There’s an old proverb that states, “He who does not research has nothing to teach.” To her credit, Jennifer King has plenty of insight to share on wind energy and she has years of research to back it up. She’s currently a research engineer at the National Wind Technology Center, which provides research facilities and resources for wind energy, water power, and electric grid integration. What’s more: researching wind is one of King’s favorite interests.
“I first fell in love with renewable energy research, and particularly wind energy, in grad school,” she shares. “At the time, my advisor introduced me to the world of wind farm control where the main objective was to try and control the wind — a fairly tall order. As I progressed through the program, I became addicted to the research and the complexities surrounding wind farm controls, fluid dynamics, and grid integration.”
King went to the University of Minnesota, where she also had the opportunity to collaborate with researchers from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a federal laboratory dedicated to renewable energy R&D. Wind farm control is an important area of research that aims to reduce the loads on a turbine’s components and, ideally, optimize and increase wind production at a site.
Today, she is part of a team that’s working to advance control strategies to improve the performance of wind farms. “We develop control-oriented models, as well as controls and optimization strategies that more efficiently and effectively operate wind farms in real-time,” explains King. Essentially, she is part of a team is developing algorithms designed to maximize wind generation at a site. Typically, turbines operate individually to maximize their own power without taking into account interactions with neighboring turbines. King and her team develop control strategies where turbines work together to maximize the power of an entire wind farm, rather than one individual turbine.
“I also work on ways to better integrate wind into the autonomous energy system of the future,” she says. So, what exactly is this energy system of the future? Think integration and connectivity. For example, imagine an electric vehicle that’s currently plugged in to an EV outlet at your office building, which happens to source much of its power from wind.
“In the future, the electric grid, renewables, buildings, and vehicles will seamlessly work together in a distributed fashion, which takes advantage of the millions of controllable devices that are now coming online,” says King. “My most recent work looks at the advantages of pairing wind energy with other resources, such as solar, to design more reliable power plants.”
If there’s one thing that King has learned over half-a-dozen or so years of researching renewables, it’s this: “Anything is possible,” she says. “When I started research in this field, wind was a costly resource that survived on government subsidies. Now, in only a few short years, wind is a competitive resource that’s installed and dispatched because it is a cost competitive energy resource.”
There are other lessons we can learn from King, too. “As wind develops, there will be a paradigm shift in how we control wind farms. Control strategies will increasingly target turbine and grid reliability.” Energy storage will also play a key role, says King, particularly as battery prices decline.
“Currently, we have a centralized system where the grid sends out signals to generators indicating when and where power is needed. But in the future, the grid will shift to a more decentralized or distributed approach.” This is where storage will come into help with the variability of wind and solar. Kings says smart devices, such as smart meters and sensors, will also advance grid communication (between energy sources and operators) and efficiencies. “A distributed grid is more robust and will improve the energy system as a whole.”
King’s advice to new and future researchers: “Let your voice be heard.” She says it’s tempting to do research behind closed doors but, at a certain point, it is also important to share knowledge and lessons learned. “Research should not be done in a vacuum. Our quest toward a sustainable future with renewable energy sources, such as wind energy, is really only possible if we make it a ‘big deal’ that’s worth the study and investment.”