Exploring Alternative Energy Technology: Wind Turbines

By John Rose, April 8, 2014, Green

Exploring Alternative Energy Technology: Wind TurbinesWelcome to our monthly series entitled “Exploring Alternative Energy Technology.” We hope to share information about emerging technology with our readers in a format that is both educational and entertaining. In this month’s installment, we’re discussing the science and history of Wind Turbines. 

Motion is energy, and, as we know, wind is air in motion. When air moves, things move along with it, a fact not lost on the history of mankind. The way we have utilized the power of the wind has evolved over the last few thousand years, and while the principles behind wind power have barely changed in that time frame, what we are able to accomplish with that power has improved dramatically. Like wave power, the 20th and 21st centuries have seen the utilization of wind power move beyond mechanics and propulsion and into the realm of electrical power generation.

Wind is air trying to find equilibrium, and this means it wants to find a balance between extremes. The Sun heats the Earth unequally, and as such, some pockets of air are warming while other pockets of air are cooling. Warm air expands and rises resulting in areas of low-pressure, while high-pressure cold air sinks and moves to the low-pressure areas. The effect of this pressure equalization is dramatic, powerful, and useful.

The first wind turbine was built in Scotland by Professor James Blyth in 1887, which powered the lighting in his holiday cottage. From humble beginnings came an amazing realization: electrical energy could be generated by a force found all across the globe. From that time forward, the technology of wind power generation has grown, yet it has stayed strikingly close to its roots. While improvements in the field of wind power have transformed wind turbines over the years, at their most basic, these devices still rely on the wind to move propellers, which in turn moves an electric turbine – just as it did for Professor Blyth.

Today’s wind turbines range in size from small supplemental power sources, to large-scale wind turbines visible from miles away. These developments provide the focus of most contemporary discussions, and there’s discussion for a reason. As with any source of renewable energy, there are both pros and cons, mixed with a dash of controversy.

Perhaps you have seen them: tall, white, enormous structures numbering in the tens to hundreds dotting the Texas skyline. Wind farms offer the opportunity for environmentally beneficial, inexpensive, and renewable energy. At full operating capacity, one wind turbine can supply enough electricity to power 500 homes. And best of all, wind turbines run on a renewable resource readily available worldwide – the wind. Though not at a constant, wind is generally predictable to a certain degree and meteorologists readily help identify upcoming conditions for optimal utilization of wind power.

Wind farms also have another advantage, operationally they contribute nothing to global greenhouse gases, and they do not use water. The result is a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and water use from power generation, contributing to a healthier environment for wildlife.

But for all the advantages there are also disadvantages. While we can give a fairly reasonable prediction for cyclical wind patterns and predict upcoming spikes in available wind, there are periods of inactivity, ruling them out as a sole source of energy for most areas. Additionally, wind turbines are not without environmental spillovers. The fast moving blades of wind turbines have killed large numbers of birds and bats, key elements in the food chain. Notably, however, advances in wind turbines have led to high efficiency models that have very slow moving blades, reducing the risk to wildlife.

Wind farms carry social stigmas as well.  While for some (this author included), wind farms are both awe inspiring and strikingly beautiful, but for others, wind farms are visually unattractive and detract from the natural surroundings. Though admittedly controversial, wind farms provide us with, at present, an amazing supplemental form of energy that helps us to reduce our dependence on natural gas, coal, and nuclear power.

In spite of aesthetic and biological concerns, wind power is growing in popularity.  As the use of fossil fuel-based power generation wanes in public opinion, more and more individuals are choosing to get their power from wind farms through their state energy exchanges. For instance, Texas currently leads the nation in electricity generated from wind energy, and it recently hit new highs with how much of the electricity on the grid is being generated by wind turbines.

Thus, while there are challenges to overcome, wind power is only projected to increase over the next few decades, and it’s is quickly become a driving force in reducing our use of fossil fuels for our electricity needs.

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