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INTRODUCTION TO WIND ENERGY

Around the world, wind turbines of all sizes have become a familiar sight. Their purpose is simple: harvesting the energy in wind.

Wind turbines today are up to the task of producing serious amounts of electricity. Turbines vary in size from small 1 kW structures to large machines rated at 1.6 MW. A popular sized machine in the U.S. today is a state-of-the-art 750 kW turbine that stands as tall as a 20-story building. With a good wind resource, this size turbine can produce 2 million kWh of electricity each year. That's enough energy to run 200 average American households.

Wind has been the fastest growing energy technology in the world for the past decade. In 1999, the world wind industry installed a record amount of new utility-scale wind generation equipment, more than 3,900 megawatts (MW), representing investments totaling nearly $4 billion. Total wind installations increased an average of 40 percent annually from 1995-1999 to nearly 14,000 MW worldwide. Much of that growth is due to cost reductions and progressive government policies.

The pace of growth has been greatest in Europe, where 81 percent of the world's new wind equipment was installed 1999. Germany has the highest total wind capacity of any country, nearly 5,000 MW. Here in the United States, our total wind capacity has reached 2,500 MW, with large wind farms now online in farming and ranching states including Texas, Minnesota, Iowa, and Wyoming. The World Energy Council has estimated that wind energy capacity worldwide may total as much as 474,000 MW by the year 2020, and the federal Wind Powering America initiative aims to have more than 10,000 MW of wind capacity in the U.S. by 2010.

Wind energy has only recently gained a foothold in the nation's heartland, which has far greater wind potential than in California where the U.S. wind industry got started in the 1980s. In Minnesota, a 1994 legislative mandate required Xcel Energy Company (formerly Northern States Power) to purchase 425 MW of wind generated electricity by 2002 in return for granting dry cask storage of its spent nuclear fuel. Because wind was demonstrated to be the least cost resource, Xcel is required to purchase an additional 400 MW of wind generation by 2012. The Texas state legislature has required that 2,000 MW of generating capacity from renewable sources (equivalent to about 3% of the state's electricity production) be built by 2009, with most expected to come from the state's abundant wind power.

The Midwest has provided leadership in developing wind energy incentives to ensure that more clean, renewable power is integrated into our energy mix. Our transmission system could utilize up to 20 percent of its electricity from wind. Most of that growth will come from wind power plants, which are large arrays of turbines run by wind companies, but significant contributions can be made by small clusters of turbines or even single turbines, operated by local landowners and small businesses.

Economic Advantages of Wind Energy

Developing local sources to meet our energy needs means that we import less fuel from other states, regions, and nations. That means our energy dollars are plowed back into the local economy. Wind energy can also help diversify the economies of rural communities. Wind Powering America is expected to add $60 billion in capital investment; provide $1.2 billion in new income for farmers, Native Americans, and rural landowners; and create 80,000 permanent jobs by 2020.

Wind energy is a hedge for the future as our traditional fossils fuels become more scarce and public policies assign environmental costs to sources of pollution.

Environmental Advantages of Wind Energy

Most people are aware that burning coal releases harmful particulate emissions that cause breathing problems and asthma, and that it releases sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which cause acid rain. Coal is also one of the primary contributors of the carbon dioxide that causes global warming and mercury contamination of our lakes and fish. Natural gas is a better option than coal, but it still produces considerable air pollution and contributes to global warming. Nuclear energy produces no particulate emissions, but it creates dangerous radioactive wastes which will require thousands of years of careful storage. All three sources--coal, gas, and nuclear power--are limited fuels. Today, they compose the bulk of our electric generation sources.

Wind, on the other hand, is a completely renewable fuel source. As long as the sun shines, the winds will blow. And wind power produces no health risks and no air pollution.

Disadvantages of Wind Energy

Wind energy is an intermittent resource: we get electricity only when the wind blows. Although modern wind turbines regulate power well and level off at their rated capacity, the amount of power they produce varies throughout the day. Hundreds of installations have demonstrated that utility systems are capable of accommodating the changing wind power just as they modify their output to follow changing demand. Experts predict that wind power can compose up to 30% of our energy mix before reliability of the system would be an issue. In the US today, less than 1% of our electricity is produced by wind.

Wind energy is also capital intensive. That's why local, state, and federal governments must support wind energy development through production incentives and public policy to encourage its growth and technological advancement. Such support does make a difference. Wind power now costs as little as 3 per kWh in the U.S., down from 50 per kWh in 1981.

In Summary

Modern wind turbines safely and efficiently turn wind into useable energy. Hundreds of rural landowners throughout the Midwest have learned how to harvest the wind. Many of these people have been operating small turbines on their farms for years. Others are just beginning to investigate the large wind turbines. As they would with any investment, these landowners must carefully weigh the benefits and risks and research just what a wind turbine on their property would involve.

As a nation, we have decided that living more sustainably with less pollution is a priority. When we account for the social costs of energy production, wind energy is the clear winner. We cannot afford to wait to do the right thing anymore. Wind power is an energy technology for today and the 21st century that we can all feel good about.

Written by: Windustry


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