Wind energy: When ‘more is better’ doesn’t apply

My daughters and I like to take things up a notch in the kitchen. Our chocolate chip cookies have an extra scoop of chips. Our banana bread weighs more than my 2-year-old from all ...

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Wind energy: When ‘more is better’ doesn’t apply

Toddler tips baking bowl up over her face and head

After winds get opening-scene-from-Mary Poppins strong, the turbines eventually shut down to keep the blades from spiraling out of control and causing damage.

Key Points

  • June marks the beginning of hurricane season.
  • All that extra wind isn’t necessarily a good thing for wind energy.
  • Wind turbines turn off during extremely high winds to avoid damage. 

My daughters and I like to take things up a notch in the kitchen. Our chocolate chip cookies have an extra scoop of chips. Our banana bread weighs more than my 2-year-old from all the bonus banana mush we include. And at Christmas, Santa gets to choose from a buffet of cookies decorated with enough sprinkles and frosting to put him in a sugar coma.

But this “more is better” approach doesn’t work for everything in life. 

Exhibit A: Wind.

Hurricane season started this month, marking six months of severe storms and high winds. All those extremely blustery days must be great for wind turbines, right?

Well, not always.

 Turbines have a sweet spot to make energy. The wind speed needs to be at least 6-9 miles per hour to get the blades turning. As the wind speed increases, the blades turn more quickly, producing more energy. But once the wind reaches what’s known as a rated speed, the amount of energy produced flat lines even as wind speeds go up.

After winds get opening-scene-from-Mary Poppins strong, the turbines eventually shut down to keep the blades from spiraling out of control and causing damage.

That point of “whoa, this is more wind than I can handle” varies by turbine. It’s kind of like those extra chocolate chips; an extra scoop gives you amazing cookies. Two scoops gives you cookie dough that won’t stick together because it’s basically a bowl of chocolate. #experience.

Turbines have anemometers that measure wind speed (and yes, you should definitely work that word into a casual conversation today). Once the anemometer detects that winds have died down enough, then they’ll get the turbine back to work again.

Want to learn more? Check out this animation from the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy about how wind turbines work.

And here’s the banana bread recipe Annie was working on in this picture. We recommend adding an extra banana. Or two. But not three.

It’s all about that sweet spot.


Sarah FolslandSarah is mom to the two cutest little girls in the world. Before choosing to make changing diapers and reading bed time stories her full time gig, she earned a degree in political science from The University of South Dakota, worked in the governor’s office as a policy analyst and dabbled in communications at her local utility. Follow Sarah on Twitter @EnergyMommy.

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Faux forests full of power potential

The term “energy plant” might have an entirely new meaning if researchers from Iowa State University are successful.

Literal energy plants — plastic trees with stalks ...

Tagged: alternative energy, faux forest, wind energy

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Faux forests full of power potential

Four plastic trees

Literal energy plants — plastic trees with stalks made to harvest wind energy — could make a faux forest full of power potential.

Key Points

  • Researchers are working on a way to harvest small gusts of wind with a faux forest.
  • Plastic trees would use leaves and stalks to capture energy.
  • The process is proving difficult, but a new, more efficient material may be the breakthrough they need to make it work. 

The term “energy plant” might have an entirely new meaning if researchers from Iowa State University are successful.

Literal energy plants — plastic trees with stalks made to harvest wind energy — could make a faux forest full of power potential.

Molecular biologist Eric Henderson first had the idea when watching small gusts of wind whip through trees. All those random gusts could be captured to make electricity. Henderson and his team are using a method called piezoelectrics, a process that shifts electrons within a crystal to generate electricity.

Unfortunately, the idea has proven difficult to implement.

For the piezoelectric method to work, the leaf stalks need to move at high frequency at regular intervals. Gusts of wind are, well, gusty — coming and going without notice. Another challenge is what Henderson described to Smithsonian Magazine as “parasitic capacitance.” This is energy wasted during the process, leaving little left to actually charge a battery.

But the team isn’t giving up hope.

They’re working on a new material that could be 100,000 times more efficient than other crystals available.

According to Smithsonian, the material mimics a protein found in the human ear to amplify sound. The researchers couldn’t share any details yet, but they hope this material brings them one step closer to a solution.

I like the ring of that. 


Sarah FolslandSarah is mom to the two cutest little girls in the world. Before choosing to make changing diapers and reading bed time stories her full time gig, she earned a degree in political science from The University of South Dakota, worked in the governor’s office as a policy analyst and dabbled in communications at her local utility. Follow Sarah on Twitter @EnergyMommy.

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See what it’s like to climb wind towers for a living

Maintaining our energy systems takes a special kind of person. Someone who is smart, hard-working and willing to use power tools while hanging hundreds of feet into the air.

Someone ...

Tagged: wind energy, wind turbines, energy grid

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See what it’s like to climb wind towers for a living

Wind technicians hang from a wind turbine blade while making repairs

Maintaining our grid is part of what makes up the cost of energy, so it’s interesting to see those energy dollars at work.

Key Points

  • Maintaining our energy systems is part of what makes up the cost of energy.
  • When part of the grid breaks down, it needs to be fixed quickly.
  • Check out this wind technician working on a wind blade, hundreds of feet in the air.

Maintaining our energy systems takes a special kind of person. Someone who is smart, hard-working and willing to use power tools while hanging hundreds of feet into the air.

Someone like rock-climber-turned-wind-technician Jessica Kilroy.

When giant wind turbines break down, they need to be fixed fast. That’s where Jessica comes in, as featured on the Weather Channel’s Great Big Story series.

Maintaining our grid is part of what makes up the cost of energy, so it’s interesting to see those energy dollars at work.

There are a lot of behind-the-scenes things that go into keeping our energy available when we need it. Here is a great infographic that explains how the grid transports energy hundreds of miles from the source to your home or office.

It’s not as cool as the video of a daredevil wind technician, but it does make you stop to think about the system that we depend on.


Sarah FolslandSarah is mom to the two cutest little girls in the world. Before choosing to make changing diapers and reading bed time stories her full time gig, she earned a degree in political science from The University of South Dakota, worked in the governor’s office as a policy analyst and dabbled in communications at her local utility. Follow Sarah on Twitter @EnergyMommy.

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Hurricanes could blow away old wind turbine designs

It’s hurricane season. If you live on the coast, it’s time to prepare for emergencies and evacuations. ...

Tagged: alternative energy, hurricanes, wind energy

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Hurricanes could blow away old wind turbine designs

hurricane from space

A new design option is being tested in Japan. It resembles an egg beater, with vertical blades that could possibly handle hurricane-force winds.

Key Points

  • Hurricanes make a lot of wind energy.
  • Unfortunately, traditional wind turbines can’t handle that kind of wind.
  • New designs might make it possible to someday capture energy from hurricanes. 

It’s hurricane season. If you live on the coast, it’s time to prepare for emergencies and evacuations. If you’re a Midwesterner, be prepared to see Al Roker yelling into a microphone and nearly falling over from the strong winds. Either way, you’ll probably want to stock up on snacks.

Hurricanes are powerful storms. According to a recent article on www.Smithsonian.org, a single storm can release 600 terawatts of energy. As the article’s author Michelle Donahue put it, that’s a gold mine of clean energy.

Donahue outlines a few ways we could someday capture some of this energy. As you’d probably guess, it’s not easy. One approach might be to make mobile wind farms to deploy in the path of storms as they develop. However, this approach hasn’t gotten much traction because hurricanes tend to change track quickly, making it hard to predict where to put the equipment.

Instead, researchers are working on ways to make permanent wind systems, that if by chance have to endure a hurricane, would be able to capitalize on those gusts. Traditional wind blades and turbines shut down in high winds to prevent damage. Those long blades just can’t withstand the kind of high winds a hurricane or other major storms bring.

A new design option is being tested in Japan. It resembles an egg beater, with vertical blades that could possibly handle hurricane-force winds. One prototype is currently installed, but no word yet on if it will work as planned. Another design from researchers in Florida looks like a long, horizontal screw that turns with the wind.

The beauty of this design is that these turbines actually reduce the wind effect on buildings. Installing one on your home or business would not only help the structure make it through a storm in one piece but also harness enough energy to keep the lights on even if power lines are compromised.

Unfortunately, neither of these designs is ready for prime time during this hurricane season. But here’s to hoping new technologies like this will be ready for storms in the future. I bet Al would love to do a feature on it.


Sarah FolslandSarah is mom to the two cutest little girls in the world. Before choosing to make changing diapers and reading bed time stories her full time gig, she earned a degree in political science from The University of South Dakota, worked in the governor’s office as a policy analyst and dabbled in communications at her local utility. Follow Sarah on Twitter @EnergyMommy.

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Offshore wind making waves on East Coast

Offshore wind is huge in Europe. But like skinny jeans and man purses before it, this crazy concept is waiting for it’s time to shine in the U.S.

The Department of Energy ...

Tagged: wind energy, wind power

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Offshore wind making waves on East Coast

The Department of Energy estimates that offshore wind along the coast of the U.S. and the Great Lakes could generate more than 4,000 gigawatts of electricity.

Key Points

  • Off shore wind is big in Europe but has had challenges in the U.S.
  • The projects are difficult to install and maintain and disrupt the landscape.
  • One small project on the East Coast is nearing completion and should be up and running in October or November. 

Offshore wind is huge in Europe. But like skinny jeans and man purses before it, this crazy concept is waiting for it’s time to shine in the U.S.

The Department of Energy estimates that offshore wind along the coast of the U.S. and the Great Lakes could generate more than 4,000 gigawatts of electricity. That’s four times our existing electric system.

So what’s the hold up?

A few things. For one, constructing wind turbines in the water is tricky work. It’s difficult to transport those huge parts out to sea, not to mention build a platform for them to sit on where the weather is more extreme. Plus, locals in many of the beach communities where the turbines could be built don’t like the idea of huge pieces of machinery obstructing their views.

One project is proving that it can happen. The Block Island Wind Farm is off the coast of Rhode Island. It’s only five turbines and will produce 30 megawatts, enough electricity for up to 5,000 homes.

The project is small compared to bigger ones planned in other areas of the country like Cape Cod. And some have attributed its small size to its success. With only five turbines, the wind farm doesn’t distract from coastal views as much as a larger project.

The crews are testing the turbines now, and the farm should be operational as soon as October or November of this year.

 “This project is a very important symbol of the fact that tangibly offshore wind can work in the U.S.,” said Tim Brown, public affairs leader for GE Renewable Energy in an interview with Smithsonian Magazine. “It won’t be a theoretical debate. People will see it in the water, they will see it working, and they will see it supplying electricity.”

There was a time I never would have believed that American men would adopt skinny jeans and murses either, but one look around your local microbrewery will confirm that crazier things than off shore wind have happened.  


Sarah FolslandSarah is mom to the two cutest little girls in the entire world. Before choosing to make changing diapers and reading bed time stories her full time gig, she earned an M.A. in Political Science from The University of South Dakota, worked in the Governor’s Office as a policy analyst and dabbled in communications at her local utility. Follow Sarah on Twitter @EnergyMommy.

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Wind turbines 101

Wind generation is expected to account for almost 6 percent of the U.S.’s total energy generation by 2017. That might not sound like much, but it represents an increase of more ...

Tagged: renewable energy, wind energy, wind turbine, Department of Energy

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Wind turbines 101

Wind turbine up close

Wind Energy has been around for centuries. As early as 5000 B.C., Egyptians used wind energy to propel boats on the Nile River.

Key Points

  • Wind generation is on the rise.
  • Wind energy was used as early as 5000 B.C. by the Egyptians.
  • Check out this graphic to learn how wind turbines work.

Wind generation is expected to account for almost 6 percent of the U.S.’s total energy generation by 2017. That might not sound like much, but it represents an increase of more than 24-fold since the turn of the century.

If you’ve ever passed a semi-truck hauling a commercial wind blade down the highway, you can appreciate just how huge these devices are. But how exactly do they work?

The Department of Energy has a nice interactive graphic that helps explain each part of a wind turbine. It also offers some interesting facts. For instance, as early as 5000 B.C., Egyptians used wind energy to propel boats on the Nile River.

We’ve come a long way since then, with modern wind turbines using the latest technology to harness the wind’s power.

Here’s a snapshot by the numbers: 

  • 100 – Feet above ground where most turbines can take advantage of faster wind speeds found at higher altitudes.
  • 55 – Miles per hour wind speed when a turbine’s controller will stop a rotor from turning to avoid damage in high winds.
  • 2 – Types of basic wind turbines: those with a horizontal axis and those with a vertical axis. A majority of turbines are the horizontal variety.
  • 4,000 – Number of gigawatts of technical resource potential of the winds above U.S. coastal waters.
  • 15 million – Number of U.S. homes we have enough wind power capacity to power.

Sarah FolslandSarah is mom to the two cutest little girls in the entire world. Before choosing to make changing diapers and reading bed time stories her full time gig, she earned an M.A.in Political Science from The University of South Dakota, worked in the Governor’s Office as a policy analyst and dabbled in communications at her local utility. Follow Sarah on Twitter @EnergyMommy.

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This magic kingdom isn’t a fantasy

Once upon a time, in a faraway kingdom, there was a city that needed more space for its citizens. So the queen asked her best and brightest to come up with a solution.

The ...

Tagged: Paris, energy efficient, renewable energy, geothermal, wind energy, solar

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This magic kingdom isn’t a fantasy

Floating village in the middle of a forest

Architects are calling a new, energy-efficient building in Paris “a floating village in the middle of a forest.”

Key Points

  • Paris will soon be home to a “floating village in the middle of a forest”.
  • The new building will act as a pedestrian bridge and contain homes, apartments, restaurants and office space.
  • It’s energy efficient and uses renewable energy. 

Once upon a time, in a faraway kingdom, there was a city that needed more space for its citizens. So the queen asked her best and brightest to come up with a solution.

The queen was not disappointed. A knight (rumored to wear shining armor) delivered a castle that boasted an indoor forest, space for both princes and paupers to rest their weary heads, areas to hold feasts fit for a king, and a daycare facility.

Sound like a fairytale? Other than the queen bit, it’s totally true (yes, even the daycare). And it’s happening in Paris. The building’s architects are calling it “a floating village in the middle of a forest.” The roof is covered with trees that keep wasted energy from escaping. The building will use solar, wind and geothermal energy. The structure will act as a pedestrian bridge and contain single-family homes, apartments, offices and restaurants.

Pending a never-ending winter, takeover from a wicked stepmother or a poison apple outbreak, construction should be completed around 2021.


Sarah FolslandSarah is mom to the two cutest little girls in the entire world. Before choosing to make changing diapers and reading bed time stories her full time gig, she earned an M.A.in Political Science from The University of South Dakota, worked in the Governor’s Office as a policy analyst and dabbled in communications at her local utility. Follow Sarah on Twitter @EnergyMommy.

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“What is this, a windmill for ants?”

“It needs to be at least three times bigger than this!”

Derek Zoolander probably wouldn’t understand this windmill. ...

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“What is this, a windmill for ants?”

Janulus mini windmill

A Minnesota-based company is raising funds for a way to generate your own energy with a turbine that weighs as little as 1.4 lbs.

Key Points

  • A new tiny wind turbine can help you generate the energy you need.
  • The turbines are as small as 1.4 lbs.
  • A current Kickstarter campaign for the devices is hugely successful so far. 

“It needs to be at least three times bigger than this!”

Derek Zoolander probably wouldn’t understand this windmill. But we promise you, Derek, despite its small size, it can produce electricity. Perhaps even enough to help power the Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who Can’t Read Good and Want to Learn How to Do Other Stuff Good Too.

A current campaign on Kickstarter is raising funds for a way to generate your own energy with a turbine that weighs as little as 1.4 lbs.  

The Minnesota-based company, Janulus, has already raised over $100,000 – more than double its $50,000 campaign goal. 

The mini turbines all include Li-ion batteries so you can store that wind energy for later. Some models also include a grid tie inverter so you can synch the power supply system to your home and feed the electricity directly to your outlets. It has a quick install system so you can mount it easily to your home. And you can monitor the device from your phone with an app that lets you turn it on or off, monitor wind speed and electricity generation, and track historical data.

The fact that the company has had such quick success raising funds on Kickstarter shows that there is a good market for folks looking to generate their own energy. Whether it’s this product or another, it’s exciting to see innovative ways popping up to meet our energy needs.

Check out the Janulus Kickstarter campaign here. Because there’s more to life than just being ridiculously good looking. 


Sarah FolslandSarah is mom to the two cutest little girls in the entire world. Before choosing to make changing diapers and reading bed time stories her full time gig, she earned an M.A.in Political Science from The University of South Dakota, worked in the Governor’s Office as a policy analyst and dabbled in communications at her local utility. Follow Sarah on Twitter @EnergyMommy.

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