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DOE directs $3.4 million to detecting wind

Better forecasting of surges in wind energy will help electricity utilities calibrate for fluctuations and save money, U.S. energy officials say.

Wind turbines now dot the landscape around Roscoe, Texas, since the installation of a billion-dollar project. E.ON Climate & Renewables

U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced Wednesday his agency would be directing more than $5 million in grants to wind energy projects.

About $1.8 million will go toward wind turbine manufacturing development, and $3.4 million of that grant money will go toward wind forecasting.

On the surface that may sound like a frivolous spending choice best left to a wet finger, but the Department of Energy says it's something that could save utilities a lot of money long-term and make wind a more reliable source of alternative energy.

The technology under development would predict fluctuations in wind surges in relation to affected wind turbines and then integrate that knowledge with electricity transmission networks in utility grids so that they could actively prepare for an anticipated surge or dearth of wind power.

"With better forecasting, utilities can more reliably connect variable power sources such as wind energy with electricity grids, and can decrease their need for back-up energy sources such as natural gas or hydropower," according to a statement from the Department of Energy.

In particular, $1.2 million is being given to WindLogics, a subsidiary of NextEra Energy Resources, one of the largest wind power plant operators in North America. The money will be used to collect meteorological data on 14 plants across the Midwest in conjunction with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and South Dakota State University.

Another $2.15 million will go to AWS Truepower in conjunction with the Electricity Reliability Council of Texas. Texas, of course, is known now as the leading state in the U.S. for wind energy. Texas has more than 9,708 megawatts worth of wind energy turbines in operation, currently more than any other state, according to statistics from the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA).

The rest in this latest round of grants, about $1.8 million, will go toward developing mid-size wind turbine manufacturing in the U.S.

The funding could be a response to reports in recent months that have said wind energy in the U.S. lacks investment, and that the U.S. is falling behind China and Europe in many areas of wind energy development.

The AWEA, in particular, has been very vocal in pointing out that the U.S. has stalled on building wind turbine manufacturing facilities, while China has been heavily developing its own plants to position itself as the world's leading supplier of wind turbines.

It appears an odd oversight since wind energy seems to be very popular with the general U.S. public. More than 89 percent of Americans believe increasing the use of wind energy is a good idea. Broken out by party affiliation, 84 percent of Republicans and 93 percent of Democrats also agree with that statement, according to AWEA statistics.