For years, Jonathan Naughton and his colleagues in the University of Wyoming's College of Engineering and Applied Science (CEAS) have conducted research on various wind energy topics.
After all, what better place to study the power of the wind than Wyoming where 40 mph gusts are as much a part of life as wide-open spaces and long, lonely highways?
"The idea for a center has been discussed for about the past two years," says Naughton, a professor in the UW Department of Mechanical Engineering. "The problem has always been funding."
Thanks to a generous financial gift from BP America, a $2 million donation in September that will be matched by Wyoming's state endowment fund, UW has established a yet-to-be-named center dedicated to wind energy research.
"The gift from BP got us over the hump. We had research being done here, but we didn't have the funding to establish a presence or build a reputation," says Mark Northam, director of UW's School of Energy Resources (SER), which will house the wind energy research center. "We now have the funding to build a state-of-the-art laboratory and to hire faculty with complementary skills to put together a program dedicated exclusively to wind energy research."
He adds, "I think the biggest impact that this gift is going to have is that it will put Wyoming on the map. We will now be major players in wind energy research."
Wind energy, which is created when large-scale turbines transform the kinetic energy of the wind into electrical energy, has become an increasingly popular alternative to coal, natural gas and other traditional energy sources.
In addition to being a cleaner option, wind energy is considered more affordable -- after all, it relies on a free fuel source, the wind -- and, potentially, more efficient and reliable.
Although the U.S. lags behind other countries in wind energy research and technology, the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) believes 20 percent of the country's energy could be provided by wind power by 2030.
For now, Germany is the world's trendsetter, with 5 percent of the country's electricity generated from some 19,000 wind turbines. By 2010, however, Spain plans to generate 15 percent of its electricity needs from wind power.
The U.S., meanwhile, receives less than 1 percent of its power from the wind.
"There is tremendous motion in Europe," says Bob Thresher, director of the National Wind Technology Center at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colo. "There is tremendous potential in the wind that we have yet to tap in the United States."
There are three keys to improving America's dependance on wind energy, says Steve Lockard, president and CEO of TPI Composites, a Rhode Island-based company that develops and manufacturers large-scale structures for the wind energy market. He also serves as co-chair of AWEA's Research and Development Committee.
"We need to improve performance, reduce costs and maintain reliability," Lockard says. "That is what we need as an industry, and that's where centers like this one at the University of Wyoming can help make an impact."
To improve the country's reliance on wind energy, Northam says "important breakthroughs" in technology must occur in the coming years to improve its reliability and, particularly, storage capabilities.
Naughton compares the wind energy capabilities of today to the 707 jets of yesteryear. A 707 would get you from Point A to Point B, he says, but the jets of today, such as the Boeing 777 and 787, are more efficient, reliable and quieter.
"It's the same with wind energy," says Naughton, who was appointed as the first director of UW's research center. "We need to develop the technologies to improve wind energy."
Adds Northam, "Wind generators make energy when the wind blows, but that's not always when we need energy. If we could do some research on energy storage and be able to find ways to store it for when the power companies need it, I think we can make wind a bigger player nationally."
The founding members of the UW wind energy research center -- Naughton; Mark Balas, professor and head of Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and associate director of UW's newly created center; mechanical engineering Professors William Lindberg, Dimitri Mavriplis and David Walrath; atmospheric sciences Professor Tom Parish; and mechanical engineering Research Scientist Scott Morton -- have been working on improving wind energy technology for the past several years.
Without funding, however, Northam says the UW contingent was limited.
"They'd been working on grants that were a couple hundred thousand dollars to be able to continue to do their research," he says. "Now we've got nearly $8 million, so we're really going to make some progress in the next few years."
In addition to its $2 million pledge for wind energy research, BP gave an additional $2 million to support SER construction. Northam plans to use much of the money allocated for construction to pay for the building of the wind energy research center.
The state's matching funds will bring UW's initial budget for the project to about $8 million.
The CEAS-based center plans to draw its faculty primarily from the engineering and applied science fields. UW is currently recruiting for an additional faculty member and several postdoctoral researchers, says Northam.
"We'll have a program that's probably as impressive as anybody's in the country," the SER director says.
"Our focus is going to be to make ourselves a presence in the field right away," Naughton says. "We want to get on the map. When people say 'wind energy,' we want them to think of Wyoming."