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A solid grasp of the wind

Company keeps track of far-flung energy

When the wind shifts in Sarita, they know about it on the 40th floor at 1600 Smith in downtown Houston. Same thing when lightning strikes in Northern California or threatens the Canadian plains of south-central Manitoba.

This isn't idle gossip, but critical information for Pattern Energy, which operates electricity-generating wind farms in each of these places and is about to break ground in seven locales even more far-flung. Since December, the company has monitored its entire fleet of sleek turbines from a sophisticated operations center in Houston that is staffed around the clock.

The center, visible through a glass partition but accessible only with a badge and fingerprint identification, is dominated by a 6-foot-by-20-foot wall of flat-screen displays that include camera views of the wind farms, all relevant meteorological data and a turbine-by-turbine accounting of how close to optimally each one is operating at any given moment.

"We're talking about a technology that is 3,000 years old — using the wind for work," center supervisor Dean Fagan said. "Our focus now is taking what we have and making it more efficient."

When the wind is blowing just right, Fagan explained, you want your machines spinning at capacity. When the weather isn't cooperating, that might be a good time for repairs or maintenance. But when there's lightning headed in, you need to get work crews down pronto.

The "smart-screen" weather map on a side wall provides further data, including lightning strikes, in real time.

The U.S. added 1,100 megawatts of wind-generated capacity during the first quarter and had 5,600 more megawatts under construction, the American Wind Energy Association reported last month. The latter figure is nearly twice what it was during comparable periods last year and in 2009, the association said,suggesting a return to more robust growth after a dip in new capacity in 2010.

"American wind energy is ramping up, and these first-quarter figures indicate an industry poised for a renaissance," the industry group's CEO, Denise Bode, said in a statement announcing the results.

The U.S. wind industry now has 41,400 megawatts of capacity, the group said, enough to cover the energy needs of at least 10 million homes.

Yet wind energy remains more expensive than power generated by fossil fuels such as natural gas and coal, and it accounts for a fraction of current production.

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