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Is there an answer to our energy needs blowing in the wind?

Tracy Hart's picture
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When I was a graduate student, I often drove through the Altamont Pass wind farm. I thought of them as the California’s equivalent of Dutch windmills, more beauty than function.  Little did I know that it was one of the first, and largest, wind farms in the United States and that I would someday learn more about their value and potential.

I recently began working with building and operating wind farms in the Middle East and North Africa. It takes several years to research a viable wind site. It is a meticulous process:  meteorological towers must measure wind patterns from season to season, day and night, and at different points of the wind farm in order to discern a good approximation of how much electricity a farm might generate and what variations might occur.

World BankIt also requires a large expanse of land (15 to 30 miles or longer) and good wind properties that can generate enough electricity to help offset the cost of the switching facility and transmission lines. The land itself – the soil and geology – must be strong enough to secure a wind turbine's concrete foundation which can be as much as 52 feet in diameter, 90 feet in depth and 400 feet in height.   Moreover, these lands must be suitable for building the roads necessary for transporting construction machinery and turbines.

Once the turbines are installed and operational, the blades constantly change direction due to air density, air speeds, and weather conditions.  Simply put, the wind turbine can be thought of as the opposite of an electric fan.   A fan has an electrical cord running to the fan.  When turned on, the electricity runs through the turbine to the blades, which turn and then produce a breeze for you.   With a wind turbine, the breeze turns the blades, which then run through the turbine to generate the electricity outward to the transmission lines. There are no CO2 emissions, just "clean energy".

So, what are the downsides?  Apart from the clear environmental benefits, land owners have the advantage of being able to integrate wind farming as a complement to their other businesses. Though a large expanse of land is needed to sustain an initial investment in a wind farm, the actual footprints of the turbines are quite small. So the land owners can lease out the "footprint", continue to use most of his or her land for grazing and/or agriculture, while also accruing a year-to-year steady revenue stream farming the wind.   Sounds like a winner for the land owners as well.   However, there are challenges to this innovation: due to the cost of installing the turbine, the lease is often a long-term one, which can limit an owner's ability to sell to someone who does not want the wind revenue stream.   The more serious concerns with wind farms are noise from the turbines and the potential interruption of bird migratory patterns.  The issue of wind power and bird kills is a controversial and complex one, which needs further exploration. 

So, I will end with this thought:  In regards to the question of downsides, one needs to consider the greater impact other sources of energy – such as oil and coal – may have on all living things – birds, animals, water-based creatures, plants, air, water, as well as humans. The deleterious effect the burning of fossil fuels has on air quality and how their extraction encroaches on forest lands and thus bird habitats are but a few examples. With this in mind, it is difficult to argue against the advantages of wind energy.  It brings me to the story of William Kamkwamba, a boy in Malawi, who despite poverty and famine successfully built a windmill out of junkyard scraps. He provided electricity to his family home by harnessing the power of wind and turbine. It was a simple, low impact solution that can be scaled up. With our investment in wind energy, we are committed to following his example.

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