In the rush to find fossil fuel's replacement as the next cheap and plentiful energy source for powering the human machine, wind gets a lot of attention. After all, it's certainly in no small supply (except when you need to get that kite airborne), and the idea of continuous, zero-pollution energy is too enticing to ignore. Oh, and there's the fact that mankind burns through about 400 quadrillion British Thermal Units (BTUs) annually, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Four hundred quadrillion doesn't even sound like a real number, but consider that a single BTU is about as much energy generated by a lit match and that may help put it into perspective [source: McLamb].
It's not like wind hasn't been earning its keep. For centuries, we've used it to mill grains, power ships and even to generate electricity, starting in the 1930s. But as energy demand climbs, so have efforts to turn wind into a viable option for producing electricity on a large scale. Wind turbines in particular are what people think of when discussing wind power. These turbines can measure more than 400 feet (122 meters) tall and weigh in at close to 400 tons.
We know the basics, but in this article we'll explore some of the unsung, and surprising, facts about wind power.
Interest in wind has been outpacing other renewable methods for new electrical power generation for a few years, increasing more than 31 percent between 2008 and 2009 alone [source: U.S. Energy Information Association]. Besides its enormous promise, there are a couple of factors that have contributed to these gains. First, in 2009, wind generators were eligible for government incentives in the United States, encouraging developers to take the plunge. Secondly, Title IX of the 2008 Farm Bill made it easier and more attractive for farmers and ranchers to undertake wind projects.
Less than 2 percent doesn't sound like much, but when you consider the rate at which it's gaining popularity, wind has the inside track to becoming a much more viable alternative for large-scale energy production.
Wind power dates back to at least 5000 B.C., with the earliest known use for powering sails [source: U.S. Department of Energy]. This is perhaps a no-brainer, but early sailors were not just the first to figure out an easier way to get from Point A to Point B. They laid the groundwork for humankind's understanding of important concepts such as thermodynamics and lift [source: TelosNet]. These principles would be key for other innovations, beginning with the very first windmills, which were powered by sails. These devices were used as mills and water pumps, and paved the way for an agricultural revolution by automating otherwise time-consuming activities.
This technology was carried to the New World, where it played an important role in settling the wilderness and plains of early America. As new technologies emerged, the windmill lost ground to steam engines and inexpensive electric power when, in the 1930s, the Rural Electrification Program brought inexpensive electricity to the rural U.S. [source: National Archives].
But wind is coming full circle, making a comeback as the price and accessibility of fossil fuels make it an increasingly prohibitive method for energy production.
So, with all the noise about clean energy, what kind of improvement are we really talking about with wind? Consider that every year 1MW of wind energy can offset approximately 2,600 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) [source: NREL], and the interest comes into focus. The simple math is less fossil fuel consumption equals less CO2. And measuring carbon reduction has become a key benchmark for monitoring the progress of alternative energy adoption.
In Massachusetts, for example, the average resident produced 4.5 tons of CO2 as a result of using electricity in 2004. Just 1MW of wind energy could power up to 400 homes without emitting any CO2. And besides reducing CO2 levels, wind power is dramatically easier on water supplies, with the same 1MW of wind energy saving about 1,293 million gallons of water [source: NREL].
One of the chief concerns among wind opponents is the danger the installations pose to native wildlife. After all, these massive turbines spin at lethal speeds and the colossal structures take up large swaths of space that would otherwise be wilderness, or open flight paths for birds.
One particularly highly publicized wind farm, Altamont Pass in California, has been a lightning rod of controversy because of the impact poor planning has had on the bird population. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, as many as 1,300 eagles, falcons, hawks and other predatory species are killed each year because the wind turbines were constructed along a critical migration route.
Research conducted at other wind farms, however, has shown that bird populations have not been significantly impacted, and the National Academy Of Sciences has stated that bird fatalities from wind farms represent a fraction of the total number of bird deaths caused by humans [source: National Research Council].
And what's the source of this magical, unending source of free and clean energy? The sun. The sun warms up our planet, but because of surface irregularities and its rotation, the Earth doesn't heat uniformly. These variances in temperature also cause irregularities in air pressure, and air molecules migrate from areas of high air pressure to areas of low air pressure. This results in wind, the intensity, duration and direction of which are influenced by a number of factors including weather, vegetation, surface water and topography [source: EIA].
All of these variables add to wind's unpredictability and contribute to the concern that it could never be consistent enough to meet all of our energy needs. Some of the most predictable winds occur offshore, which, of course, adds to construction costs.
With so much potential, companies are positioning themselves to take advantage. In fact, production surged between 2000 and 2006. And even later, in 2009, while world economies plunged, the wind industry thrived.That year alone, the installed wind power capacity, or the amount of energy capable of being produced by existing equipment, increased to 158,000 megawatts (that 31 percent jump we discussed in Fact No.10) [source: Roney]. World production is currently capable of serving the needs of 250 million people, and more than 70 countries have installations.
The United Nations recently issued a report that said making the jump from fossil fuels to renewable energy (not wind exclusively) would require more than $12 trillion over the next two decades [source: Morales]. This level of commitment will not come easily, especially while traditional resources remain relatively inexpensive. So, in order to continue the growth curve established between 2000 and 2006, it's going to take serious government incentives to encourage development.
Everything is bigger in Texas, including the wind. And the Lone Star State is leading the way in wind power with more than 40 different projects [source: Weber]. In 2008, the total capacity was 7,907MW, a significant margin over the next closest state, Iowa, which came in at 2,883MW. In fact, Texas wind installations account for one-third of the entire installed wind capacity for the United States [source: Roney].
Part of Texas' success is geography. The wide-open Texas Panhandle holds spectacular potential for harvesting wind energy; its featureless terrain and high elevation mean that wind can blow unencumbered across the plains. This, coupled with state legislation that includes financial incentives for companies involved with wind projects to boost interest in development, has positioned Texas at the forefront of the wind boom.
The U.S. generated 52 billion KW hours in 2008, about 1 percent of total nationwide electricity production at the time. This may sound insignificant, but it was enough to power nearly 5 million homes -- or the entire state of Colorado [source: EIA].
As new technologies help drive down the costs associated with wind farming, the practice will, no doubt, become more and more accessible. These developments, along with government subsidies, tax breaks and other incentives, will contribute to furthering wind power production. One such initiative is green pricing programs, or options provided to customers that give them the choice to pay a premium for electricity that comes from renewable sources.
The U.S. is well represented in the race for wind power, with 38 out of 50 states currently operating utility-grade wind installations. Fourteen have more than 1,000 MW of installed wind power -- which, if you recall, is the amount of electricity that can be produced by existing equipment -- and the top five wind-producing states came in with a cumulative capacity of more than 20,000 MW [source: GWEC].
In 2008, the U.S. Department of Energy published a study that examined what would be necessary in order for wind power to provide 20 percent of U.S. electricity by 2030 [source: US Department of Energy]. As the feasibility, both technologically and financially, of these types of activities is determined, and the energy industry discovers ways to make wind as profitable as current energy markets, the number of states eager to capitalize on this natural resource will likely only increase.
States Leading the Way
- Texas: 10,085 MW
- Iowa: 3,675 MW
- California: 3,177 MW
- Minnesota: 2,192 MW
- Oregon: 2,104 MW
- Washington: 2,104 MW
Although the industrial application of wind power for producing electricity has been in development for decades, it is still a relatively young technology with much to prove in terms of viability. The motivation to move forward isn't based on what wind offers today, but rather the staggering potential it holds. Yes, it is currently an expensive endeavor requiring loads of cash and the enthusiasm of a Labrador. But when you consider the simple abundance and regularity of the wind, nothing else really comes close to matching what may be possible.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory states that the potential of land-based resources (wind farms installed on land as opposed to the open ocean) alone could provide America with its electricity needs 10 times over [source: AWEA].
A 2009 Harvard study found that a network of turbines operating at even a modest 20 percent of capacity could supply more than 40 times the worldwide demand for electricity. If this study, and others like it, are even in the ballpark, then continuing the exploration of wind as an alternative to fossil fuels is a no-brainer.
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