Once, the answer was all that was blowing in the wind. Today, we’re increasingly turning that answer into electricity.
Until the 1980s, there was essentially no wind power in the United States except for a few windmills here or there on some farm. Since 2000, though, the amount of wind power in the country has grown by a factor of 28.5 — we’re not even sure the word for that other than “exponential.”
Last year, the United States generated 6.3 percent of its power from wind. The Department of Energy has projected that figure may grow to 30 percent by 2030, just a dozen years away. We think of California as the trendy, renewable energy state, but it’s actually Iowa — plain old corn-fed Iowa — that is out in front. Iowa already generates more than 36 percent of its power from wind and is on track to top 40 percent in the next two years.
We think of Appalachian Power as a coal-fired utility — and coal is its biggest source of power — but even Appalachian is investing in wind. Flick on your lights and 5 percent of that is coming from wind now; by 2031, nearly 19 percent of Appalachian’s power is projected to come from wind.
All this raises many questions, one of which is: Where are all the wind engineers going to come from? For that, we have an answer, and it’s also blowing in the wind: We bet a lot of those future wind engineers are in the KidWind Challenge. Thousands may jam onto the bleachers on a Friday night to watch a high school football game, but there’s another kind of school competition going on that likely will have more long-term impact on society. The KidWind Challenge is an annual competition where students — some as young as fourth grade — build their own wind turbines.
This year’s national competition will be May 8-10 at the American Wind Energy Association in, appropriately enough, the Windy City, aka Chicago. We’re getting ahead of ourselves, though.
Among the participants there will be three teams from Bath County and one from Rockbridge County — all winners at the recent regional competition in Roanoke.
There are several levels of amazement here. One is that the KidWind Challenge exists at all — the idea of kids building their own wind turbines seems pretty futuristic and completely at odds with the popular perception that kids these days are too mesmerized by their cellphones to concentrate on anything very long. The other is how did Bath County — with 4,556 people the second smallest county in the state, ahead of only Highland County — manage to send three teams to the national competition? (Public service advisory: They’re not on the way yet. They need to raise about $7,000 or so to get there, so feel free to chip in to help them get there.)
The answer about how tiny Bath became this year’s powerhouse turbine-builders leads us to Ed Ozols, the technology supervisor for Bath County schools.
Bath has been taking part in the KidWind Challenge since 2015, which makes it an “early adopter.” Bath County High School’s turbine-building team went to the national competition in 2016. (A private after-school program from Botetourt called The Learning Barn went to nationals last year and took first place.)
This year Bath County High School fielded two separate teams and felt confident enough to enter the “advanced level” category. As a result, the Redwood Express took second and the Wind Express took third, both good enough to qualify for nationals. (Rockbridge County took first in the regular high school category.) Here’s how serious Bath is about its wind teams: The school has now built its own wind tunnel to test turbines in.
The more fascinating story may be at the younger level. A year ago, Valley Elementary took part in the KidWind Challenge for the first time. The team won a trophy — for a poster. This year, Valley Elementary came back and blew away the competition — quite literally — to take first place. These are kids in fifth through seventh grade.
The kids start their projects in the fall. All they have is a small generator supplied by the KidWind Challenge. The rest is up to them. The big talk in education (and economic development) circles these days is STEM education — science, technology, engineering and math. These kids are getting a STEM education like no other.
“It involves a whole lot of math,” Ozols says. “They have to work out gear ratios, the pitch, the angle of the pitch, things like that.” This is serious stuff that takes place after school. “You get kids into school on a Saturday or Sunday and they’re excited about being there, you know you’re doing something right,” Ozols says.
This year’s regional competition was at the Science Museum of Western Virginia and drew 27 teams that underwent a battery of oral presentations and written tests in addition to the actual turbine-testing. Valley Elementary was one of the last teams to put theirs into the wind tunnel. Ozols remembers the team members being completely silent as the blades started to turn — and they watched the output on the screen steadily rise. The output is measured cumulatively in joules — the scientific term for one watt-second. When the counter blew past the 50 joules mark, the kids erupted in screams. “It was like winning the Super Bowl,” Ozols says. Their turbine finished at 53 joules, about 10 more than the next-closest competitor.
Remy Pangle runs the Virginia KidWind Challenge. She’s the associate director of the Center for Wind Energy at James Madison University and likes to talk about the practical side of all this. The wind industry is growing; this is where some of the jobs of the future are going to come from and, ideally, the KidWind Challenge will help prompt students to pursue wind energy. It’s no accident that Dominion Energy is the main sponsor, contributing $25,000 each year to run the Virginia competition. “It’s important for kids in the KidWind Challenge to see the buck doesn’t end here,” she says. “It can be a career.” Apex Energy is now licensed to build the state’s first wind farm in Botetourt County but hasn’t started construction yet. “I think a lot more wind projects will be coming on line once the first one takes shape,” Pangle says.
Bath County has already placed at least one graduate in the wind industry, and expects to place more. For now, though, that’s a ways off as the kids tinker with their turbines — and get called before the school board to be honored. “The kids come home,” Ozols says, “and they’re heroes.”