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Mindset Changing on Alternative Energy in Ohio Valley

February 26, 2013
By J.W. JOHNSON JR. - Marshall County Bureau Chief , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

For years, many have believed that alternative energy sources - primarily wind and solar energy - did not have much of a home in the hilly Upper Ohio Valley, simply because the sun doesn't shine enough and the wind doesn't blow at a constant speed.

Recent developments are starting to prove otherwise, though.

Triadelphia-based Touchstone Research Laboratory is going in a new direction and developing aluminum alloys and steel products that can be used in the production of windmills, which could be used for large-scale wind turbine use. While this likely would not result in local wind farms, it could mean more jobs and investment if the research pays off.

Article Photos

A technician checks solar modules at a German solar power station. A similar solar field is in the works for Noble County, Ohio, and would be the largest array east of the Rocky Mountains.

AP Photo

In Noble County, Ohio, Turning Point Solar will eventually become the largest solar field east of the Rocky Mountains. The solar farm will contain nearly 240,000 solar panels occupying approximately 500 acres of reclaimed mine land owned by American Electric Power. The farm reportedly will provide enough energy to supply 25,000 homes with electricity.

After installing some of those units last summer, it was expected that 49.9 megawatts would be phased in to the facility during the three-year construction period.

On a smaller, individualized scale, Eugene Scherrer, owner of Scherrer Engineering in Bethlehem, has been operating a 60-foot wind turbine at his residence in Marshall County for nearly four years. He said he initially installed the turbine not for the potential financial impact, but because of his interest in wind energy.

That lack of financial impact still proves to exist, as Scherrer invested more than $15,000 in the initial setup, including the turbine itself and the computer system that allows him to monitor production and predict trends. He said it will take several more years to recoup the expense, with the 1,500 to 2,000 kilowatt hours annually generated by the turbine deducted from his electric bill.

Scherrer also installed a solar panel at his home in 2012, which he said has the potential to allow him to be completely off the power grid.

Another solar project in nearby Morgantown also has a chance to greatly impact the alternative energy industry.

Titan, the world's fastest supercomputer, will soon devote substantial time to solving problems first posed by a professor at West Virginia University.

One million computational hours, the equivalent of 110 computers running simultaneously, non-stop for a year, have been devoted to James P. Lewis, an associate professor of physics at WVU and his research group to design new materials that are key in developing solar power.

"This 'materials by computational design' approach will potentially save years of efforts for scientists who grow materials," Lewis said.

Titan was created at the U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn., to provide scientists with the most advanced computing power in the world. Lewis received a grant from the Department of Energy to use the supercomputer.

Titan allows Lewis, and the undergraduate and graduate students who aid him in his efforts, to test the possible effectiveness of new materials for photovoltaics without wasting money on development in the lab.

"You can hire people to try and come up with the materials for you, but it's going to cost millions of dollars to come up with new materials that may not even work," Lewis explained. "With Titan, I can search for this new material by computer and at least come up with a few likely candidates to synthesize in the lab."

The Lewis group is collaborating with scientists at the National Energy Technology Laboratory in Pittsburgh where materials identified by Titan as good candidates will be synthesized.

"Now the computations and calculations can drive the synthesis, so that you get a real collaboration between the two," Lewis said. "We're not just the guy tagged on at the end to understand how a material works- we actually drive the discovery."

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