How Does It Work: Wind Energy

How Does It Work: Wind Energy

Earth’s atmosphere is in constant motion. The rotation of the earth, along with the cycle of heating and cooling provided by the sun, moves air around to create everything from the cool breeze across your face to hurricane force gales. People have been capturing the power of this wind since ancient times: it’s moved sailboats for thousands of years while windmills were around in England as early as the 11th century and in other parts of the world even earlier than that. And while modern wind energy technology is obviously very different, the basic idea remains the same: to harness the power of the wind to make clean, easy energy.

How does wind energy work?
Wind Energy

Wind Energy

The basic design of wind turbines hasn’t changed much over the centuries: blades shaped to catch the wind rotate, and that rotation generates power. In medieval windmills, the turning of the blades was used to grind grain or move water. Today, the rotation of wind turbine blades powers a generator to produce electricity. Typical wind turbines are 200 – 300 ft. tall, with blades up to 150 ft. long that are capable of rotating at speeds up to 300 ft. per second. Usually they are grouped together on wind farms which can cover hundreds of acres.

While wind is always available somewhere, in a single location it can vary from season to season, day to day, and even minute to minute. This variability makes picking the right location for wind farms a must so that they can provide a consistent source of energy. Many large wind farms are situated on ridges near shorelines, where the sea provides a powerful, near-constant breeze, and it’s also common to build wind farms offshore to take advantage of the continuous high wind speeds over the ocean. Large, open plains, like those in Iowa and west Texas, also make good homes for wind farms.

How common is wind power

Currently wind power makes up only about 3% of U.S. electricity generation, although that number is substantially higher in specific areas. Iowa gets 15% of its energy from wind power while Texas has the highest capacity for wind energy of any state (10,000 MW – enough to power around 3 million homes). While the wind energy sector has taken a hit during the financial crisis, it still continues to grow, from a capacity of 2,500 MW in 2001 to almost 50,000 MW in 2011. Wind energy is also widely used in China and Europe: it accounts for 20% of all electricity used in Denmark and 16% in Spain.

Why use wind energy?

Wind energy is substantially cleaner than traditional fossil fuels. There are no emissions, and the energy used to manufacture a turbine is repaid during its first few months of use. Some people have voiced concerns about the ecological impact of wind turbines both because of the space they occupy and their possible interference with local wildlife like birds and bats. Advocates for wind energy point out that wind farms can serve double purpose as agricultural land, and efforts are being made to accommodate requests from fish and wildlife services and other conservation organizations to protect bird species around wind farms. These concerns, though, are small compared to the positive environmental impact wind energy is likely to have in the future.

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