This will blow you away: Wind energy

Can you believe, in the United States, only 10 percent of the energy we consume comes from renewable sources? So, what’s a renewable energy source? You’ve probably heard of them before: wind energy, solar energy, hydroelectric energy, geothermal energy, and biomass. In the next few articles, we’ll be talking about how renewable energy sources are being put to use in the world of transportation; from solar power to wind energy, some engineers, inventors, and entrepreneurs are taking advantage of these eco-friendly energy alternatives.

If someone told you that the wind could power the world, would it blow you away?

Wind power collects the natural airflow in our atmosphere. Today, countries like Germany, Spain, the United States, India, and Denmark are leading the way in wind energy production.

The wind energy industry is booming and is expected to continue growing as the demand for renewable energy increases. If wind energy continues to grow as quickly as it is now, industry experts predict that by 2050, wind power could be “the answer” to one-third of the world’s electricity.1

How does it work?

Wind power is collected using wind turbines. They are classified into two general types: horizontal axis and vertical axis. Let’s look at horizontal axis wind turbines, which happen to be the most common. These wind turbines are massive and can be as tall as a 20 story building. They usually consist of three main components:

First, they have three large blades, usually measuring 200 feet in length, which collect the air and begin to turn as it passes by. Second, the blades are connected to a shaft inside the turbine. As the wind begins to rotate the blades, it turns the internal shaft. Lastly, the shaft spins the generator, which is ultimately used to produce electricity!

Inside a horizontal axis wind turbine. Photo from Flickr user Lance Cheung
Inside a horizontal axis wind turbine.
Photo from Flickr user Lance Cheung

These wind turbines often exist on “wind farms,” which can have tens––sometimes hundreds––of wind turbines lined up in windier areas. Or, smaller turbines can be used in backyards to produce electricity for a single home or small business!

The vertical axis wind turbine works the same way, but the blades look like a giant egg-beater.

Run on the wind

Wind energy is also being used in the world of transportation.

The Netherlands, located in northwest Europe, is a country known for its windmills and flat landscape. Windmills, the first form of wind power, were first put to use centuries ago for tasks like grounding grain and pumping water.

Windmill in Haarlem, the Netherlands. Photo from Wikimedia Commons user Dfarrell07
Windmill in Haarlem, the Netherlands.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons user Dfarrell07

The Netherlands is encouraging renewable energy practices today, too, with the use of wind turbines (which is essentially an “evolved windmill”). The Netherlands are harnessing the power of wind to literally “ride like the wind” on their railway network, which serves about 1.2 million passengers each day.2

In 2015, electricity generated by wind turbines already accounted for half of the traction power used to run the railway network in the Netherlands. Under a contract, which runs from 2015 to 2025, wind energy will provide 100 percent of traction power for the electrified rail network by 2018.3

Why wind power?

So why should we be using wind power? In fact, why should we care about wind energy at all?

Because, wind power has the lowest environmental impact of any large-scale electricity source and is helping to reduce the threat of climate change!

Wind energy is a clean form of energy, producing electricity without negative effects like air pollution, greenhouses gases, or solid waste. Furthermore, wind energy requires almost no water for production, making it a promising alternative to burning harsh fossil fuels.

Wind turbines continue to increase in size, too.

Today’s wind turbine produces 17 times more electricity than a turbine made in 1990. On top of that, the cost of producing wind energy is dropping each year; in fact, the cost of producing wind energy has dropped more than 50 percent in the last 6 years! And since wind is free, the operating costs for producing wind energy are nearly zero, once a turbine is put up.

Why not wind power?

With all those benefits in mind, why aren’t there more wind farms? Is there any reason we shouldn’t be harnessing wind power?

Unfortunately, wind energy production has a few drawbacks. First, the amount of energy wind can produce varies, because airflow (and therefore wind power) varies based on time, location, and speed. And, it’s difficult to store excess electricity.

There’s also a visual impact and humming noise associated with wind turbines––some people think that wind turbines are ugly and noisy––which can make it difficult to find the right place for them.

Also, the wind turbine’s blades may kill birds and bats, but it’s important to remember that wind turbines don’t account for as many wildlife casualties as cars, power lines, and high-rise buildings. Lastly, the generators, which ultimately produce the electricity, require large amounts of rare earth elements to make (like copper).4                                         

A renewable world

Although wind energy has a few drawbacks, power like wind energy and solar energy continue to be good alternatives to the use of fossil fuels.

Want to know why? Make sure to check out our next article, where we talk about why all of this is so important and how you can get involved!

Citations

  1. http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/global-warming/wind-power-profile/
  2. http://www.sciencealert.com/the-netherlands-aims-to-have-a-completely-wind-powered-railway-system-by-2018
  3. http://www.railjournal.com/index.php/europe/dutch-trains-to-be-wind-powered-from-2018.html
  4. http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/global-warming/wind-power-profile/

Related links

How wind turbines work (info-graphic): https://www.saveonenergy.com/how-wind-turbines-work/

By Hannah Postlethwait, Go! Staff Writer