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Catching the wind

November 30, 2010


A line of windmills.

According to Ned Mohan, 2007 Morse-Alumni Distinguished Teaching Award recipient, there is enough wind power in the Dakotas to supply half the nation's electricity needs.

U professor Ned Mohan is dedicated to tapping renewable energy sources

By Rick Moore

When it comes to the potential of renewable energy sources in America, the possibilities are more than a little intriguing.

Consider the wind howling in our neighbor states to the west (and no, this isn’t the start of a joke). According to Ned Mohan, a U professor in electrical and computer engineering, there is enough wind power in North and South Dakota to supply half the electricity needs of the entire country.

“But where are the transmission lines?” Mohan asks.

Therein lies the rub, and in this case it’s one of the questions that drive Mohan’s efforts in developing the next generation of wind generators and storage. It’s what he calls the “next-generation grid”—the infrastructure to power our nation with renewable energy.

“We are preparing undergraduate students and graduate student to tackle that problem,” he says. “And we are doing it on a national scale.”

Using resources to develop resources

The University of Minnesota is the recipient of nearly $4.2 million in grant funding ($2.5 million from the U.S. Department of Energy) to carry out this work, some of which is dispersed across 82 member institutions.

“The main objective is to spread the curriculum we have developed over the last 10 years” to close to 100 other schools, Mohan says.

Here at home, the University of Minnesota offers an undergraduate degree in electric engineering that includes an electric-energy curriculum with an emphasis on renewables. One course offering, Wind Energy Essentials (EE 5940), has as its objective “to familiarize students with various essential aspects in harnessing wind energy and its conversion and delivery as electricity.”

A global view of things

“How we produce electricity, how we transmit electricity, and how we efficiently use it—these are all very important,” Mohan says. He uses the example of compact fluorescent bulbs, which are considerably more efficient and have a longer life than the standard incandescent light bulbs. The public is generally aware of the benefits of the former.

Other technologies have been slower to take hold, such as variable-speed compressors that operate continuously to help air conditioners and heat pumps operate more efficiently. So part of the challenge, Mohan says, is developing political will and incentives for the American public.

“Ultimately, you have the reward of using less electricity and improving the environment in terms of global warming,” he says.

Speaking of that controversial topic, count Mohan in the camp that believes that global warming and climate change are scientific realities, not conspiracy theories.

“There’s room for debate whether human activity is causing the climate to change,” he says, but most scientists believe that our use of energy and the resulting greenhouse gases are contributing factors. “I really feel that this is a very serious problem.”

“This climate change could affect billions of people,” Mohan adds. “A lot of it is in the developing world, but no one is immune from it.”

So Mohan is working to ensure that the current generation does everything in its power to put the next-generation grid in place.  For that to happen, he says, “you have to have a well-educated workforce. So that’s what we’re promoting here.”

Tags: College of Science and Engineering

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