provide siting, geotechnical, structural, and environmental services. Areas of work such as logistics and construction management were highlighted as special needs in several break out sessions at the recent conference, where presenters highlighted opportunities to improve wind project economics. For example, very significant capital costs could be saved by optimizing the use of expensive rigging and hauling equipment, according to Graham Brisben, president, Professional Logistics Group, Inc.

U.S. wind power has achieved two milestones during the last year. Within the United States, the annual installed capacity represented 35 percent of the nation’s new power-producing capacity, second only to natural gas. And, the U.S. grew to become the number one international market, with 5,244 MW in 2007, according to AWEA. The expectation for 2008 is for an increase to 7,500 MW, in spite of tightened financing.

Siting wind farms runs into two common issues that the wind industry has attempted to address with proactive measures. Wind energy promoters have worked with U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the Audubon Society on bird and bat mortality, and have recently launched the Wind and Wildlife Institute to promote good stewardship of these resources. Regarding sound and aesthetics complaints of local populations, the industry often points to Europe, where wind power is viewed favorably and people live in much denser quarters within proximity to wind turbines.

In Denmark, where wind has already achieved 20 percent of the country’s electricity supply, growth has been aided in the country’s connection to the European transmission grid that can absorb the variable nature of wind power. For the United States to meet its growth projections, regional transmission authorities are expected to explore new strategies to balance the greater demand for wind power with the load demands.

Meanwhile, a national directive for an electron superhighway is anticipated. This would consist of a high-voltage grid interconnecting two super regions, east and west, and increase the feasibility of integrating wind power into the grid, according to the DOE report.

Approximately 1,000 participants focused on the theme of "Accelerating wind industry growth toward 20 percent" at the Fall Symposium. As many as 12,000 participants meet at the AWEA’s major event, held each summer.

Contributed by Douglas Krause, P.E., a civil/environmental engineer in Portland, Ore., who specializes in wind and water resources.