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NIU Engineering professor explains how to harvest the power of wind energy

March 9, 2021

Wind flows a lot like water, according to NIU Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Nicholas Pohlman. “The same fluid mechanics applies to hydro power that has been used since the 18th century, just with a lower density, intermittently available resource,” he says. In other words, harnessing the kinetic energy of wind to create electricity relies on many of the same principles that are well established in the energy industry – but it also requires some changes in our thinking and behavior.

Nick Pohlman

Dr. Pohlman will discuss the conversion of wind energy to electricity and answer audience questions at the next NIU STEM Café, online on Tuesday, March 16, at 6 p.m. Register for this free event at go.niu.edu/windenergy.

“Pivoting to wind energy may require power balancing of the grid because wind is intermittent – are you willing to turn off the TV and lights so that the toaster works?” Pohlman asks. It also requires a willingness to see where and how energy is converted into the electricity that we rely on in our daily lives.

“When energy was converted remotely (coal, nuclear, etc.), few people cared where the facility was located,” Pohlman says. However, he notes that many people have a “not in my backyard” attitude towards wind energy, which is generally located closer to the end user.

Such proximity to consumers can have positive effects, however, not the least of which is to decrease transmission losses – the energy lost as heat when electricity is transmitted along power lines from the plant to your home or business. “If urban areas could incorporate wind energy into their architecture, then we might be able to reduce transmission losses,” he explains.

Perhaps even more important is the mental shift of learning to see our own energy consumption instead of taking it for granted. “Wind energy is widely available and increasing in capacity, but we all need to be willing to SEE the energy harvesting rather than just hope power comes out of the outlet,” Pohlman notes. “Seeing the energy conversion will hopefully help us recognize our own energy needs.”

The only limit on size of wind turbines is the transportation mechanisms used. Here, wind turbines are being transported by rail through northern Illinois.

Dr. Pohlman will be joined by Derek Hiland, DeKalb County Community Development Director, who will address questions related to growth, zoning and land-use changes in the county.

“This is a wonderful chance for the public to learn about wind energy – something that has been in the news often lately,” says STEM Café coordinator Judith Dymond. “Dr. Pohlman and Derek Hiland will help us sort fact from fiction, so we can make informed decisions about energy use.”

“Fossil-fuel based energy had millions of years to collect sunlight and be compressed underground, but we are consuming at a rate that far exceeds its multi-million-year collection,” says Pohlman. “If we can learn to harness and immediately use the lower energy density forms, such as wind, then we will have greater sustainability and decrease impact on climate change.”

The STEM Café will take place online via zoom on Tuesday, March 16, at 6 p.m. Register for this free event at go.niu.edu/windenergy.

Northern Illinois University STEM Cafés are sponsored by NIU STEAM and are designed to increase public awareness of the critical role STEM fields play in our everyday lives. For more information, contact Judith Dymond, Ed.D., at 815-753-4751 or email [email protected].