CHEYENNE — If one Wyoming company has its way, the future of wind power won’t rest on what happens some hundreds of feet in the air.
It won’t be made up of gearboxes and transmission lines and peaks and valleys in production.
If Cheyenne’s Winhyne Energy has its way, the future of the industry — both in Wyoming and globally — will be below ground. It will be in gas and pipelines and, eventually, constant, steady and reliable generation.
What Winhyne has set out to do, quite simply, is change the way wind generates electricity. They aim to make the resource storable and easily transportable.
They aim to do it in Wyoming, in a field near Guernsey. And they aim to do it soon.
Wind power is constantly criticized for its inability to generate a consistent base electricity load. It’s nearly impossible to predict when and how strong the wind will blow, meaning any reliance on the resource by grid operators would be foolish.
But Winhyne actively promotes two aspects of its experimental wind system that could pacify such concerns — their unit’s storage capability and efficiency. Both of them could make wind a more reliable power source.
The system’s innovations start at the top. Instead of relying on a gearbox in the nacelle, or top of the turbine, the Winhyne turbine’s motion creates hydraulic energy used to power hydraulic motors that compress and pressurize nitrogen gas. That gas is either stored or used to power a generator, depending on the existing demand for power.
When power is needed, the pressurized gas bypasses a storage component and powers a series of small generators. If the grid is full, the gas is compressed into a pipeline system for safekeeping.
The system could accomplish one simple feat previously untouched by the wind industry — storage of energy unnecessary in real time due to lack of demand or lack of a market.
It also allows operators to have more control over when power is generated. If the demand for power suddenly rises but the wind isn’t blowing, the pressurized gas can be released from the pipeline. The gas powers the system, running the generators and creating electricity.
“Unlike any other storage system on the market, we don’t generate electricity until we’re ready to put it on the grid,” said Dean Byrne, vice chairman and president of Winhyne.
Winhyne says their turbine is also more efficient than others on the market. Ted Tuazon, vice president of engineering for Lancaster Wind Systems, Winhyne’s research and development firm, said most turbines have a cut-in speed — or speed at which a turbine can begin spinning — of around four meters per second. Most turbines cut out at 25 meters per second.
But Winhyne’s turbines start turning at a lower speed and can maintain a consistent revolutions-per-minute measure at higher speeds, meaning the turbines can generate power in environments where others can’t.
“We’re already producing energy where similar turbines can’t yet,” he said.
In fact, a test early in development showed that a Winhyne turbine generates about double the electricity of a similarly sized turbine in fairly low-speed conditions. The gap between the two levels out at higher speeds, but Winhyne’s model still produces more power.
The model could eventually help California, a state that desires renewable energy but doesn’t have the natural resources to back it up.
“California has a very aggressive renewable energy standard,” Byrne said. “Our technology would allow them to produce two or three times what they can right now.”
A garage in Alberta
The company’s path to making wind power a storable commodity stretches back a decade to a garage in Alberta, Canada.
Dave McConnell, founder of what would become Lancaster Wind Systems, now Winhyne’s research and development division, started his business there.
McConnell’s background wasn’t in the wind industry. For nearly 35 years, he worked in oil and natural gas. But Lancaster’s operations kept expanding, and by 2009 McConnell had established a Nisku, Alberta, office and had gathered funds needed to test a concept combining petroleum and wind science — a hydraulically powered wind system.
The concept wasn’t completely new, according to Byrne.
“There have been many hydraulic turbines before,” he said, “or at least there have been attempts at them.”
Some in the industry said hydraulically-powered units would be a dream, but many doubted industry’s ability to produce them. Chief among the doubts was whether a pump that could generate the pressure needed for the project actually existed.
Wind energy workers didn’t think such a pump existed. McConnell knew it did, and added pump technology normally reserved for offshore oil and gas drilling to his system.
Finding the right pump enabled the company to test different gases in the compression and storage system. First, the company tested the system using air, but ran into several problems.
“Air is highly corrosive, especially when it’s moist,” Tuazon said. “It can cause explosion.”
The company then tried using glycol, but quickly scrapped the liquid. Before long, they came up with the gas they’re using today — nitrogen.
Nitrogen’s strengths are numerous — it’s abundant in the atmosphere, around 80 percent of what humans breathe.
“It’s naturally occurring,” Byrne said, adding that it’s also inert — meaning it’s not really a threat for explosion — and it’s noncorrosive. It’s also got a low sensitivity to heat.
And what gas leaks into the atmosphere — little, according to the company — isn’t a problem.
“That’s where we recovered it from to begin with,” Byrne said.
The pieces were in place. All that needed to happen, then, was to get a demonstration project off the ground.
Winhyne plans to prove itself in a field just outside of Guernsey. The company is planning a nine-turbine, 10-megawatt farm in Platte County.
“The goal is to fine-tune this design,” Byrne said.
The company will test whether it can store compression units for all nine turbines in one shed unit. They’ll also test whether they can transport the compressed gas 2.5 miles to their generation and storage unit.
The project will be used to demonstrate the concept to producers interested in capitalizing on the new technology. Though the company hasn’t accomplished anything in Wyoming yet, they’re already getting interest.
Byrne presented his technology to a room full of wind and transmission executives and government officials at a February meeting in Jackson. Since then, his phone’s been ringing.
Winhyne isn’t ready to disclose just who they’re negotiating with, but every deal could help. The company’s concept could even be used by wind producers around the world almost immediately after the Guernsey demonstration begins operations in late 2014.
The chance exists that another company will develop a similar technology, but Winhyne — or some extension of the company, which was technically founded by Lancaster executives last summer and has since engulfed the original company — has been working on the technology for eight years, an evident leg up on the competition.
“We’re just hoping we have the advantage of already developing the technology and bringing it to the market,” Byrne said.
Byrne said that each time he explains his company’s technology to a prospective buyer, a light bulb goes off in the buyer’s mind.
“The reality is we do not have a real complex, Rube Goldberg type of technology here,” he said. “When you tell people about this technology, it makes sense.”
The company hopes to launch into the competitive wind market soon after the Guernsey project provides some results. Among the concepts the company could later bring to the market is transporting their compressed gas for miles via a pipeline, again capitalizing on oil and gas technology to strengthen wind.
In the meantime, Byrne said he and his company support every form of wind, hydraulic or electromechanical, transported via pipeline or high-voltage direct current lines.
“We’re definitely not competition” to existing wind projects, he said. “Scrapping the current grid and using our technology — it’s not an option. We’re more complementary.”
Winhyne has and continues to reach out to planned wind projects around the state. Although some of the company’s first projects could certainly be outside Wyoming, Byrne — a Wyoming native — said he’s loyal to his home state and hopes to help it as he can.
“From Winhyne’s standpoint, Wyoming is the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “The state is a huge market for us.”