This is Part 6 of a paper written about the projected US Energy profile in the year 2050. In this chapter, we take a look at wind energy as an energy source.
Humans have long been fascinated by the power of the wind. One of the clearest examples of this is the sailboat; passive wind energy powered many ancient navies. Windmills also have been used historically to harness the wind’s energy for grinding or other purposes (How Wind Power Works). It is only relatively recently that wind has received renewed attention as a tool to generate electricity.
In recent years, turbines have been constructed to directly generate electricity from the wind. Wind energy has the potential to power a significant portion of the nation’s energy needs; it is estimated that the US wind energy supply is approximately 10.8 trillion kW/year (Wind Web Tutorial). Currently, approximately 1% of United States electricity production comes from wind generation and this number is poised for growth in the coming years. In other nations, wind has had an even greater impact. Nations such as Denmark and Spain depend on wind for almost 20% of electricity production. During periods of high wind supply, these nations are able to sell their excess electricity to other nations on the European electricity grid.
The basic technology of a wind turbine translates the wind’s energy into electric power. The kinetic energy of the wind spins turbines, which in turn spin a shaft. The rotational energy of the shaft is then converted to an electric current (How Wind Power Works).
In modern wind technology, the two most important designs are horizontal axis and vertical axis turbines. Horizontal axis designs are the most commonly seen technology, and typically are created with two or three blades. Vertical axis turbines are a relatively new technology that is more popular for small-scale wind production, such as that used by households. Unlike horizontal turbines, vertical turbines can be placed much closer to the ground and do not make as much noise (Wind Web Tutorial).
Wind energy is an extremely environmentally friendly resource. It produces no carbon emissions or harmful side products, and it is a renewable, sustainable source of energy. The most significant complaint from a safety and environmental perspective has been the effect of wind turbines on killing birds, bats, and other flying animals. However, bird-related deaths due to turbines are extremely minor when compared with other common killers of birds (Causes of Bird). In addition, it can definitely be argued that bird deaths from turbines are significantly lower than those caused by other energy sources, such as oil spills or nuclear fallout.
Economically, wind energy is still simply more expensive than fossil fuel resources. While wind energy has negligible operating costs, the fixed costs of creating a new wind plant are higher than existing coal or natural gas plants. Although costs are slowly decreasing over time, additional government subsidies and many years of research are necessary before wind will be competitive in a fossil-fuel dominated market. However, recent advances in wind energy have brought wind prices extremely close to parity with fossil fuel electricity generators. Since the early 80s, costs have declined from 30cents/kwh to less than 5cents/kwh today, which, in bulk and with federal help, is competitive with fossil fuel power plants (Wind Web Tutorial). Further federal involvement can successfully drive greater innovation and price reductions in the wind industry.
Over the past few years, the federal government has instituted several successful subsidy and tax incentive programs to increase wind production nationwide. The Energy Policy act of 1992 created a production tax credit for wind energy, a 1.5 cent/kwh credit that has greatly encouraged wind production (Wind, Solar Credits Extended). This credit was renewed in 2008, as a part of the financial bailout bill. In addition to this federal initiative, several states have also created their own programs to support the wind industry as well.
Wind power is important in promoting energy security, as it is a domestic and sustainable resource. Through increased use of wind and other renewable resources, we have the potential to achieve energy independence.
The most significant political opposition to wind energy has been its high cost. If the costs of wind power are sufficiently decreased, the benefits for environmental sustainability and energy security make solar energy a very politically significant resource.