Since the Industrial Revolution, people around the world have been dependent on fossil fuels as a source of energy. Within the past thirty years, it's become evident that fossil fuels – much like the dinosaurs that were believed to have died to produce them – aren't a sustainable resource. Burning fossil fuels is taking a serious toll on the planet in the form of carbon emissions. This has led to the development of newer, cleaner sources of renewable energy. One of the foremost technologies among these is wind power.
The idea of using the wind as a power source isn't completely new. After all, sailing has powered ships for over 7,000 years, and windmills have long been used to process grain. Today, advancements in wind turbine technology allow us to harness the wind with greater efficiency. Depending on where you live, you may have driven past a wind farm. Throughout 40 different US states, around 1,000 large-scale wind farm projects generate a combined 74,000 megawatts of electricity. By 2020 the American Wind Energy Association projects that wind will provide 10% of America's power needs.
What's going on inside a wind turbine?
The journey from wind in the air to electricity begins with a circular arrangement of large rotor blades, which together serve as the turbine.
Turbines are designed with optimal curvature so they can capture as much wind as possible. The wind turbine's job is to capture kinetic energy from the wind's motion, which spins the blades in turn.
The blades serve to spin gears inside a gearbox. This is located inside the nacelle - that's the main body of the turbine - to which the blades at the front are attached. The drive shaft's rotation, powered directly by the blades, is slow - around 16 RPM (revolutions per minute). The gears wind up, convert this motion into a much faster rotation of 1600 RPM. This powers the electrical generator. This generator produces usable power for the electrical grid, where it makes its way to local homes. Learn more about what the grid actually is here.
Wind farms: on land and at sea
A wind farm is a collection of numerous wind turbines, designed to harness enough electricity for utility applications.
There are two main types of wind farms: onshore wind farms and offshore wind farms.
Onshore wind farms are clustered in a particularly windy area of land. One example is California's San Gorgonio Pass wind farm. This area was chosen because it's one of the windiest spots in the state, making it capable of generating power more times during the year. There are similar wind farms scattered across the United States. Quietly generating clean electricity for homes across the country.
Offshore wind farms take advantage of the higher and more consistent wind speeds that are found at sea. Offshore turbines can harness quite a bit more power than wind farms located on land, but the logistics of constructing them are more challenging. However, as the technology continues to progress, it's becoming possible to make better use of high-output offshore wind farms. They're currently being developed for the US market, and the first power from an offshore turbine went online in August 2016.
The Future of Wind Power
As a technology, wind power is still in its infancy.
This powerful, clean, and fully renewable resource is one of the best candidates for viable alternatives to fossil fuels. For years, wind power has been one of the fastest growing clean energy technologies in the United States. In both Europe and the US, there are plans to increase wind power to 20% of the total generated electricity by 2030.
Offshore wind energy is a particularly promising new frontier. The winds at sea are stronger and more consistent than those on land, making offshore wind farms an appealing resource for clean, efficient energy generation. The obstacle has been a matter of logistics. Building wind farms located offshore is an expensive and challenging undertaking, as is transmitting electricity efficiently from the wind farm to the power grid.
Engineers and researchers are already working on these problems, and in the future, the power of wind is expected to grow even more. Simple yet remarkably effective, wind turbines will continue to be a powerful and plentiful source of clean energy throughout the coming decades.
How can you help?
Switching to wind energy to power your home is something that you can do yourself right now.