LIVERMORE — As she looks at her computer screen, Jacqui Ryder notices a warning signal. One of the generators has gone off-line. A click of her mouse--a small controlling device--reveals the problem. The wind has fallen below 12 m.p.h. and the machine has ceased producing power.
"No problem," Ryder said. "We're picking up the slack with machines from the other end of the ridge."
Ryder and her colleagues are in an unusual line of work. They operate--or "fly," as they like to call it--wind turbines from the new computerized control room of Livermore-based U.S. Windpower Inc., the largest American wind energy company and operator of about 4,000 wind turbines.
Most of these modern-day windmills line the hilly, wind-swept ranchlands of nearby Altamont Pass, high above this San Francisco suburb. To motorists on Interstate 580, they are a spectacular sight. Some look like outsized eggbeaters. Others resemble giant fans. Yet for their otherworldly appearance, the high-tech towers represent the densest concentration of wind turbines on Earth.
As their huge blades catch the breezes off the Pacific, they collectively produce as much as 750 megawatts of electricity--only slightly less than what might be expected from a nuclear or fossil-fuel power plant, though without the potential danger of radiation or a whiff of pollution.
A few years ago, the experts were proclaiming the wind industry's demise. Federal and state tax incentives had expired in the mid-1980s, and many of the original investors and manufacturers, like the Boeing company, fled the field as government research funds for alternative-energy sources dried up.
"We were a very dispirited group," said Randall Swisher, executive director of the American Wind Energy Assn., a Washington-based trade group. Edgar DeMeo of the Palo Alto-based Electric Power Research Institute, the research and development arm of the U.S. utilities industry, said, "A lot of people thought the wind power industry would disappear."
Yet wind power has not only survived, as the whirling beanstalks atop Altamont Pass show, it appears to be entering a boom time. Nowhere is this more apparent than in California, which produces 85% of the world's wind-generated electricity. Its 15,000 wind turbines have a capacity of 1,500 megawatts, enough to meet the electrical needs of a city as large as San Francisco and the energy equivalent of 3.5 million barrels of oil per year. (A megawatt equals a million watts. An ordinary light bulb uses 75 watts.)
Moreover, those figures promise to grow in California and elsewhere in the United States as engineers develop a new generation of more efficient and powerful windmills.
Though wind power seems like the simplest of technologies--a marriage of helicopter-like blades and small electrical generators--early turbines suffered from inadequate engineering and testing and were often poorly located. The machines broke down frequently and fluctuated wildly in output. Utility company engineers understandably worried about the effects of the erratically behaving turbines on power grids. "We've had a heck of a research demonstration going on in our back yard in the Altamont Pass," Carl Weinberg, PG&E's manager of research and development, said wryly.
Having absorbed those early lessons, said the wind association's Swisher, the industry is finally coming of age technologically. One example of its new maturity is U.S. Windpower's state-of-the-art control room. In operation since last April, it allows controllers to monitor the performance of every one of the company's turbines at all times, including a new collection of wind plants being built in the Suisan Bay area northeast of San Francisco.
Color-coded screens show not only the location of every tower on the hillsides above the company's Livermore headquarters, but also such information as local wind speed, the rate at which the blades are rotating and how much power is being generated. When something goes amiss, a red light flashes. If adjustments are required, operators can "feather" the blades (adjusting their angle to the wind for more efficient operation), call up a history of the machine's performance or shut the turbine down so a field crew of "windsmiths" can make an on-site inspection.
"It's a very sophisticated control system, better than anything anyone else in the industry has done," Ilyin said.
Thanks to such improvements, wind-generated electricity is becoming more competitive. It costs less than 7 cents per kilowatt-hour, compared to 5 cents for power from a new coal-fired plant. (A kilowatt-hour represents the use of 1,000 watts for an hour.) Moreover, when potential health costs, acid-rain damage and other harmful effects from fossil-fuel power plants are taken into account, they add hidden costs of 3 to 7 cents per kilowatt-hour, according to a recent European study.