Wind energy is one of the most exciting things on the planet and along with solar is one of the most promising technologies which sits on our horizon. For the lay person, however, it’s hard to get the straight wind energy facts.Is it a viable technology? Is its use intended to be supplemental or as a main power source?
The truth is that the technology isn’t quite there for replacing the vast majority of energy on the planet, but it’s definitely set to play a major part in the coming renewable energy revolution.
How do wind turbines work?
Wind turbines are surprisingly simple as long as you know how any type of turbine works.
Turbines essentially spin shafts in generators, generating electricity through induction. It gets a bit hard to understand if you’re not already familiar with the principles but virtually all of the power on the grid is generated by a generator which is powered by a turbine.
Wind takes this to a natural extent, transferring the considerable kinetic energy of wind into electrical energy with foils or blades. These spin the turbine shaft and produce electricity.
Currently there are a number of theoretical models which are in development, but the advantages are pretty clear: anywhere there is a predictable pattern of wind a turbine can be placed in order to take advantage of its energy.
The advantages of wind energy
The pros of using wind in order to power turbines are pretty immense.
- Ecologically friendly-Apart from the construction of the turbines themselves, there’s no real downside to utilizing wind in order to spin turbines. There’s no extra pollution and there’s not enough energy taken from the environment to matter on any normal level.
- Space efficiency-The turbines which are spun by wind energy generate an absolutely enormous amount of power when they reach peak capacity. A single mill can produce enough power for hundreds of homes.
- Operational costs-Wind energy is also quite low cost when it comes to maintenance. The turbines require minimal staffing and the costs to keep them going are extremely low compared to the amount of power they put out.
- Residential potential-In areas which are suited to it, home turbines can produce more than enough power for all but the most energy-heavy households. They also make a great fail-safe in the event of a grid failure.
- Low impact- Studies have found time and time again that wind turbines have an amazingly low profile in all of the traditional problems with power generation. There’s just no way around the fact that simple conversion of existing kinetic energy into electricity isn’t going to affect much. Even the effects on local weather can be mitigated with careful placement.
All of that sounds great on the surface, of course, but so do most of the energy sources out there. After all, if there weren’t some serious advantages then you wouldn’t see the money being poured into the research and development of them.
The disadvantages of wind energy
With all of the efficiency and low operational costs of wind-powered turbines, there are also some serious pitfalls.
- Fluctuation-While the amount of wind energy in an area is usually consistent from year-to-year, the amount which is supplied on any given day can vary quite a bit. This makes it hard to use as a primary energy source in most places.
- Heavy upfront prices-While they’re not all that expensive once they’ve been installed, turbines take a lot of materials and know-how to put together. This results in a heavily front-loaded price.
- Noise-Wind turbines can generate quite a bit of noise, and it’s a common complaint when they’ve been installed close to residential areas.
- Threat to wildlife-We’ll explore this in a moment, but even the best turbines are still going to occasionally take out a bird or two. It’s unfortunate, but one has to weigh the costs when compared to less green options in the long run.
- The aesthetic-While a relatively minor complaint, many people just don’t like the way windmills look. While power plants usually aren’t all that attractive anyways, wind farms often take up large areas along routes which are frequently driven or seen by passerby.
- Local effects-If placed in the wrong areas, wind farms can have some minor effect on the weather in the area. Most often this is mitigated through their placement in areas which naturally have high turbulence, thus impeding the comparatively minor effect of disruption in the area.
If you’ve looked into wind power before, then you may be surprised to see a couple of omissions from the usual fare. There’s been a lot said about windmills which simply isn’t true at the end of the day, or has become obsolete as time goes on.
Common misconceptions about windmills
One of the largest complaints surrounding wind power, in it’s early days, was the amount of birds killed by turbines. This was actually a very common complaint in Altamont Pass in California, where old style windmills moved extremely quickly and were placed along a major avian route.
Modern turbines spin much slower and have smooth poles instead of the old lattice-styled ones, which actually makes them great nesting grounds for birds.
In either case, the amount of birds killed pales in comparison to those who hit power lines wrong, or even those killed by domestic felines.
The noise complaints are also often exaggerated, at least where modern turbines are concerned. While it’s true the older-style turbines were often quite loud, the newer ones have become rather quiet.
Oddly enough, there was also some debate as to whether wind turbines caused global warming in certain segments of the population.
This was almost entirely due to the higher ground temperature which is generated around turbines at night. It’s a complete myth, it simply happens during normal air circulation disturbances from the turbines.
The truth is that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages in almost all cases with wind energy, the only real issue is the higher upfront costs but these can often be mitigated since wind energy is extremely reliable in the long run even if the daily flow of power can fluctuate quite a bit.
Where is wind energy headed?
Thankfully, a lot of research and development money is pouring into wind energy. Along with solar power it has an extremely low impact on the environment and it’s set to begin increasing it’s share of the world’s power.
Currently, wind power only makes up a bit more than 3% of the world’s energy currently, but it’s slated to increase to nearly 20% as turbines become more efficient and the technology becomes more widespread.
It’s already finding increased shares in developing nations, the turbine designs can be used irrespective of natural resources in an area as long as the upfront cost can be afforded. This makes it a natural way to go in many places, particularly those which are remote and don’t necessarily have all of the infrastructure in place to be on the grid.
The growth rate is probably the most promising aspect of wind energy for the future. It’s growing at an annual rate of roughly 12.5% per year and has been for some time.
All of this adds up to making wind a serious factor in the future of energy, as renewables slowly take over for commonly used fossil fuels.
Wind energy is looking to be one of the driving forces of the future, and has world-changing potential as it develops. Indeed, in many places it already has changed the world for people, but the real question is what kind of security it’s going to have as time goes on.
The place of wind energy in the future
The real problem with wind energy, in regards to the future anyways, is that the intermittent power generation has some difficulty integrating into the grid.
That makes it a terrible choice for the sole power source of the future, and indeed it may not even be a possibility even in a future with unlimited funds and a theoretical 100% efficiency.
However, many renewable sources have the same problems. This means that those who control the power grid are already used to dealing with these kinds of things and working towards being able to integrate wind is a major concern.
Most of the current estimates hold that the power grid can support up to 20% of its energy being supplied by wind without having to deal with shutdowns. This may improve by a couple of percentage points as time goes on, but it’s a fairly hard limit with the way things work currently.
This isn’t a real point against this kind of energy, however, since any sort of future grid based upon renewable and clean energy is going to need to integrate many different technologies in order to function.Instead it means that the future of wind is actually more certain than many people believe. Wind turbines have a definite place in the future, they just won’t be the sole source of green energy supplying a clean power grid with energy.