Wind Energy

Wind technology is one of the oldest sources of fuel still in use – from colonial-era ships powered by sails to the water-pumping windmills on which modern wind turbines are based. On the other hand, electricity-generating wind turbines are a relatively underdeveloped source of fuel for the modern age. Conceptually elegant but not widely used, wind turbine technology is worth a closer look.

Where does wind energy come from?



Wind energy is a one-step-removed form of solar. As thermal energy from the sun heats the air, different areas on the earth’s surface warm up at varying rates. The air over land gets hotter than the air over oceans, rivers, and lakes. As the air over land heats, it rises. Then, the cooler, heavier air over water rushes in below to take its place. This cyclical movement creates wind.

How does it create energy?



Wind turbines look like giant fans, and you can think of the way they operate as a sort of backwards fan. But, rather than electricity powering blades to create movement in the air, wind powers blades to create electricity. Wind turbines have two or three blades which turn in the wind, then turn a shaft inside the turbine, which turns another shaft. Each shaft spins progressively faster so that by the time the energy reaches the second shaft, it’s moving quickly enough to power a generator.

What’s the environmental cost of wind energy?



Wind turbines are a clean, renewable form of energy. Their environmental impact is negligible compared with fossil fuels and other, nonrenewable energy sources. Retrieving wind and processing it into energy creates no toxic byproducts or greenhouses gases. But, there are some mild wildlife concerns. The blades of wind turbines sometimes kill or hurt birds, which is harmful to local ecosystems. People who live near wind turbines also tend to dislike the noise.

What are its common uses?



Wind turbines can be plugged into a neighborhood’s power grid to minimize the use of fossil fuels for electricity. This is common especially in windy areas, where homeowners who install wind turbines can offset their electricity costs. Some ranches and farms in particularly windy areas are powered solely by electricity generated from wind turbines. There is more widespread use of wind power in Europe, but in general, wind turbines are a distributed, small-scale energy source.

How much does wind energy cost?



Wind turbines are costly to install, but not to maintain. They run into the same obstacle as other renewable fuel sources: Since infrastructure for them is not yet in place, there is incentive to stick with more widely-used fossil fuels. With wind turbines, there is also the added challenge of an intermittent fuel source. Windy days come and go. The technology to save electricity generated by wind turbines exists (basically giant batteries). But this technology isn’t able to save enough electricity generated from wind turbines efficiently enough to be ideal. Hopefully, as with other clean energy sources, new policies and improved technology will lower their costs and increase their use.