October 1, 2013

A Landscape Oddity

Schricker,-Mary-Dec2010By Mary Schricker Gemberling

As I sit on my screened porch on this crisp fall evening and gaze at the field to the West, I am reminded of the
dichotomy of the scenery. The land, resplendent with vibrant black eyed susans bordering acres of corn and soybeans is shadowed by towering wind mills. Having wondered about these metal giants ever since I moved here, I finally take out my laptop and decide to satisfy my curiosity about this
landscape oddity.

What is a wind turbine and how does it work? Wind turbines are mounted one hundred feet or more above ground, where they can take advantage of the faster and less turbulent wind and catch the wind’s energy with their propeller like blades. A wind energy system transforms the kinetic energy of the wind into mechanical or electrical energy that can be harnessed for practical use. Wind electric turbines generate electricity for homes and businesses and for sale to utilities. Wind turbines can be used as a stand-alone application or connected to a utility power grid.

How do we measure wind energy? The ability to generate electricity is measured in watts. Watts are very small units, so the terms kilowatt (1,000 watts), megawatts (1 million watts), and gigawatts (1 billion watts) are most commonly used to describe the capacity of generating units like wind turbines or other power plants. Electricity production and consumption are measured in kilowatt-hours. A kilowatt-hour means 1,000 watts of electricity produced or consumed for one hour. One 50-watt light bulb left on for 20 hours consumes one kilowatt-hour of electricity. The average American household uses about 10,000 kilowatt hours per year. The output of a wind
turbine depends on the turbine’s size and the wind’s speed. Wind turbines being manufactured now have power ratings up to 1.65 megawatts.

The wind doesn’t blow all the time. How much can it really contribute to a utility’s generating capacity? The wind generated by the turbines is channeled into grids to be utilized as needed. Researchers have found that despite its intermittent nature, wind can provide capacity value for utilities by increasing the probability that the system will be able to meet demand requirements. While wind is an intermittent resource, conventional generating systems also experience periodic outages for maintenance and repair.

In what ways does wind energy benefit the economy? Wind farms can provide a steady income through lease or
royalty payments to farmers and other landowners. Although leasing arrangements vary, a reasonable estimate for a single utility-scale turbine is about $2,000 a year with only two to three acres removed from production. A large number of turbines are usually built close together to form a wind farm.

Farmers can grow crops or raise cattle next to the towers. Even though wind farms may extend over a large geographical area, the actual “footprint” covers a very small portion of the land, making wind development an ideal way for farmers to earn additional income

What are wind power’s environmental impacts? Wind energy systems do not generate air or water emissions and do not produce hazardous waste. Nor do they deplete natural resources such as coal, oil, or gas. But wind turbines dot prime landscapes, generate noise, and can pose a hazard to birds and other wildlife. Contrary to the “not in my backyard” philosophy, society has to at some point accept the fact that no matter where we get our electricity, there will be some impact on the environment.

Wind power has been used as long as humans have put sails into the wind. For more than two millennia, wind-powered machines have ground grain and pumped water. Germany, USA, Denmark, Spain, and India make up 80 percent of the world’s wind energy supply. The potential of wind to improve the quality of life in the world’s developing countries, where more than two billion people live with no electricity or prospect of utility service in the foreseeable future, is vast.

Wind energy is now the fastest growing source of power in the United States, representing 43 percent of all new U.S. electric generation capacity in 2012 and $25 billion in new investment. In 2012 over 13 gigawatts of new wind power was added to the U.S. grids. It is estimated that 72 percent of the wind turbine equipment, including tower, blades, and gears, installed in the U.S. last year was made in America. Industry estimates the wind sector employs more than 80,000 American workers.

Wind power continues to be one of the most promising sources of renewable energy. Over the last decade, the wind industry has seen exponential growth as wind farms pop up all over the world. It is currently the renewable energy source that can best compete with fossil fuel. It seems that in the years ahead, across the landscapes of America as well as the rest of the world, the wind turbine may cease to be a landscape oddity.

Mary, a former educator and Seniors Real Estate Specialist, is the author of two books, The West End Kid and Labor of Love; My Personal Story of the World of Caregiving (available at www.amazon.com).

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