When it comes to energy, much of the attention in southeastern Ohio these days is focused underground, on the oil and natural gas locked in the Utica shale formation.
But some people continue to look up.
The feasibility of wind-generated electricity in the region is being studied by an Ohio University professor. Marietta College recently installed a wind turbine to generate some power and provide a learning opportunity for students. And Rodney Beebe, armed with two years of wind data for his farm overlooking Waterford, is trying to make his goal of generating electricity out of thin air a reality.
EVAN BEVINS The Marietta Times
Waterford resident Rodney Beebe stands on his farm beneath the 606-foot-tall MARCS communication tower on which he’s installed anemometers to measure wind speed.
on his farm, where he hopes to place wind turbines to generate electricity.
"I can envision wind turbines all around this valley, 'cause there's nothing blocking it," said Beebe, 54, gesturing around the 120-acre farm that's been in his family since 1888.
For years, studies and charts have said the winds in southeast Ohio aren't strong enough to make this region a good candidate for wind-generated electricity. But Carole Womeldorf, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Ohio University, has been collecting detailed data for the past two years to determine the region's true potential. Now, she and her team are entering that data and using computer models to map the wind in much more detail than previous studies.
Womeldorf's data comes from 12 anemometers attached to the antenna on the WOUB radio/television antenna in Athens. The monitors are placed at various levels, with the highest 240 meters in the air, much higher than previous studies.
Andy Grimm is one of the Marietta College faculty members who will be guiding students as they learn from the wind turbine installed on campus this spring.
Retired as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, Grimm taught for 15 years at West Virginia University at Parkersburg before joining Marietta in 2007.
Q: What is the goal of the wind turbine on campus?
A: Primary goal is education for our energy systems and energy students. And secondary is to make some electricity here to offset what the college needs.
Q: How much electricity will it produce?
A: We're estimating that it's probably going to be around 5,000 kilowatt hours a year, but it could be twice that.
Q: What will be the determining factor?
A: We're a bit uncertain about what the wind environment is here in the Valley because it's not been assessed very well. We do know it's not great. ... We do know this is a very efficient wind turbine, so we expect to capture whatever wind is here.
Q: How will students be using the turbine?
A: The information that we get has a lot of information about the turbine itself and how it's functioning electronically. From that information we can determine how it's responding to the wind environment. And of course the wind environment changes by the hour almost, and we can begin to see variations in seasons and variations in time of day.
Q: Are there plans to add any more turbines in the future or explore other power sources?
A: Oh yes. We'll be adding some other small wind turbines of different designs, and of course some solar cell systems. I expect we'll have those here and running before Christmas.
Q: Why did the college decide to add an energy systems minor?
A: One of their areas of strategic focus for the campus here and the college is energy and the environment. So to respond to that strategic goal, the college wanted to establish more courses and programs in the field of energy.
I think they're responding to national goals of everybody should be learning more about energy. It's a pretty hot topic these days.
Q: What is the status of offering an energy systems major?
A: We have energy systems minors now in place and have students enrolled in the program. We want to see how that goes for a couple of years and in that course of time begin to build the other courses that would be involved in a bachelor's degree. And of course there's a long approval process ... and that usually takes about a year. I'm thinking maybe three years from now we might be in the position to be able to offer the bachelor's degree.
Evan Bevins conducted the interview.
Wind energy pros and cons
Wind energy is a renewable resource, so no matter how much is used today, there will still be the same supply in the future.
Unlike conventional power plants, wind plants emit no air pollutants or greenhouse gases.
The technology requires a higher initial investment than fossil-fuel generators. Roughly 80 percent of the cost is the machinery, with the balance being site preparation and installation.
Wind is intermittent and doesn't always blow when electricity is needed.
Wind cannot be stored, although the electricity can be, using batteries.
Source: U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management.
The scope of the study is 25 miles in all directions from the tower, covering all of Athens County and reaching into several others, including Morgan and western Washington County. If only a small fraction of that area has the necessary conditions to generate reliable wind power, it is estimated it could provide electricity to 60,000 homes, Womeldorf said.
"(If) a half a percent of this 2,000 square miles is adequate, that could still host over 100 wind turbines," she said.
Previous studies did not have enough data points to provide firm assessments of the area's wind climate, Womeldorf said. The area's geography can impact wind speeds, and there was very little data taken at heights at which the terrain would not have affected wind.
"If you're in place(s) with complex terrain, that kind of adds another ding to your certainty," she said.
In addition, advances in technology have made wind power more feasible in areas that don't have the type of winds initially thought to be required.
Marietta College will attempt to fill in some of the blanks about wind patterns in the city with the help of a 55-foot-tall wind turbine installed earlier this year between the college's softball complex and the Beren Tennis Center. It was funded by a $25,000 grant from the Dominion Foundation, the charitable arm of Dominion Resources, an energy producing and transporting company.
Beebe has no doubt there's enough wind on his farm.
"We've felt the house shake," said his girlfriend, Serina Johns, 41. "You have to hold on and duck into 50-mile-an-hour winds."
But they aren't relying on anecdotal evidence to make their case.
Beebe started monitoring wind speeds in 2009 with an anemometer atop a 45-foot tower. In 2010, he attached anemometers to a 606-foot-tall, state-owned Multi-Agency Radio Communications System tower. He's learned which months are worst for wind here (June, July and August) and that even if there's no wind blowing on the ground, there could be plenty higher up.
"I've seen (wind speed) jump 20 mile an hour in a minute," he said.
Just since the end of February, Beebe has seen nine days with wind gusts of 50 mph or more, with the highest this year registering 64.
What he's looking for now is funding to help him get started. Beebe said he would consider forming a cooperative or taking on investors, but so far he's received little interest.
"If nothing else, I'll just put one up for myself," he said.
Combining that with solar cells could allow him to produce enough energy to power his farm year-round, he said.
According to the website for Windustry, a nonprofit organization that provides wind information to private individuals, businesses and public entities, a 10-kilowatt turbine is the size needed to power an average home and it might cost in the $35,000 to $50,000 range. Most commercial-scale turbines have a capacity of 2 megawatts and would cost roughly $3.5 million, the site says.
Despite that larger number, Beebe said there are advantages to building a larger system.
"It's more efficient. It's cheaper the bigger you go," he said.
Beebe said the majority of costs for wind systems are up front; the rest would be for maintenance. And he noted he already has the space on his property to place a system, along with the access roads for the company installing them. There could also be some savings to be had using refurbished parts, as long as there was a guarantee of at least five years on them, he said.