The Benefits and Problems of Wind Energy Technology
Harnessing the wind is an ancient technological practice, first employed by maritime peoples who captured it’s force in their sails to propel them across vast stretches of ocean. According to the Wind Energy Foundation, “Wind technology propelled boats along the Nile River as early as 5000 B.C. By 200 B.C., simple windmills in China were pumping water, while vertical-axis windmills with woven reed sails were grinding grain in Persia and the Middle East.” The Dutch famously iconified the windmill and refined its mechanics, using the technology to reform and redesign the Rhine River Delta into a series of canals. In the 19th century, windmills were commonplace around the world, used to pump water for agriculture and industry, to power mills for lumber, mining and food production, and later for the generation of electricity, introduced by Thomas Edison in the 1880’s. In the 20th century, wind farms were developed on larger scales to power electricity grids across the United States. Wind technology declined over the past 100 years as a result of the ease and affordability of oil, but has since seen a resurgence as an alternative energy source.
The Movement Toward Wind
With the oil crises of the 1970’s, energy developers began looking at wind as a possible way to minimize our dependence on foreign oil. Environmental pressures also added to the movement of further developing wind energy technology. Large multi-megawatt commercial wind turbines were built, overseen by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) with funding from the National Science Foundation and later the U.S. Department of Energy. Wind development has always been tied to the oil and gas market, and when oil prices are low, wind becomes a less favorable option. In the 1980’s and 90’s, California led the charge in wind energy technology, however, as a result of state and federal tax incentives for investment in renewables. The now largely outdated wind farm at Altamount Pass in Northern California, with 4,930 turbines was one of the first largescale operations in the world, generating 576 megawatts (MW). When the tax incentives of the 80’s and 90’s slowed, wind energy technology in the United States decreased dramatically. Europe, however, in response to the science behind global climate change began investing heavily in renewables such as wind. According to Wikipedia, in the European Union “In 2017, a total of 15,680 MW of wind power was installed, representing 55% of all new power capacity, and the wind power generated 336 TWh of electricity, enough to supply 11.6% of the EU’s electricity consumption… The European Wind Energy Association (now WindEurope) has estimated that 230 gigawatts (GW) of wind capacity will be installed in Europe by 2020, consisting of 190 GW onshore and 40 GW offshore. This would produce 14-17% of the EU’s electricity, avoiding 333 million tonnes of CO2 per year and saving Europe €28 billion a year in fuel costs.”
The Benefits of Wind Energy Technology
As far as fuel sources go, wind is extremely clean. Unlike coal fired or fossil fuel run power plants, wind energy does not pollute the atmosphere with greenhouse gas emissions. In many parts of the United States, wind energy is abundant, and as a domestic resource it has the potential to minimize our dependence on foreign energy sources. Wind exists in abundance, formed by the interplay between the heating and cooling of the earth’s atmosphere by the sun, the Earth’s rotation, and surface irregularities across the planet. As one of the lowest priced renewable energy sources, wind power is highly cost effective. As long as the wind blows and there is the technology to harness it, wind energy is available to be transferred to the grid.
Problems and Concerns
Wind energy technology is not without it’s concerns and considerations. Although praised for it’s low environmental impact in terms of energy generation, wind farms are criticized for being noisy, invasive and unsightly. The main criticism for wind technology is the impact that it has on bird species and other wildlife, killing thousands of birds a year as they fly into deadly turbines. In 2010 a settlement was reached between the Audubon Society, Californians for Renewable Energy and NextEra Energy Resources, the owner of roughly 5,000 wind turbines due to the high risk the turbines posed to avian species such as the golden eagle. Every year, it is estimated that wind turbines are responsible for the death of 4,700 birds, including 1,300 raptor species, who often consider the landscape around wind farms to be prime for hunting and nesting. Other concerns around wind technology are the remote nature of wind farms in regards to the proximity of large urban centers. Thus distance requires heavy infrastructure in the form of transmission lines to bring the electricity from rural areas to be used in cities. Noise from turbines can be aesthetically unpleasant, and based on the impact that wind farms have on views, property values can be negatively impacted.
The Bottom Line
Wind power will likely continue to be developed abroad and within the United States as an inexpensive energy source, and wind turbine technology continues to evolve with larger, taller turbine units that are said to be less hazardous to wildlife. With environmental pressures and an interest in lowering overall energy costs to consumers, this age-old energy producing technology is most likely here to stay.
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