Let's Hear it for Wind Energy!

Posted On: April 12, 2016

It’s National Big Wind Day! (Yep, it’s a thing.) In honor of the day, it seems only fitting to talk about wind energy—after all, it’s a clean, renewable energy source that has proven to be a fantastic power-producer for thousands of years. Today, its potential is, well, sweeping the nation.

What is wind energy?

The wind has been a method of energy-production since ancient times—if you’ve seen a whirling wooden windmill you’ve seen the earliest use of wind energy. Today, wind energy isn’t just used to grind grain—it’s used to power entire cities.

The United States is the largest producer of wind energy in the world—it has over 46,000 operating wind turbines. As much as 25% of Texas’ electricity at a given time is produced by wind energy; in fact, Texas is one of 12 states that produce 80% of the country’s wind power.

How does wind energy work?

You probably remember all about kinetic energy from your physics class—the concept that an object contains energy by virtue of its motion. In the case of wind energy, the wind’s kinetic energy is harnessed by large, windmill-like machines called wind turbines. So how exactly does wind then become power? This is how:

  • The wind’s kinetic energy causes the blades on a wind turbine to rotate.
  • The wind turbine’s blades are connected to a shaft, which is connected to a generator. As the blades rotate, so does the shaft, causing the generator to spin and produce electricity.
  • Wind turbines may be small—producing just 5 kilowatts of electricity—or very large, capable of producing many megawatts.
  • Clusters of up to hundreds of wind turbines are called wind farms, and collectively they can produce enough energy to power thousands of homes.
  • To fully utilize the wind’s energy, a wind turbine should be 50 meters high (about 164 feet) and in a location where winds can reach 16 to 20 mph. If winds exceed 55 mph, they could damage a wind turbine.
  • Special components in each wind turbine gauge wind speed and “operate” the turbine—they start-up the machine when winds reach at least 8 mph, and put on the blade’s breaks when wind speeds reach 55 mph. 

What are the pros and cons of wind energy?

Every energy source has its pluses and minuses and that includes wind energy. Here are wind energy’s biggest advantages—and its drawbacks too:

Pros

  • It’s clean. Unlike fossil fuels, wind energy does not release greenhouse gasses or dangerous pollutants, and it doesn’t create harmful and expensive spills in the sea or ocean. Plus, because wind power uses virtually no water, by 2030 it will save the equivalent of nearly 30 trillion bottles of water.
  • It’s sustainable. Wind is a natural phenomenon that requires little more than earth’s rotation and the sun—as long as we have those, we can harness wind’s energy.
  • It’s local. The United States doesn’t have to rely on foreign sources for its energy needs— according to the Wind Energy Foundation, there’s enough onshore wind in the US to power the country ten times over.
  • It’s cost-effective. As a renewable energy source, wind energy is one of the least expensive options available.
  • There’s room for it. Wind turbines can be erected on ranches and farms—in fact, approximately 95% of wind turbines are installed on private land. This makes wise use of space and benefits rural communities.   
  • It creates jobs. In 2014, $8 billion in private capital was invested into wind energy, and over 73,000 individuals were employed in the sector. By 2050, wind energy could generate 600,000 employment opportunities, according to the Wind Vision Report.

Cons

  • Aesthetics. While not as unsightly as a belching coal stack, some may oppose the affect a large, oscillating turbine (or hundreds) would have on the scenery.
  • Expense.  Although it has become more affordable, wind energy may not be able to compete with other forms of power-production in terms of cost, and requires greater initial investment.
  • Distance. While farms and ranches are ideal homes for wind turbines, their typical location may be too removed from the cities that need the power a wind farm would generate.
  • Wildlife. Birds have been killed by accidentally flying into wind turbine propellers, and wildlife habitats can be effected by the construction of wind farms. However, efforts have been made, and are on-going, to mitigate a wind turbine’s risk to birds and wildlife.

According to a 2010 Harris Poll, 87% of US respondents favored wind energy over other sources of power. Explore wind energy’s possibilities (even how you can get a wind turbine of your own) online—it is National Big Wind Day after all. And while you're at it, be sure to check out Stream's Clean Energy program to find out how you can help protect the environment, too.