Students blown away by speaker on wind energy

It’s not often students get the chance to ask an expert how they might improve their projects. So students in District 204’s Crone Middle School’s after-school STEAM Team took full advantage of grilling a wind energy professional when she visited their club last week.

Kids involved with the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Mathematics) Team are building and testing wind turbine blades. The students got a hint as to whether their designs were sound on Friday when Kimberly Smith of Acciona Energy North America gave them an overview of the field of wind energy.

As vice president of construction and operation and maintenance services, the Naperville resident oversees building wind turbines throughout North America.

One such Acciona wind farm under Smith’s care is near the northern Illinois town of Lena. It features 67 turbines that can generate 1.7 megawatts of power. That equates to providing electricity to roughly 40,000 homes, she said.

While many people complained about the strong winds that blew through the Plains states and into Illinois on Thursday, Smith was quite happy.

“Yesterday was our biggest day ever,” Smith said of her company’s ability to produce energy from the wind.

“When the wind blows, we love it,” Smith said.

The sheer size of Smith’s 1.7-megawatt turbines fascinated the kids. Smith explained that from ground to the bottom of a blade measured roughly a football field. Rather than have employees climbing up and down ladders all day to perform maintenance, “I have elevators in mine,” she said.

Smith added the elevator moves slowly, taking roughly 7 minutes to ascend to the top of the tower — something she and her employees greatly appreciate.

Students also had some pretty meaty questions for Smith, such as the feasibility of off-shore turbines, how structures like homes affect proper air flow on wind farms, and what is the right number of blades for a turbine.

Smith said her company has yet to get involved in the off-shore market because “it is not economical yet.” The cost of running cable under water and sending a person out in a boat to perform maintenance remain too high, though her company is looking at ways to reduce costs.

Homes, barns, trees, crops and other structures can affect the efficiency of a wind farm. While the machines are taller than most buildings and trees, Smith said the placement of each turbine is calculated specifically to maximize its use.

As far as the number of blades, Smith said it depends on the design and purpose. Because her company’s wind turbines are very large, three blades are the most efficient for generating electricity.

For students interested in pursuing a career in the field of wind energy, Smith advises taking “lots and lots of science and math.”

For example, engineers design and build the wind turbines, and metrologists help determine whether a property can produce enough wind to power a turbine.

Those interested in acquiring property for a wind energy company might want to take more business-related classes, she added.

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