What is Wind Energy?

By Adam P. Newton, February 17, 2017, Green

Today’s energy consumers have more choices than ever when it comes to powering the home with alternative sources of energy. One option available is wind energy.


What is Wind Energy? | Bounce Energy Blog

Grabbing Energy from the Sky

If you’ve spent any time traveling the country, you’ll find many empty stretches of plains and farmlands populated with wind turbines. In fact, our great state of Texas is the leader in wind energy production, producing nearly one-quarter of the United States’ total wind energy.

To understand how those turbines work, imagine your average fan – but one that spins slowly. The difference with the turbines is that they’re like a fan in reverse. Instead of using a motor to make the blades spin, it’s the wind that pushes the blades into motion, and this makes the generator kick into life. This generator is located right behind the rotating blades, inside a cylindrical casing.

So as the wind starts spinning the long blades, it rotates a shaft leading into that cylinder. Yet, the shaft doesn’t spin quickly enough to activate a generator. So the kinetic energy that is present gets help from a simple set of gears. When the teeth of a large gear link to a small gear, the small disc makes more rotations than the big one. And that’s all it takes to get a second shaft spinning at a much higher speed. That shaft leads into a generator, which spins rapidly enough to get that generator creating electricity.

Where Does the Electricity Go?

From here, the electricity begins its journey. It travels down a cable contained in the tall tower of the turbine to a corridor that leads to transmission lines, the highway system for electricity. In this case, it quickly transports the electricity from the turbines across great distances to smaller, more local networks. From there, the electricity is delivered to a substation and sent over power lines to homes and businesses.

What is Wind Energy? | Bounce Energy Blog

Where Should Turbines be Placed?

Placement of the turbine is important. The idea is to get it to make as much electricity as possible. This is why you often see them in wide open spaces (which Texas has in abundance), on hilltops, and in the gaps between mountains.

Of course, wind speed and direction can change from day to day. But a wind turbine is designed to adjust to these changing conditions. It can re-position its head so that it always faces the wind head on. And it can change the angle of its blades as wind speeds increase and decrease.

The Challenges of Wind Power

The upside of wind energy is that it does not deplete limited supplies and is emission-free. Still, wind energy has its limits.

First, wind energy is not as reliable as traditional sources of energy. Wind is fleeting. Even the windiest spot in the U.S. has windless days. And when there’s no wind, there is no electricity. That means wind farms can’t operate to their fullest potential. The U.S. Department of Energy reports the average capacity factor of wind farms operating between the years 2011 and 2015 is 32.8 percent.

What happens when wind is in abundance, but the demand for energy is low? As we covered earlier, the electricity hits the transmission lines as soon as it’s made, which means it has to be used or it’s wasted. Companies and utilities are testing and developing a variety of technologies that can store the surplus energy, including batteries, compressed air, thermal energy, pumped water and ice. Storage makes it easier for energy companies to integrate renewable sources with fossil fuels more reliably. Still, it adds cost and complexity.

The Future of Wind Energy

Research is being conducted to make wind energy more reliable. Newer wind farms, built in 2014, for example, reached a capacity factor of 41.2 percent in 2015, thanks to better design. Another solution is taller turbine towers, which can capture more reliable winds. In tandem with that, costs to build and operate turbines are coming down, according to the Department of Energy.

Can renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, and geothermal energy one day replace fossil fuels? Some experts think it will, even though this transition probably won’t occur until the middle of this century.

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