Windmills were first used to harness energy to pump water in China as early as 200 B.C., and have been generating electricity since the 20th century. But how far has wind energy come in the last two centuries, and how far does it still have to go? Find the answers below.
- What is wind energy and how is it converted to usable energy?
Wind energy, at its core, is a type of solar energy. Wind is caused by a combination of the uneven heating of the atmosphere, irregularities in the earth’s surface and the rotation of the earth. The earth’s terrain, bodies of water and vegetation types impact the wind flow patterns and dictate how much wind a particular area gets.
Wind energy describes the process through which wind becomes mechanical power or electricity, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior and Bureau of Land Management. Wind turbines, which look like large windmills, have propellers that are pushed by moving air. As the propeller moves, it spins a shaft that is connected to an electric generator. The spinning of the shaft is what passes energy to the generator. The electricity generated by the turbines is then fed into a utility grid and distributed to customers in the same fashion as other forms of energy.
- How reliable is wind energy?
In some parts of the U.S., wind energy is abundant. In fact, The U.S. Department of Energy classifies different areas around the country from one (the lowest) to seven (the highest) in order to assess how viable wind energy from state to state. According to the map, states in the Midwest have high potential for harvesting wind power, especially Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. However, Alaska has the greatest wind energy potential in the U.S., with an average wind speed at 50 meters between 8.8 and 11.1 miles per hour.
Conversely, the lowest wind speeds and density occurs in the mid-Atlantic and southeast U.S. Although these areas aren’t completely ready to sustain wind power yet, advancing technology will make wind energy a viable option all across the United States.
- Are there any environmental concerns about wind energy?
Wind energy is a renewable, non-polluting form of energy, meaning that it does not produce harmful by-products that can leak into the atmosphere. However, like other forms of solar energy, there are still a handful of environmental impacts that wind fields and turbines cause.
First, wind turbines require a lot of land and space to operate and installation can be disruptive to the surrounding areas. Although installing turbines can be disruptive, once installed, typical activities such as livestock grazing and other agricultural activities can resume. This impact can also be reduced by establishing wind fields in areas that cannot sustain agriculture, such as old industrial sites.
Next, turbines can disrupt habitats and create dangerous obstacles for wildlife, especially birds and bats. Changes in wind pressure and collisions with turbines can cause wildlife deaths and interfere with natural habitats. While these impacts are worth considering, scientists have found that ultimately these side effects are not severe enough to threaten species populations. Additionally, wildlife biologists have studied animal populations and developed recommendations, like turning off turbines during periods of low wind speeds, when bats are most active, to help reduce the threats that turbines pose to wildlife.
Finally, although wind turbines don’t produce greenhouse emissions, the manufacturing, assembly, operation, maintenance and recycling of turbines create numerous opportunities for materials to be handled irresponsibly. Although these situations are possible, they are uncommon and the potential impact to the environment is offset by the amount of clean energy turbines produce.
- How common is wind energy?
Electricity generated from wind power has increased significantly since the 1970s. In 2016, six percent of U.S. electricity generation came from wind power. To put that in perspective, wind power accounted for 37 percent of electricity generated from renewable energy sources, coming in second only to hydropower, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
According to the American Wind Energy Association, the cost of wind energy has dropped 60 percent since 2009. But, although wind energy has gotten substantially cheaper in the past 10 years, the upfront cost of turbines and technology have limited the spread of wind power. However, reports from 2016 from a number of sources indicate that the costs will continue to drop, and the U.S. will see more robust wind development in the next few years.
In addition to dropping prices, both state and federal governments have implemented subsidy programs to help encourage investment in wind energy, and Congress has enacted over 80 policies overseen by nine different agencies to increase wind power in the U.S., according to Newsweek. All in all, the future of wind energy looks very bright.
Check back each week in October as Payless Power takes a closer look at different energy sources. Be sure to follow Payless Power on Facebook and Twitter for more energy statistics and electricity-saving tips!