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"In the private sector, you feel like you're making a direct impact," says Bret Harper. The renewable energy consultant glimpsed the life of a research scientist while earning his bachelor's and master's degrees. He'd go back for a Ph.D. if he ever felt the need, but at the moment he's an articulate proponent of a career in the business world.
It probably doesn't hurt that Harper is working in Hawaii, a state where people have reason to consider the value of renewable energy every time they fill their gas tanks. Currently, 90% of the state's electricity is generated from imported petroleum products, which also fuel virtually all of its transport. That dependence bleeds about $7 billion per year from the state.
Fortunately, Hawaiians have been developing their renewable sources of energy for some years, and during the skyrocketing oil and gas prices of 2008, the state unveiled a clean energy initiative that includes switching 70% of energy production to renewable sources by 2030.
Harper's graduate study focused on wind climatology, but he works on a variety of questions as a consultant for ARCADIS. "I worked on a few projects doing wind energy storage. That's important, because we have small, isolated grids in the Hawaiian islands and have to do the storage." He's also done integrated resource planning, working to create the optimal mix of renewable energy sources for a certain use as well as the path toward attaining that mix. Because ARCADIS has a lot of experience with hydroelectric power, he says, "I spend a lot of time doing hydroelectric feasibility studies, even dam inspections and that kind of thing."
Hawaii's geography echoes the urban-vs.-rural energy issues of the mainland, but with the Pacific Ocean thrown in to make things harder.
"The state has 1.2 million people, and basically they're all on Oahu," Harper laughs. (In fact, about 75% of them are, with virtually all the rest on the islands of Hawaii and Maui.) Each island has an individual power grid. The state would like to build an undersea cable system to connect these into one grid, allowing Oahu to take advantage of power generated elsewhere.
"People propose to put wind turbines on the rural outer islands, where there are also factories, refineries, and landfills. Right now there are plans to put big wind farms on Molokai and Lanai. Those islands are economically depressed, but residents still aren't sure they want their wind energy to go to Honolulu."
Despite hurdles like these, Harper is confident that his field will continue to grow in Hawaii. "People in the renewables industry are not that worried by the current economic downturn because the industry has had such explosive growth. The economy has a much bigger impact on the large landowners, farmers, ranchers, and small business owners who are excited about doing renewable energy but are suffering from a lack of cash flow. But there's a whole spectrum of people on that curve: some are hesitant to hire a consultant like me to do a feasibility study even though it's to their advantage to invest in infrastructure, but some people get it and jump in with both feet."
Harper sees plenty of contrasts between a job in industry and at a university. As a consultant, "nobody just gives you the work; you have to win it. So if you're not on a good team, you won't get work. Also, there's potential to spend all your time chasing work instead of doing work."
However, he loves the fast pace and the feeling of being on the cutting edge of the field. "We have access to all the latest, greatest information when we're working on a project. If you're at a university, you may be working with [industry] data that's four or five years older to avoid concerns about confidentiality [of proprietary information]."
But mainly, he likes seeing results. "In the academic world, if you think it would be perfect to do something you can write a letter to your [congress member] and someday it might happen. In the private sector, you work on a project and it actually gets built six months later. I find that really satisfying."
These days, wind farms are sprouting faster than seed corn on the northern Great Plains. But not every windswept mesa is a potential moneymaker, explains Ben Harper. "Wind power is dependent on the cube of the wind speed, so very small changes in wind speed have very large effects on the economic viability of a site."
Entrepreneurs can't afford to collect a sufficiently long series of wind data from a potential site; most get only a year's worth of observations. Under those circumstances, it would be a big help to know whether that year had been unusually blustery or calm.
As a student intern in UCAR's SOARS program, Harper explored the connection between wind speed and power on the northern Great Plains and the occurrence of climate events such as El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO). "There's been a lot of work on hourly and seasonal wind changes, but interannual variability—the period from year to year—has been less studied," he explains. "Climate oscillations happen on that scale, so having a sense of their effect is important." He chose that region because he had done a study for a wind turbine at a casino owned by the Rosebud Sioux tribe in South Dakota.
Using 50 years of wind speed measurements collected at airports in North and South Dakota, Harper established a correlation between ENSO and wind speed and power. For example, El Niño years were correlated with a reduction in wind speed in South Dakota and similar but smaller reduction in North Dakota. Harper developed a statistical method for finding such connections in other parts of the world and establishing their amplitude. His results were published in Wind Engineering.
Webcasts by Bret Harper and others
from the 2008 Planning for Seven Generations Conference: Indigenous & Scientific Approaches to Climate Change
NCAR Forecasts Will Help Xcel Energy Harness Wind
news release on related research, February 4, 2009