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Northwestern University

09/14/2017 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 09/15/2017 10:39

Update from Germany: students visit a wind farm

Story by Morgan Levey, a graduate student at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications and embedded reporter on the Global Engineering Trek in Sustainability.

HEIDELBERG, GERMANY - 'This is like the quintessential German scene. Cows and wind turbines,' said Matthew Grayson, the director of Northwestern Engineering Global Initiatives, while surveying a pasture of cows in Hesse, Germany. On the horizon, wind turbines rotated at full speed. 'You've got pastures and something as traditional as milk farming, and then you've got progress,' said Grayson later.

What Grayson meant by progress is clean energy. In the first half of 2017, Germany sourced 35.1 percent of its total energy usage from renewables, according to the German Renewable Energy Federation (BEE). In comparison, predictions for the United States in 2017 put renewables at just over nine percent, according to the US Department of Energy. It's because of this that Germany is often thought to be leading the green revolution.

It also made the country a natural choice for the location of Northwestern's Global Engineering Trek in Sustainability, currently underway in Germany. Grayson and Mike McMahon of Northwestern's Institute for Sustainability and Energy (ISEN) are leading a group of 15 rising sophomores from Northwestern's McCormick School of Engineering through the country, visiting a wide variety of industrial, NGO, and entrepreneurship leaders in sustainability.

The trip is a chance for students to travel abroad as young engineers for the first time, while exploring real-world applications of their future engineering degrees.

'As an industrial engineer I'm really into the [idea of using] renewable energy in manufacturing processes,' said Andre Schweizer, an industrial engineering major from Rio, Brazil. 'In Brazil we have a lot of hydroelectric power, which - despite being renewable - is not the cleanest because you have to destroy a lot of forest to build hydroelectric plants. It was really interesting to see [that] wind power is also growing in many parts of the world.'

On day three of the trip, students found themselves walking down a dirt road in hardhats as cow bells rang in the distance. The group was visiting a wind farm in Weilrod - roughly 30 miles north of Frankfurt - where students saw Germany's commitment to renewables demonstrated by its ability to build turbines in the compact, rural landscape.

'To see a company that started this 20 years ago and is right now in front of this whole energy revolution is actually really interesting,' said Schweizer.

ABO Wind, a German-based company founded in 1996, owns and operates Weilrod Wind Farm. The 16.8 megawatt-emitting site has seven wind turbines that are nestled amidst rolling green hills in the German countryside.

'So far we have developed wind farms with a total capacity of about 1.3 gigawatts in six different countries,' said Kathrin Dorscheid a press officer for the company. The company manages all aspects of wind farm creation, from land procurement and permit arrangement through construction, often selling the farms once they're completed.

Dorscheid gave Northwestern students a tour of the wind farm, answering questions about Germany energy markets and the complexity of transitioning from carbon-based energy generation to renewables.

'She mentioned at one point that there's too many wind farms in the north of Germany,' said Tess Russell, an environmental engineering major. 'And that at times they're shutting those [turbines] off just because there's an excess of electricity being produced. I thought that was crazy because, how can you shut off such an innovative and such a clean source of energy while coal continues to pollute and cause CO2 emissions?'

The problem is that there's no current way to cost-effectively store excess wind power with current battery technology. For Russell, this issue inspired future career aspirations.

'I would love to find solutions to the storage problems because I don't think there's ever a time when wind farms should be shut down. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't going to look this company up and look for an internship for next summer or whenever, because I would love it.'

Donning hard hats, the students walked up to the base of the 653-foot-high turbines and opened the door to the turbine cavity, getting a behind-the scenes view of the renewable energy industry.

'It was a lot of fun just being able to get that more up-close kind of view,' said Fendi Vadevoulis, a biomedical engineering major. 'A lot of the times you're driving along the road and you see them, they kind of don't seem that imposing, but when you're standing right [next to one] they're humongous. The inside is so sleek. It's kind of awesome to see in the true sense of the word.'

In addition to the wind farm, students toured Fuchs, a sustainability award-winning lubricant and petrochemical company based in Mannheim that's making an effort to measure the carbon footprint of every step of its supply chain. They visited ETA-Fabrik at Technische Universität Darmstadt, a model factory that's discovering how manufacturing machines can cut energy use, and EcoLab, a multinational corporation that works purifying water and reducing water usage in manufacturing processes.

The trip continues through September 15 when the students return to Chicago for the start of their sophomore year.