Thesis: Wind Power: One of the Best Answers

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Wind Power: One of the Best Answers for an Energy-Hungry World

As gas prices top $4.00 a gallon across the country, the search for alternative energy sources has assumed new importance and relevance today. Although the concept is centuries old, recent innovations in wind turbine design have made wind farms competitive with traditional oil- and coal-powered generators, and improvements in energy transmission techniques have also contributed to the viability of this renewable energy source. While the debate over how the country should make the transition from an oil-based economy to one that is powered by renewable energy sources continues, the hand-writing is on the wall for all to see and the future of wind power in the United States is indeed bright. This paper provides a review of the relevant peer-reviewed, scholarly and governmental literature to develop a background and overview of wind power, how the technology has evolved over the years and what applications are currently in use. An assessment of wind power's potential to contribute to the nation's energy needs in the future is followed by a summary of the research in the conclusion.

Review and Discussion

Background and Overview. According to Pernin, Bernstein, Mejia, Shin, Rueter and Steger (2002), wind power is truly ancient and has been harnessed by mankind for millennia. These authors report that, "Wind has been used as a source of power at least since it filled the sails of seafaring travelers 5,000 years ago. Windmills have been used since the early 1900s for agriculture and to pump water" (Pernin et al. 12). During the oil crunch of the early 1970s, skyrocketing oil prices in the face of a fuel embargo created new interest in wind power, and by 1997, wind power was the fastest-growing energy technology globally, increasing at a prodigious rate of 25% to a total installed capacity of almost 8,000 MW (Pernin et al. 12).

Wind power is called a renewable energy source because it depends on natural energy flows and sources in the environment, which, since they are continuously replenished, never become exhausted (Elliott 129). The renewable energy provided by wind power has become increasingly common across the United States in recent years, and this trend continues to accelerate today. In this regard, Hansen (2005) reports that, "Since 1981, installed wind capacity in the U.S. has grown from 10 megawatts ('MW') to over 6,000 MW in 2003 (1), representing 0.6% of total U.S. installed capacity. This rapid growth is attributed to a number of factors, including both increasing environmental awareness and decreasing economic costs" (341). In addition, heightened awareness and growing worries over the impact of fossil-fuel energy sources on global warming in recent years has further accelerated interest in alternative energy sources, especially wind power (Hansen). Furthermore, more than half the states already offer some type of incentive for consumers and business to install wind turbines. According to a recent report from Clayton (2008), "At least 26 states have tax or productivity incentives or other subsidies to support wind energy. But strong growth is happening even without the federal tax incentives enjoyed by solar panels and big utility-scale wind turbines" (3). As a result, wind power already represents a significant energy source for the United States and stands to contribute much more in the future. Some current applications of wind power are described further below.

Current Applications. According to Elliott, "The winds are an indirect form of solar power, and they have been used for centuries as a source of energy. More recently wind power has become one of the more successful renewable energy technologies" (134). So-called "wind farms" in the United States have become increasingly prevalent, particularly in California, on mountaintops and in offshore areas that receive regular heavy winds (Elliott). A sample offshore wind farm is shown in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1 - Sample Offshore Wind Farm

Source: http://inbalance.files.wordpress.com/2007/08/wind-farm.jpg

In recent years, wind farms have also sprung up all over Europe and currently contribute a significant percentage of many Western European nations' power requirements today (Holzman 358). In this regard, Elliott reports that, "Wind projects now exist in many other parts of the world. By 2002, the total generating capacity around the world was around 24,000 MW, with costs dropping dramatically as the technology developed. For example, by 2002, wind projects were going ahead in some parts of the UK that were competitive with gas-fired plants" (134). Although there are some clear benefits to using wind power today, there are some constraints and obstacles as well. In this regard, Pernin and his colleagues report that the benefits of wind power include:

Wind is free, renewable, and clean.

Wind systems can provide power to remote towns and residences that do not have traditional electricity transmission and distribution systems.

Compared with other non-hydroelectric renewable technologies, wind power is cost-competitive. In fact, as a result of advancements in wind-turbine technology, wind has been able to compete in price with more-mainstream power-generation technologies. The cost of electricity from wind has dropped from 35¢/kWh in 1980 to less than 4¢/kWh in 2001 at good wind sites.

Conversely, some of the disadvantages and drawbacks of wind power include the following:

Wind cannot be controlled or predicted with great accuracy. Wind power is therefore intermittent and needs to be considered differently from most fossil-fuel alternatives.

Wind turbines also must be located at optimal wind sites, which may not be close to transmission lines.

Besides the higher cost associated with building these lines, transmitting the power over long distances incurs larger losses as well (Pernin et al. 12).

Even here, though, improvements in transmission capabilities are being introduced every day and many existing sites near highly populated urban areas are already amenable to the installation of wind farms (Pernin et al.)

Future Trends. Interest in wind power is growing at an exponential rate and it appears reasonable to assert that as the supporting technologies continue to improve, the demand for wind power will continue to grow in the future. As Hansen emphasizes, "Advances in turbine technology, coupled with a growing knowledge base surrounding wind patterns and optimal siting, have led to production costs on par with traditional forms of generation such as coal and natural gas fired power plants" (342). Projections by industry experts today indicate that these forces will combine to propel wind capacity from 6,000 MW in 2003 to 16,000 MW in 2025 (Hansen). Other supporting technologies are also improving the efficiency of wind turbines. As Holzman (2007) points out, "Anything that can increase wind power's contribution toward meeting electricity needs will only further attenuate emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants. Some experts are now looking to vanadium redox-flow batteries (VRBs) to provide the boost that wind power needs if it is to reach the next tier of capacity. Already these units are modulating wind power in several significant installations around the world" (358). These improved storage batteries allow the overflow electricity from wind farms to be stored until it can be transmitted to where it is needed. In fact, these batteries are already helping provide a significant percentage of the electrical needs of many countries in Western Europe, most notably Denmark and the Netherlands (Holzman).

There is also a clear potential for increased used of smaller wind turbines in many residential areas across the country. According to Clayton (2008), "While giant wind turbines that supply power to utilities sprout along ridgelines across the United States, far smaller residential wind generators... are still unusual in densely populated places. That may be changing. Across the country signs are growing that 'small wind' (a category that includes wind generators geared to supply a single home) is catching on in suburban and even urban settings" (2). Such smaller applications may become more attractive for residential, small business, and farm use in the future as… [END OF PREVIEW]

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