Harnessing the wind becoming more feasible

Suddenly, wind power as an energy source looks more feasible than it did just a few weeks ago. And Al Gore looks a little sma
Tom Jackson
May 24, 2010

Suddenly, wind power as an energy source looks more feasible than it did just a few weeks ago.

And Al Gore looks a little smarter.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has discovered a new way to store energy produced from solar power so the energy is still available when the sun goes down. A July 31 news release from MIT says the method is a "simple, inexpensive, highly efficient process."

This is potentially a huge discovery because there's a big problem with the fashionable "green" methods for producing energy: They only work part of the time. You can't get energy from solar power after sunset, and wind turbines stop moving if the wind isn't blowing.

That would be fine if there was a cheap, good method for storing large amounts of electricity. Unfortunately, there isn't.

For that reason, even though the use of wind and solar power is growing, the U.S. still has to rely on coal plants, nuclear power and other conventional power sources to make sure there is enough power for everyone who wants to turn on a light or run an air conditioner.

That's also one reason former vice president Gore was criticized when he called for the U.S. to fill all of its electricity needs within the decade by using renewable sources.

MIT researchers discovered a new process for splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen. The oxygen and hydrogen can be used later for a fuel cell, which produces clean power and leaves water as a byproduct.

MIT is promoting its discovery as a way to make solar power practical, but it also has applications for areas of the country, such as Erie County, that are trying to develop wind power.

Wind power has been touted as a key to economic development along the Lake Erie coast -- by both manufacturing the wind turbine components and producing the power.

For example, a new report produced for the Erie County Economic Development Corp. by AngelouEconomics says one of ECEDC's key strategies should be to work to develop the area into a hub for wind power. The report says ECEDC should form a wind task force of five to 10 members headed by an ECEDC board member.

An article by Harvey Wasserman at RenewableEnergyWorld.com says "standardized wind maps of the Great Lakes region show one of the most concentrated potential green energy resources in the world. Ringed by substantial cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Toronto, Buffalo, Cleveland and others, Lakes Superior, Michigan, Erie, Huron and Ontario seem potentially comparable to wind resources even as big as the American Great Plains, where the winds are steady and powerful, but where distances to markets are daunting."

MIT got much of the money for the research from a grant that's supposed to help develop solar power, so the MIT news release dwells on the solar angle. But the news release's author, Anne Trafton, said the discovery could make wind power more practical, too.

"The researchers who developed this are focusing on solar, but it could in theory also be used to store energy produced by wind turbines," she said.

Although MIT's breakthrough is clearly important, it's gotten little attention from the news media.

Popular Mechanics has already looked at the MIT discovery, and it also says using hydrogen to store power has broader applications than just storing solar energy.

"It's worth noting that Nocera's current experiments didn't use solar energy -- they simply ran off electricity from the grid. That's actually an advantage, since it means the same technology could be used to make hydrogen with wind turbines or other renewable sources like hydropower," wrote the article's author, Alex Hutchinson. (Daniel Nocera is the MIT professor who led the work).