End of an Era for Panhandle Wind Program

Aluminum tape covers the sensors being tested on a wind turbine in Bushland, Texas.
Aluminum tape covers the sensors being tested on a wind turbine in Bushland, Texas.

BUSHLAND — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Tuesday that federal assistance would go to four projects around the country, including one in Oklahoma and Kansas, dedicated to producing biofuels. The effort, Vilsack said, will "create jobs and stimulate rural economies across the nation."

But as Vilsack pushes those renewable energy research projects to the fore, his office is ending another, deep in the Texas Panhandle. Next summer, a Department of Agriculture research site in this tiny hamlet is expected to cease testing wind turbines and solar panels, something it has done for 35 years. It is the only place in the country where the Department of Agriculture does wind and solar research, and it appears to reflect a desire by the feds to shift electricity-generation projects to the Department of Energy.

Federal workers at the Conservation and Production Laboratory in Bushland will continue to do other research, on topics like the best way to build a feedlot, how to reduce emissions from cattle, and optimal irrigation techniques. And wind research operations won't end — they will simply move, to a wind research center at Texas Tech University, a few hours' drive away. Other turbine-testing work will shift to West Texas A&M's Alternative Energy Institute in nearby Canyon, which has worked closely with Bushland for decades.

But the closure at Bushland marks the end of an era, for a wind program that began in 1976 and helped get Texas going along the path toward wind-power dominance.

"It's a real shame to see the program go away," said Adam Holman, a mechanical engineer based at Bushland, though he technically works for West Texas A&M's Alternative Energy Institute.

Under the leadership of another man, Nolan Clark, who ran the wind unit for several decades and also spent a number of years as the research head for the whole laboratory before retiring a few years ago, Bushland tested the first 25-kilowatt turbine sold by Jay Carter Sr. and Jr., a father-son team out of Burkburnett in North Texas whose turbines went into the state's earliest wind farms in the early 1980s. It also tested 155-foot "vertical-axis" turbine, then the largest in the world. (This type of turbine spins around a vertical axis, unlike most of the huge modern ones in West Texas; it's a popular model with home-sized turbines.) In the early days, Clark says, they found a number of problems when they ran the machines. The turbines tended to begin to fall apart after 7,000 or 8,000 hours of operating time. Also, even if the wind machines operated smoothly, they had trouble shutting down. 

The center has produced an extraordinary body of research on wind, including the merits of pumping water using electric (as opposed to traditional mechanical) wind turbines and the operation of hybrid wind-diesel pumps. Clark, a North Texas native, started out by researching the irrigation potential of wind power, beyond the basic mechanical windmills that populate the Great Plains.

Out in the dry, dusty flatlands of Bushland, several small turbines are still spinning and generating data, including one that has been there for 30 years. Solar panels are also being tested for water pumping. But the more interesting research is being done on a more modern turbine, within sight of Interstate 40. There, researchers have put dozens of sensors on 9-meter blades, testing for information such as temperature, strain and the force of gravity on different parts of the blade. The turbine looks in effect like a hospital patient, with patches of aluminum tape protecting the sensors from the elements.

The sensors make it possible to tell "where the blades are under extreme stress," Holman says.

Turbine blades must spin in all kinds of weather conditions, from thunderstorms to hailstorms to extreme heat, and stress is common. In addition, Clark says, the wind speeds may be quite different between the top of the blade and the bottom, adding to the stress. 

Stress doesn't mean that turbine blades fall apart (although an Indian turbine maker, Suzlon, did have a problem a few years ago with blades cracking). But if sensors can detect blade problems before they become serious, that would save significantly on repair costs. 

In a hospital, "when power goes to the ICU, they put all these sensors on you to monitor you real-time," Clark says. "The idea is to monitor a wind-turbine blade real time, so you can monitor its health."

This blade research will continue at Texas Tech University, which will work with Sandia National Laboratories, which is part of the Department of Energy.

The federal government operates other research sites for small wind around the country, Holman says, in states such as Utah, North Carolina and Colorado, the home of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Canada's Prince Edward Island also does turbine-research work. Bushland itself has never gotten much money from the federal government: just about $350,000 a year, which is supplemented by fees that turbine companies pay to have their machines tested.

Even with that kind of budget, "a lot's been accomplished" over the decades, Clark says.

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