A group of Princeton University faculty and students experienced the burgeoning wind-power sector in person on May 3 during a visit to the Sherbino Mesa II Wind Farm in Ft. Stockton, Texas. Owned by BP, the wind farm consists of 58 operating wind turbines with a total power-generating peak capacity of 145 megawatts. Support for the trip was provided by the Princeton Environmental Institute and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment.
The Princeton visitors sought to understand the technical and financial aspects of wind power and to search for research projects that would be valuable to the industry. The wind-power industry, globally and in the United States, is several times larger than the solar-power industry, and both have been growing rapidly over the past decade.
Those on the trip included Robert Socolow, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, emeritus; Elie Bou-Zeid, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering; Minjie Chen, assistant professor of electrical engineering and the Andlinger Center; and Robert Williams, a senior research scientist, emeritus, in the Andlinger Center. Joining them were Hossein Hezaveh, a postdoctoral research associate in civil and environmental engineering, and engineering graduate students Greg Davies, Ryan Edwards and Levi Golston.
Over the course of most of a day, the Princeton group had an in-depth briefing from BP personnel, followed by an on-site tour of functioning turbines and power-handling equipment. They saw how technicians in the control room regulate power entering the grid. They watched the blades of the windmills vary their pitch in response to changes in wind speed to maximize lift and, thus, power generation. The delegation also examined spare and damaged parts at ground-level. They saw up-close the immense tubes that make up the tower supporting each windmill; the giant nacelles that contain the turbine and gearbox; and the huge windmill blades — which, being made of balsa wood and fiberglass, are surprisingly light.
“Field trips are wonderful — no amount of reading can substitute,” Socolow said. “Our hosts provided us with detailed information about plant operation and maintenance and about their own history with the industry.
“We saw first-hand how rapidly the wind can subside and then pick up again, which is already compelling major adjustments in the state-wide power system in Texas,” he said. “I was impressed with how much land is available for more wind and solar power right where we were. A future electricity system where wind power and solar power are the dominant sources —instead of coal and natural gas — did not seem so far-fetched after this trip.”