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The kinetic energy in wind can be converted into mechanical or electrical power. For centuries, windmills have converted wind energy into mechanical power to grind wheat into flour. Now, improved turbine technology allows wind generators to affordably produce electricity. Electricity is produced when an electrical conductor moves perpendicularly to a magnetic field. Generators have a conductor (or rotor) that spins inside a magnetic field (or stator). The challenge is to find abundant, low-cost energy to spin the rotor.
Hydroelectricity is a renewable energy source that uses the potential energy of falling water to turn the rotor. Wind is also a renewable energy source because its supply is not depleted after being used. Generators also use nuclear or fossil fuels to convert water into steam pressure, which turns the rotor. Fossil fuels like coal are essentially nonrenewable because they form over millions of years. Although wind is renewable, it is not always reliable. Wind velocity may fluctuate or fall below the minimum annual average velocity of 13 miles per hour needed to generate electricity.
Wind is created when solar radiation interacts differentially with clouds, vegetation, and water bodies to unevenly heat the earth’s surface. Resulting atmospheric pressure differences force air from high to low pressure areas. Wind velocity, density, and temperature determine wind quality. Winds aloft are better than surface winds. Hills, valleys, and other geomorphic features can locally increase or decrease the relative velocity.
Wind energy potential depends on the area swept by the wind, its density, and velocity. Blade length and rotor design define the area component for a turbine. Denser air will also have an impact by generating more momentum. Velocity is the primary factor in wind power generation because changes in velocity have a cubed effect on power.
Practical Aspects of Wind Power
Wind generates less than 1 percent of the world’s electricity, but is the world’s fastest-growing energy source, with an installed turbine capacity of 58,982 megawatts. Environmental and human factors, however, affect the global and regional patterns of where wind is used to generate electricity. The production of wind energy is still centered in Western Europe but is increasing in developing countries with rapidly-growing economies, such as India.
In the United States, wind energy development is dependent on adequate wind resources, the availability of transmission lines, and federal and state policies and incentives. The potential amount of electricity available from wind is measured by the installed capacity of the turbines. For example, North Dakota is ranked highest in the United States for wind potential, but lacks the transmission lines to move electricity on a large scale to population centers.
Wind energy advocates tout its reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and the income it generates as wind farm operators pay property taxes and rent for the use of local land. Opponents argue that large wind farms are a visual blight and that rotating blades can be noisy and endanger bats and migratory birds. These concerns are like those associated with other large industrial developments.
All energy sources, including wind, affect the environment when they are harnessed for human uses. Consequently, in the current energy policy debate there are no easy answers about which energy source is the best. For the time being, wind energy comprises only a small portion of the American energy portfolio. Its expanded use depends upon continuing technological improvements and public acceptance of its net benefits.
- American Wind Energy Association, Wind Energy Projects throughout the United States of America, www.awea.org;
- Daniels, S. Johnson, and W. Slaymaker, Harvest the Wind, www.iira.org (cited April 2006);
- U.S. Department of Energy, Wind and Hydropower Technologies Program, https://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy08osti/42995.pdf;
- World Wind Energy Association, Worldwide Wind Energy Boom in 2005, wwindea.org.