(Hal Foster appears in the Baltimore Post-Examiner under a partnership with Tengrinews of Kazakhstan. )
Kazakhstan has the highest wind-energy potential per capita of any country in the world, according to the United Nations Development Program.
That would seem to make it a natural for wind farms.
But there are a few catches. One is that Kazakhstan’s best wind potential is in gorges where speeds can reach near-gale force. Under such conditions, a conventional windmill shuts down to prevent damage.
Another catch is the high cost of the cables needed to connect conventional windmills to each other and the electrical grid. The fact that high-tower windmills must be spaced considerable distances from each other — for safety reasons – increases those costs.
Almaty power engineer Marat Kombarov has found a way to get around these problems. The founder of EcoWatt has designed a new kind of windmill that can operate without damage in high wind.
The compact design, which has won an international innovation award, also allows windmills to be placed close together in clusters to decrease the cost of transmission cables and to cut power-transmission loss.
Marat said his windmills will produce 25 to 30 percent more power than conventional models, since they will not have to be idled during high wind. They will also be cheaper to produce than standard windmills and will be able to be built in Kazakhstan, he said.
“Ideally, we’d like to have 100 percent Kazakh content in our windmills,” Marat said, “but we may have to import some components at first.
“Two (domestic) companies have already shown very keen interest in manufacturing our turbines,” he added. “They make plastics and plastic pipes,” expertise that will help produce windmills whose components will include sizable splashes of plastic.
The key differences between EcoWatt’s windmill and the high-tower version are the shape and orientation of the blades.
Marat’s shorter and wider blades are fixed along a horizontal shaft so they’re always oriented toward a gorge’s winds, which blow in only two directions – coming or going.
“We’re trying to capitalize on a niche for those wind sites where the wind blows in two alternating directions,” Marat said.
A conventional model’s longer and thinner blades are on a vertical shaft and are adjustable instead of fixed to catch wind coming from all directions. That makes them more suitable for Kazakhstan’s vast steppeland.
Marat and his nephew Sayan showed off their windmill’s design at last spring’s Astana Economic Forum, where they were fishing for investors.
In addition to bringing together top minds to discuss global economic problems, the Forum facilitates business deals. In fact, its organizers say it generated $1.5 billion worth of deals this year, ranging from memoranda of understanding to actual contracts.
One of the ways the Forum facilitates deals is setting up an exhibition area where businesses can display projects for potential investors.
I’ve written about wind power before, and the unusual design of Marat’s windmills piqued my journalist’s curiosity. So I interviewed Marat and Sayan when the Forum ended.
Kazakshtan’s highest wind potential is in the Dzhungar Gates – or Dzhungar Corridor. The gorge runs through mountains stretching from Almaty Province in southeastern Kazakhstan to the Xinxiang -Uyghur region of western China.
It is 80 kilometers long and 15 kilometers wide, so it has a tunnel-like shape ideal for generating strong wind. In fact, experts have estimated its wind-energy potential at 350 billion kilowatt hours a year.
The average wind speed in the gorge is 9 ½ meters a second, about twice as high as the average of five meters per second across Europe, Marat said.
But the Dzungar Gates’ winds can be much higher than 9 ½ meters per second. In fact, they can reach gale force – 40 to 50 meters per second.
Conventional wind turbines must shut down at 30 to 40 meters per second to prevent blade damage. Marat’s windmills will be able to operate at any speed.
A conventional windmill is 60 to 90 meters tall, while Marat’s is 30 meters from its concrete base to its highest blade tip.
The height difference translates into an additional cost for conventional-windmill installation: reinforced-concrete foundations capable of withstanding the earthquakes that can jolt southern Kazakhstan.
The amount of blade surface area has a direct bearing on the amount of power a windmill generates, of course.
A typical blade is 40 meters long and a meter wide. Marat’s blade will be 12 to 15 meters long and five meters wide – so it will have more surface area.
EcoWatt has already produced a working windmill model with 2 ½-meter-tall supports and a blade two meters long and one meter wide.
The next step is to build a full-scale prototype whose supports are 15 meters tall and whose blade is 12 meters long and five meters wide. EcoWatt hopes to have the prototype ready by the end of the year.
The company is thinking big on its Dzunghar Gates project. Marat envisions 40,000 windmills there, each producing 1 megawatt of power each, or a total of 40,000 megawatts. That would be almost half of the electricity that Kazakhstan generates nationwide, mostly with coal-fired plants.
Experts say power-hungry China could purchase as much as 40 billion kilowatt hours of electricity from Kazakhstan if its neighbor could generate the extra capacity.
If a Dzunghar Gates project proves viable, Marat said, EcoWatt could also start wind farms in other Kazakhstan gorge areas. Two of the most promising are the 300-kilometer-long Shelek Corridor between the Chinese border and Almaty, Kazakhstan’s biggest city, and the 10-kilometer-long Yerementau Corridor between Ekibastuz and Kazakhstan’s capital of Astana.
Marat’s windmills also would work in gorges in other countries, such as the Altamonte Pass area in California.
EcoWatt’s windmill design is the kind of innovation that warms the hearts of President Nursultan Nazarbayev and other government leaders, who believe that technology is the key to Kazakhstan diversifying its economy away from oil, gas and minerals.
The technology-innovation-focused American magazine Red Herring named EcoWatt one of its top 100 global innovation leaders of 2010.
“”Despite lingering effects of the global economic situation, there are many great companies producing truly innovative and amazing technologies,” said Alex Vieux, CEO of Red Herring. “EcoWatt shows great promise.”
EcoWatt founder Marat has an impressive background in power engineering.
A specialist in electrical grids, he holds a doctorate degree from St. Petersburg Polytechnic University in Russia.
He was an associate professor at the Almaty Power Institute before becoming head of Almaty Energo’s Renewable Energy Department.
Before starting EcoWatt three years ago, he was chief engineer of Almaty Energo, headed the United Nations Development Program’s renewable-energy program in Kazakhstan and advised the provincial Governor’s Office on power matters.
To learn about the latest in windmill technology, Marat visited major windmill manufacturers and wind-power research and generation facilities in 17 countries, including the United States, Germany, Denmark and India.
His nephew Sayan earned a master’s degree in plasma physics from Kazakh National University in Almaty. He has worked this year on professional finance and accounting certification.
Hal Foster is a longtime journalist and journalism professor who has worked in the United States, Japan, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. His news career has included writing and editing at the Los Angeles Times and nine years as a journalist in Japan. He is an associate professor of Communication at the new Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan. Catch one of his other blogs at en.tengrinews.kz.