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Annual International Wind-Diesel Workshop Lives On: A Wind Powering America Success Story

April 12, 2011

Alaska is currently seen as the hotbed of wind and diesel integration with more than 20 wind-diesel systems installed. Other rural isolated communities throughout the world are increasingly interested in wind-diesel options to guard against ever-increasing oil prices. The International Wind-Diesel Workshop reviews the status of wind-diesel technologies while bringing the wind-diesel community together to share experiences and insights on successful projects. But the annual event almost ended in the late '90s when interest in wind-diesel systems declined due to lower oil prices and cost of energy. The U.S. Department of Energy's Wind Powering America (WPA) team, however, continued funding and maintaining the event through the years.

In the 1970s, the original goal of the International Wind-Diesel Workshop was bringing researchers together to determine the role of wind-diesel systems.

"In the beginning, wind-diesel systems created a market for wind technologies, a new application for wind energy that was also cost competitive," said Ian Baring-Gould, a senior engineer and WPA's national technical director. "When wind energy was still too expensive to be considered standard busbar, you had to find applications in places where the cost of power was high. Remote diesel grids were one of those places."

At that time, industry members hosted the international workshop, usually in the eastern United States or Canada. But in the late '90s, the level of interest in the event declined.

"Oil prices were cheap, and people mothballed their wind-diesel activities," Baring-Gould continued. "At that point, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory maintained the conference, holding it at the National Wind Technology Center for 1 year and then returning it to Alaska, with a fair amount of direct supervision and funding coming from WPA and the Department of Energy to maintain it."

Fast forward to 2011: Current market conditions for wind-diesel applications have improved with rising oil prices, and WPA passed the organizer's torch to the University of Fairbanks Wind-Diesel Application Center, which organized this year's workshop in Girdwood, Alaska, on March 8-11.

Baring-Gould believes that conditions in the future will allow for systems to be even more cost competitive and that many communities will try to install new projects to protect against future oil cost increases. He said that communities beyond Alaska, including island nations, will play a major role in wind-diesel installations in the future.

"The future of wind-diesel will continue to be strong, and we will continue to see many more applications. This is certainly tied to fuel prices. During the heart of the recession, the deepest recession the world has seen in 50 years, oil prices only dropped to $40 per barrel, and that was for something like 2 days. Most of the time prices hovered around $60 per barrel. So anyone who believes we'll return to the days of cheap oil is not accurately representing the situation," Baring-Gould said.

The Wind-Diesel Workshop is a great example of the WPA mission, providing leverage and support when needed to address important wind issues in the face of industry challenges, then handing off the supporting role when the wind industry is ready.

—Julie Jones