Vestas to Build a New Tower Plant in Colorado

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I’ve written before about Vestas, a Danish wind turbine manufacturer that built a blade facility in Windsor, CO about 10 miles from where I live. I was out flying around the other day and took an aerial photo of the plant and found that they had more than 70 blades on their property. I was impressed because they hadn’t even broken ground at this time last year and they are already up and producing blades. They had started out with a planned capacity of 1200 blades per year, but announced a 50% expansion while the plant was still under construction. They feel as if the U.S. will continue forward with wind development, despite our government’s reluctance to commit to a long-term strategy when it comes to renewable energy.

The amount of energy that this blade plant produces annually will generate enough electricity to power about 400,000 homes. I computed this by de-rating the 600 sets of blades to 1/3 of their 2 MW nameplate capacity. This is similar to the amount of power generated annually from a conventional coal-fired power plant.

I subscribe to a Google Alert for news on Vestas, and on Friday morning I found out that Vestas will be building a new facility in Colorado to manufacture steel towers for their turbines. The facility will employ 400 people and be capable of producing 900 towers per year. They didn’t specify a location, but according to the Northern Colorado Business Report, it appears that several communities in Northern Colorado are under consideration.

New Aviation Fuel to Replace 100LL

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There’s probably no topic more important to those of us who fly General Aviation aircraft than the continued availability of aviation fuel. For those of you who may not be familiar with aviation, the fuel used in aircraft is made the old fashioned way because it uses tetraethyl lead to increase the octane rating. High octane fuel is necessary because about 30% of the aviation fleet use high compression engines, and those aircraft use 70% of the aviation fuel. The engine I’ll be putting in my Cozy MKIV will require this fuel. Leaded fuel has been outlawed by the EPA for all other uses, but aviation fuel got an exemption for a period of 30 years. That period ends in 2010, which is coming up soon.

I agonized over the decision over whether to use a high or low compression engine in the Cozy but I figured that with all the aircraft fleet that need 100LL, there would be some fuel developed that would come to the rescue, possibly an ethanol based biofuel. Of course, with an experimental aircraft, I could always put lower compression pistons in the engine and use autogas, if I had to, but that’s not ideal. So I was very excited to hear about this new fuel that is being developed that has so many advantages that it’s hard to believe it’s true.

I emailed the owner of the company and he responded. That’s always a good sign. Not only that, he graciously referred me to his associates on the project if I had any more questions about it. I’m really hoping that these guys are successful. Here’s the report I got from Avweb:

New GA Fuel Promises Better Range, Lower Cost

“Not only can our fuel seamlessly replace the aviation industry’s standard petroleum fuel [100LL], it can outperform it,” says John Rusek, a professor at Purdue University and co-founder of Swift Enterprises. The company recently unveiled a new general aviation fuel that it says will be less expensive, more fuel-efficient and environmentally friendlier than any on the market. Unlike other alternative fuels, Rusek said, SwiftFuel is made of synthetic hydrocarbons that are derived from biomass, and it can provide an effective range greater than 100LL, while costing about half as much to produce. “Our fuel should not be confused with first-generation biofuels like E-85 [85 percent ethanol], which don’t compete well right now with petroleum,” Rusek said. Patented technology can produce the 1.8 million gallons per day of fuel used by GA in the U.S. by using just 5 percent of the existing biofuel plant infrastructure, the company said.

The synthetic fuel is 15 to 20 percent more fuel-efficient, has no sulfur emissions, requires no stabilizers, has a 30-degree lower freezing point than 100LL, introduces no new carbon emissions, and is lead-free, Rusek said. In addition, he said, the components of the fuel can be formulated into a replacement for jet/turbine fuels. The company now is working with the FAA to evaluate the fuel.

Hydrogen Fuel Cell powered aircraft

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For the first time in history, Boeing demonstrated a manned, hydrogen fuel cell powered aircraft. I had written about a Sonex electric aircraft I saw at Oshkosh last year, albeit as a static display model that used 250 lbs of batteries. It would only operate for about 18 minutes at full power, or just a small fraction of the time you’d expect from a gasoline powered aircraft.

In this case, the flight was at a speed of 55 kts, at an altitude of 3300 feet for 20 minutes in a converted motor glider, so the range/capacity is likely to be on par with the Sonex. Boeing does not anticipate that hydrogen fuel cells will be able to provide primary power for a commercial aircraft.

I think that the outcome of these recent demonstrations show that the future of air travel will continue to depend on liquid hydrocarbon fuels. Short of a miraculous discovery, when fossil fuels are exhausted hydrocarbon fuels will need to come from biomass feedstocks. After a rash of articles inspired by a recent Science article critical of biofuels, even Time Magazine has jumped on the dogpile, parroting the statements that biofuels are a scam and an environmentally damaging approach to generating energy.

In the future, the sun and wind will likely provide enough energy to heat our homes and provide us with electricity. Those energy sources may even power a commuters vehicle a few dozen miles a day. But to move something like a ship, a truck, a train, or a plane, it appears we’ll be dependent on liquid hydrocarbon fuels for some time. This might not be the case if the energy density of battery technology would approach that of hydrocarbon fuels per kg., but thus far it’s still several orders of magnitude away. Even with the thermal to mechanical energy inefficiency of the internal combustion engine which averages around 30%, energy density is still the primary advantage of conventional fuels over batteries.

Perhaps the best chance to please everyone would be to use wind and solar power to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, combine it with hydrogen, and synthesize clean burning hydrocarbon fuels. I suspect that no sooner than a method became practical, there’d be another dogpile forming, no doubt protecting existing interests by decrying the evils of robbing CO2 from the atmosphere.

Renewable energy certainly has a lot of controversy and drama associated with it. You wouldn’t expect that from a field that should be primarily technical and scientific, but when anything has the potential to affect economics, politics, and the environment, technical arguments seem to hold little sway.

Ethanol’s Water Requirements

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My friend Peter asked if I would write about the amount of water it takes to produce a gallon of ethanol. I have often heard this figure to be quoted at 1000 gallons of water per gallon of ethanol. I wasn’t sure how accurate this was, so I started doing some investigation. I found that I live in a county in Colorado that has the most irrigated acres of any of Colorado’s 63 counties, accounting for 11% of the state’s total. I found that corn requires a moderate amount of irrigation as far as crops go, about 16.5 inches per year in my county. Alfalfa has the highest watering requirements or about 23 inches and melons only require about 8 inches annually. When you compare irrigation requirements with Colorado’s average rainfall of 15.5 inches per year, it is obvious that more than half of the corn’s water requirements must come from irrigation and this is even more apparent when you consider that corn only grows for 3 months out of the year and during those months, the rainfall total is only about 5 or 6 inches.

Some of the irrigation is provided through surface canals fed by mountain runoff and some is from center pivot irrigation which brings water up from deep wells. I will calculate the energy cost per acre of using a center pivot irrigator assuming a 200-foot deep well and a 50 psi pressure at the pivot’s center.

Since an acre is 43,560 sq ft. and we need to apply 16.5″ of water to it during the corn growing season, this comes out to 59,895 cu. ft. or 497,128 gallons of water per acre. Last year’s average Colorado irrigated corn yield was 189 bushels/acre and the average conversion rate is 2.7 gallons of ethanol per bushel of corn. So the ethanol yield per acre is 456 gallons. Dividing that into 497,128 shows that the number of gallons of water to produce a gallon of ethanol in Colorado is around 1100. This seems quite substantial. Colorado has a very dry climate where virtually no crops can grow without irrigation. In most of the corn belt states like Iowa and Illinois, the average rainfall is closer to 40 inches per year, and so irrigation shouldn’t be necessary and thus even though it may take just as much water to grow corn as it would in Colorado, the rain will fall whether you’re growing grass, or forest, or corn, so I don’t think that the amount of water consumption is as much of a concern as it is in states like Colorado where water is considered a scarce resource.

I mentioned I’d also do the energy calculation for lifting the water from a 200 foot well. 497,128 gallons of water weigh about 4.1 million lbs. and lifting that much water 200 feet and maintaining 50 psi at the center pivot would require 1300 M ft-lbs of energy. This is equivalent to 490 kWh. Derating for a pumping efficiency of 65% we can estimate it would require about 760 kWh in electricity consumption per acre at a cost of $76/acre using $.10/kWh for the electricity rate. With corn selling for around $4.60/bushel, this accounts for about 9% of the value of the corn. So spending $76/acre seems like a reasonable trade-off considering that without irrigation, the corn yield in Colorado would be close to nothing.

Water is the most renewable of all natural resources but sometimes it’s treated like it’s a scarce or even endangered resource. The stuff does literally fall from the sky. So I guess it all depends on one’s situation as to whether water is scarce or plentiful. If you are in the middle of a flood, water is anything but scarce, yet if you’re dying of thirst, it can be more precious than gold.

Is it worth 1000 gallons of water to produce 1 gallon of ethanol? Again it depends on one’s perspective. If you need to drive a car for 20 miles, 1000 gallons of water will be of no help, but a gallon of ethanol certainly would be. And in the majority of corn-growing states, not planting corn on the land will not prevent rain from falling on it so there’d be no real water savings.