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Wind Power Pioneer Interview: Robert Thresher, National Wind Technology Center

Robert Thresher

Robert Thresher, director, National Wind Technology Center, Golden, Colorado (PIX09817)

Wind Power Pioneer Interview: Robert Thresher, National Wind Technology Center

Date: 2/1/2003

Location: Golden, CO

"Bob Thresher has more than 30 years of research, development, engineering, and management experience in wind technology. He directed wind turbine research efforts at Oregon State from 1970-1984, and he also spent two years in Washington, D.C., managing research projects for the Department of Energy. Bob later conducted wind research at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and by 1989 he was managing the wind research program. Bob worked with DOE management to secure use of a 280-acre site at Rocky Flats and developed the National Wind Technology Center. As director of the new facility, Bob works closely with DOE to make the Center a focal point for national wind research." — Sue Hock, National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Q. How did you become involved with wind energy?

A. I was invited to work on wind energy by one of my colleagues at Oregon State University, E. Wendell Hewson. He was an atmospheric scientist. It was 1973, and we were experiencing the first oil crisis. Professor Hewson was looking at wind from a meterological point of view. He wanted to use it to generate electricity, and he invited me, as a mechanical engineer, to help with the analysis from the mechanical side. Our first funding came from the public utility districts in Oregon.

Q. What were the most significant break throughs or developments that affected wind energy implementation during your career?

A. Probably the first significant breakthrough was demonstrating that large wind turbines on the multi-megawatt scale could be built and operated. Unfortunately, the first attempts at this were not cost effective. The second breakthrough was the wind farm concept, which was piloted in the 1980s in California. The collective efforts of many people showed how wind farms should be operated and maintained, and their efforts demonstrated that wind could be a power plant not unlike a conventional power plant. Again, the technology of the 1980s was not cost effective.

Another significant breakthrough was the combined efforts of engineers in companies, in the Department of Energy labs, and on the wind farms. They developed analysis methods and tools and validated those methods for dynamic analysis of wind turbines. Most of this work took place in the 1980s to early 1990s. That work culminated in the development of some computer modeling codes that included inflow turbulence, unsteady aerodynamics, and aeroelastic responses of the structure. This allowed comprehensive evaluation of new turbine designs and allowed the scaling process to develop multi-megawatt wind turbines seen in wind farms today.

Q. What has been your key contribution to moving the wind industry forward?

A. Being a spokesman and visionary for the wind industry, as well as a constructive critic-consistently believing in wind while striving to work with a variety of groups to improve the technology.

Q. What are you currently focused on, and what are its prospects for wind energy?

A. I'm currently focused on developing, with the wind industry, a vision for the future that embraces land-based and offshore projects, and ultimately, using wind energy to produce hydrogen for the hydrogen economy.

Q. What are the key issues that still need to be addressed to make wind a mainstream electricity generation option in the United States?

A. Through technology evolution and hard-nosed engineering, wind-generated electricity needs to be cheaper than the fuel costs of competing technologies. That is the only way that it can become a mainstream source of electricity and gain widespread acceptance and access to transmission and distribution facilities.

Q. Where will the industry/technology be in 2010?

A. Wind energy is currently the fastest-growing technology for electricity generation. I believe that it will continue to be in the future, and I believe that somewhere around 2010, the industry will achieve cost-competitiveness with conventional generation technologies without any subsidies.

Q. If you were king for a day, what one thing would you change/institute?

A. If I were king for a day, I would grow a silver tongue and start a personal campaign to help the big energy companies see the future benefits of wind energy and all renewable energy forms. The benefits will be both financial and environmental. They need to get involved now to be the leaders of the slowly evolving renewable-energy-based economy of the future.

Q. What has been the highlight of your career?

A. I don't believe that I've reached the highlight of my career yet. In the near future, I expect to enjoy watching wind become a dominant generation source throughout the world. When that happens, it will be the highlight of my career.

Q. Looking back and forward, what advice would you give to the future pioneers?

A. Be patient, keep moving forward, and don't give up.

This information was last updated on August 02, 2011