Tuesday, September 8th, 2009

Renewable Energy: Plastics Inherit the Wind

windmillsTransforming the kinetic energy of the wind into electrical energy that can be harnessed for practical use into utility power lines requires huge, utility-scale wind turbines. [The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) has plenty to read about wind energy and how it works.]  Low-weight, low-cost, high-strength and fatigue-resistant materials are required for the huge rotors needed for today’s commercial wind turbines. These traits make plastics the material of choice. In fact, most wind turbine rotor blades are built from carbon filament-reinforced plastic (CFRP) and glass fiber-reinforced plastic (GFRP).  And demand in the U.S. is certainly growing.

As he raged against America’s dependence on foreign oil, Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens made many headlines in 2008 (as well as a TV commercial) as he put his money and enthusiasm squarely behind wind power. One of the key pillars of the Pickens Plan is to “create millions of new jobs by building out the capacity to generate up to 22 percent of our electricity from wind.”

A July 2008 U.S. Department of Energy report examined the challenges, needs and outcomes associated with a stated goal to provide 20% of U.S. electricity via wind power by 2030.

Last month, the DOE selected 28 new wind energy projects for up to $13.8 million in funding and Energy Secretary Steven Chu released the Department’s 2008 Wind Technologies Market Report that details the $16 billion in investment in wind projects made in the U.S. in 2008. According to the report, this makes the U.S. the leader in annual wind energy capacity growth. “Wind energy will be a critical factor in achieving the President's goals for clean energy, while supporting news jobs,” said Chu.

Bayer MaterialScience LLC, an SPI member company, was one of  the 28 recipients selected last month by DOE, receiving a $750,000 grant to support development and testing of advanced composite technologies and resin infusion processes for larger, more efficient and more powerful 1.5+ megawatt wind turbine blades. According to a company press release, the project, “Carbon Nanotube Reinforced Polyurethane Composites for Wind Turbine Blades,” is an initiative to help accelerate development of advanced wind turbines, with a focus on overcoming technology barriers to broader application.

Just last week, on September 2nd, the U.S. Treasury Department and Department of Energy jointly announced $502 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act cash assistance to energy companies in lieu of earned federal tax credits.  Ten out of the 12 grants were for wind projects in Maine, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Texas.

AWEA reports that the share of domestically manufactured wind turbine components has grown from less than 30% in 2005 to roughly 50% in 2008. That’s good for the environment, the energy crisis and plastics.

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