An Energy Production Windfall

By: Emily Haggstrom Issue: Innovation, Growth, Job Creation Section: Business

VMT Technologies Engineers Innovative Equipment for the Wind Industry

Gary-Lee As our current society completes the first decade of the 21st century, hindsight becomes 20/20. In just a century, at the pace the world and especially the United States use fossil fuels, it will be impossible to meet future demands of the increasing world population. For this reason, scientists, researchers, and engineers are producing technologies and seeking alternative sources of energy to alleviate fossil fuel dependence while also working to reduce emissions during energy production.

Currently, renewable energy represents roughly 19 percent of the world’s energy use according to the International Energy Agency. Of that, wind energy supplies only around two percent, leaving a large gap for manufacturers, producers, and suppliers to capitalize on many different factors for growth. With the world’s use of wind energy growing 31 percent in 2009, of all renewable energy sources, procuring wind has become a very attractive prospect.

The United States, once an international leader in wind energy installations, has taken a back seat to China who surpassed the one time wind giant in total installations — accounting for just over 50 percent of new wind turbines and leading the world market. However, according to the 2011 World Wind Energy Report, Europe holds the highest number of shares of wind power between Germany, Denmark, Portugal and Spain, reinforcing these European countries’ commitment to clean energy.

Although wind is a free and infinite resource, harnessing that power and ensuring production is no easy feat. High upfront capital costs are intrinsically associated with wind energy, making any investment into the industry a large one. The intricate design within the tower and turbine blades are tremendously expensive pieces of equipment, susceptible to fatigue failures, all of which are costly to maintain.

Each windmill turns on average 20 times per minute using a fixed rotation, as a variable speed has not been introduced by VMT Technologies yet. During high wind conditions, the existing technology signals an interface that feathers the blades and slows the rotation to avoid damage, thus decreasing output. Unexpected wind gusts or torque spikes pummel the gearbox inducing anywhere from 200,000 to 1 million extra foot pounds against these transmissions daily further causing fatigue which wears down the gearbox. Gearboxes are approximately the size of a minivan and would be efficient with a fixed transmission if only mother nature would provide fixed wind speeds. However, variable wind speeds cannot be predicted or controlled causing existing transmissions that are warrantied at five years to expire closer to two years after installation. Much of the long-term costs associated with the maintenance of these installations are from repair and return service of these parts. In fact, wind farms that could historically exist with five installations need additional installations just to account for lost production when one mill fails.

The industry, however, is projecting solid growth despite monetary setbacks. Wind energy is becoming an increasingly important component to our nation’s energy policy, but must be complemented by other sources of fuel to balance out the costs of producing a single kilowatt of energy. “Wind generated electricity sells for 14.5 cents per kilowatt hour, whereas nuclear, gas, and hydro sell for between 3 and 6 cents. Coal is about 7 cents. That’s a problem,” said Dick Wilson, chief executive officer of VMT Technologies. However, engineer Gary Lee of VMT Technologies created what he calls a Universal Transmission — an innovation that will further the wind industry and advance technology that will benefit many other sectors. The original design was created out of sheer frustration when Lee would burn out the belt of his snowmobile. “The heat burnt the belt in the transmission,” said Lee. “I knew there had to be a way to incorporate positive displacement instead of friction.”

After years of research and development, what Lee created was a similar weight transmission that required no clutch or torque converter. This specialized, positively engaged Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) can change speed at incrementally infinite ratios in response to wind gusts and speeds, allowing the gearbox within the transmission to act more as a shock absorber than a metal grinder. “You could be going one mile an hour with the transmission engaged and you can then change the gear or the ration inside the transmission and go 1.2 miles per hour,” said Lee, giving an idea of just how small and quick the internal transitions are.

These new features reduce gearbox failure rates. Current turbines would be readily retrofitted with the new CVT design, increasing the longevity of the equipment. Warranty time frames would be met - leading to increased efficiency amongst the windmills - further eliminating the need for additional and costly repairs. “VMT’s technology can provide an immediate solution to the greatest challenges facing wind energy manufacturers,” said Lee.

One major challenge of the wind energy producers is regulating and maintaining a 60 Hz output, which comes at a high cost. Lee’s creation would improve overall efficiency by maintaining output rpm’s. “Wind may be free, but VMT is here to make it profitable,” said Wilson.

The technology doesn’t just work on windmills. In fact, it transitions easily into electric and hybrid vehicles, semi-trucks, heavy equipment, and military vehicles. “We see the immediate need coming from the wind industry,” said Lee, who has focused his innovation there for the time being. His green creation leans towards the continued efforts across the globe to reduce greenhouse gas emission while increasing efficiency. “Now that we’ve received our patent, we’re happy to open the curtain and show the world what we have,” said Lee.