Saturday, October 12, 2013

Examining Renewables -- Wind Energy

I am wanting to do more with this blog to share information I've researched, and advocate for safer environmental policies. I am introducing this Examining Renewables series to help provide information about sustainable energy methods in clear language. I know they are a little lengthy, but I hope you will find them informative and interesting, and inspire you to share your knowledge with other community members too. Additional references and resources to explore are embedded as links.

Wind energy is among the first sources that comes to mind when many people think of renewable energy. The towering white turbines turning over a field of green grass is an image that has become an idealistic vision of innovation and possible energy independence. Wind energy is considered a renewable resource, because it is continuously available (with some interruptions) and does not get depleted after use. There is some criticism of this energy source, which this post will explore and analyze after a brief overview of the process.

Creating energy from wind. As mentioned above, the turning turbines associated with wind power demonstrate exactly how this resource is converted into usable energy. It seems like a simple enough process to illustrate; similar to a child blowing to turn a pinwheel, wind turbines are constructed to capture air currents at least 7 mph that will rotate their blades. Unlike a pinwheel, however, contemporary designs for towers supporting wind turbines range from 200 to 260 feet tall! The energy generated from turning the turbine is then converted into electrical energy the drive shaft of the tower that can be added to the grid as a source of power for consumers.

© Photomorgana | Dreamstime Stock Photos
Benefits & Criticism. Unquestionably, one of the strongest cases for utilizing wind power in the United States is that it provides a renewable energy source that is free of toxic byproducts and emissions. This is a benefit that cannot be understated, despite the room for improvement the wind industry may have.

One of the most popular criticisms of wind energy is the impact on wildlife. Some published studies have found wind turbines to kill large amounts of predatory birds, such as raptors, and bats which has concerned many animal advocates. Thankfully, none of the frequently injured species were listed as endangered. However, it should be noted that the findings of these popular studies appear to be outside the norm. The results of one of these studies comes out of older wind farms in the Altamont Pass region of California, where the towers for wind turbines were only 60 to 80 feet high. Other factors, such blades that nearly reach the ground, and a large population of predatory birds and prey in the area, may have contributed to the statistically high average of  damage to wildlife in Altamont Pass. The information from such studies has helped revise and improve the engineering of wind farms and turbines since these studies (more details about this analysis from the GAO here).

Another emerging complaint about wind energy comes from the sheer size and noise of the turbines. Many people have reported feeling uncomfortable living close to a wind turbine, attributing dizziness and other disturbances from residing near a turbine. These concerns have prevented many communities, such as the New York town featured in Laura Israel’s documentary Windfall, from authorizing the proposed construction of wind farms. Aesthetic concerns have also delayed progress of offshore wind farms in areas such as Nantucket Sound. Groups of local residents have opposed construction, citing concerns threats to tourism and the economy, as well as many of the sensitive species of marine life in the area.

Although environmental impact surveys and planning to minimize impact of local wildlife are important, it is notable that there is so much vocal opposition to what is otherwise a clean energy source. After turbines erected, there are no dangerous emissions that reduce air quality that humans and other organisms depend on. Groups like the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound may protest wind farms because of their lesser negative impacts, but it seems like a more sustainable route would be to focus on reducing one’s consumption and reliance on fossil fuels if their intentions are actually to improve environmental health.

The manufacture and production of turbines is arguably likely to have some factory emissions, but during the capture of wind power, there is no concerning depletion of natural resources. Wind energy does not require workers to strip the earth, as does coal; it does not introduce dangerous chemicals into water and soil as does hydraulic fracking; and there is usually not too much complaint over avian fatalities or property value when other sorts of development projects are proposed. The Union of Concerned Scientists describes in essence how wind power allows a safe energy source without interrupting reliable routines: “In Europe, farmers plant right up to the base of turbine towers, while in California cows can be seen peacefully grazing in their shadow”.

Feasibility of a wind-powered United States. Wind power is one of the rare renewable resources that actually has the promising potential of becoming a significant power sources that could support our society’s energy needs. It has actually been estimated by the Department of Energy that the wind in just the Dakotas and Texas alone could power the country’s current energy consumption. And in addition to reducing damage wreaked by traditional fossil fuels, wind energy costs a comparable 5 cents per kWh, making it an extremely viable option to transition into.

According to GAO, 36 of the 48 states in the continental United States have resources that could provide a substantial source of wind power to support the grid. By creating enough demand by citizens for cleaner, renewable energy, there is the possibility to invest our country’s interest in harvesting wind energy. Wind energy advocates do face substantial opposition to the fossil fuel monopoly, so it is up to environmental experts to engage the public by making the facts about wind energy accessible and understandable to the public.

Additionally, there exist times of the day when operators actually have to turn off turbines as to not cause a power surge and shut down the grid. It would benefit our energy independence goals greatly to have a system of storage for this extra energy, rather than being unable to use it. I am partial to the solution Robert Bryce suggests of researching and developing an efficient battery, perhaps along with pumped hydro storage as Matt Owens advocates. These adjustments will allow already sustainable wind energy resources to become more reliable and productive.

Closing reflections. The researching and writing of this post has only made me more confident and excited about the promising potential of wind energy. I was aware of its status as a renewable source of energy before, but I learned it is even more effective and available to us than I had imagined. I believe the most difficult hurdle to overcome for wind power’s implementation comes not from research and development, but opposition from fossil fuel companies. Through their lobbyists and interest groups, they have political power in their pockets. Until citizens of the United States can recognize and relate to what is truly at stake, we may continue to function as energy consumers without a conscience.

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