Harnessing Wind Power
April 12, 2013
For generations humans have harnessed the power of the wind for various uses including transportation and a power source for processing resources in a windmill . Today, wind turbines are being used to provide roughly 1 per cent of Earth’s energy, being a source that is both renewable and highly controversial. The benefits and disadvantages of using this force to produce energy include benefits and damage to ecosystems, economic gain and risk, and social acceptance, with changing consideration as conditions change.
The Need for Cleaner Energy
What is generally considered the foremost important reason to use wind turbines to generate electricity is that it is a renewable resource. To generate electricity through turbines, after production there are zero pollutants emitted into the atmosphere (Nannette Richford, n.d.). With a growing need for alternative fuel sources, ‘clean energy’ that cause less harm to the environment through emission of pollutants and damage to natural ecosystems, wind power has become a well-known alternative that requires no fossil fuels to generate electricity. The depletion of is of great concern to people in nations around the world, and the need for renewable sources of energy grows with every barrel of oil extracted from the Earth. In 2010 America consumed about about 7 billion barrels of refined petroleum products and biofuels (U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2012), and about 19 per cent of the world’s energy is already provided by renewable sources, a number that is likely to continue to rise (BirdLife International, 2012). With more and more evidence suggesting damage to the environment because of pollutants —including man-made climate change— it becomes more and more clear that the human race must reduce emission of pollutants, and modify energy sources to meet a mandatory standard to minimize the consequences.
Wind Power Technology
The technology of using the wind to turn blades on a mill is centuries old, and a similar technology has been developed for the purpose of generating electricity through wind turbines. Before installing a wind turbine, a suitable sitting site must be selected. There are various factors that must be considered, including clear required land area without other structures blocking the flow of air, and ensuring that the area experiences enough wind to generate the maximum amount of energy possible (Clarke S., Rural Environment/OMAFRA, 2003). After the turbine is installed, it can begin collecting the wind’s kinetic energy with the blades of the turbine, mounted on top of a tall tower to take advantage of stronger and more consistent winds, with OMAFRA recommending a height of 24-37 metres. The function of the two or three blades is to gain lift from the motion of the wind, in turn rotating the blades. The rotation continues through the low-speed shaft and gearbox where the speed is optimized, to rotate the generator thus producing electricity. Wind turbines of various sizes are used to power individual homes and farms, or can also be attached to an electric grid system in conjunction with other wind turbines, often in large field where many turbines are placed in one area with some distance between them. Still, innovation continues are people are considering other possibly more efficient ways of producing more energy using wind power, such as a difference in size for larger and smaller-scale use, and using it in conjunction with other renewable sources of energy (Clarke).
Wind Power in Ontario
In Ontario the amount of wind power produced is monitored on a daily basis as weather conditions change. Depending on the number of megawatts being generated, the ‘Ontario Wind Output’ is essentially enough to meet the needs of an entire city. The province’s power grid has connections to over 1,500 megawatts of wind-generated electricity, a number that is likely to rise with many more wind projects scheduled for the next couple of years (Independent Electricity System Operator, 2013). There are many who support these missions, such as the Canadian Wind Energy Association, which believes that by 2025 wind power can supply 20 per cent of Canada’s electricity (2008). As of 2012, Ontario and British Columbia also are planned to be the first provinces in Canada with offshore wind farms being developed (Canadian Geographic, n.d.).
Advantages and Disadvantages of Wind Turbines
One advantage of using wind power is that it is a versatile source of energy for a variety of areas. Especially remote areas can benefit from this global force of nature because it can be used independent from other shared sources within larger communities. Still, it can also be used as a shared resource in a network of connections with different facilities and power sources, being equally as useful in a larger scale. Some potential consequences or risks associated with it can be averted by using wind power in combination with other energy sources such as solar power. By combining wind power with other sources of renewable energy, chances of power being inaccessible during unfavourable conditions are are greatly reduced with wind power playing it’s own part in compensating for other sources when conditions are not optimal for production of energy by things such as the sun. According to sources such as the Battelle Pacific Northwest Laboratory and the Canadian Wind Energy Association it is estimated that wind power has the potential to supply up to one fifth of America’s energy demands (Clarke). The degree of reliability of the wind in areas with more ideal conditions ensures a cleaner source of power with an average availability factor of over 98 per cent, which is higher than most power plants which require maintenance (The American Wind Energy Association, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, n.d.).
Although the convenience of the wind can be an incentive for using wind power, the unreliability of it can also be an issue. Despite being readily available to many areas, just as other conventional methods of producing energy a wind turbine likely will not produce energy all the time. From an economic standpoint, there are some risks associated with using wind turbines as a power source. For a small wind turbine to be cost effective, 14.4-16.2 km per hour winds are necessary as well as enough land which varies depending on the size of the turbine, otherwise the cost of owning a wind turbine may be greater than the monetary benefits. Most of the coast associated with them are buying the turbine itself --representing 12-48 per cent of the total cost-- and installation. The price of purchase varies depending on it’s size, ranging from $2 thousand to 8 thousand for a small one depending on the kilowatts. Reliability of wind power is often questioned since it’s strength and turbulence varies, and because each turbine has a ‘wind shadow’ behind it where the air flow is interrupted sufficient space must be given between individual turbines (Radford, 2013), though this is comparably small. Finding a suitable sitting area to place such an investment can also be challenging. One factor that is considered when selecting sitting sites is surrounding structures such as trees and buildings that can interfere and limit the flow of air; trees being of special concern because they grow and increase in height over time, whereas turbines do not grow to reach the wind (Clarke).
Encroaching on natural habitats and interfering with ecosystems is a problem with wind turbines. Not only do some believe wind turbines interrupt beautiful natural scenery, but the bigger issue is the threat it poses local to wildlife. Careful consideration for an area’s wildlife must be made when selecting sitting sites for wind turbines, which are generally extensive in area, as to avoid upsetting the local ecosystem such as invasion or even destruction of natural habitats for a turbine’s required space. Birds and bats are of special concern regarding collisions with the turbines causing injury and horrible deaths. This too, is a debated point, as The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food’s website states that “Wind turbines are not, as many people believe, dangerous to birds. A sliding glass door is more dangerous to birds than a small wind turbine.” (Clarke, wind availability ¶2). However, sliding glass doors do not extend as high into the air as wind turbines, and would be be even harder for bats to detect at night using echolocation. Although the estimated number of birds killed by wind turbines varies, according to an estimate by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services it may be as high as 440,000 per year (American Bird Conservancy, 2010). This is an obvious danger to flying creatures and threat to biodiversity within an ecosystem, because not only will animals suffer the injuries and death, but the rest of the ecosystem will suffer because of this unbalancing factor.‘Bird-smart’ measures must be considered in order to minimize bird deaths because of wind turbines. Especially when sitting areas are high-risk zones in terms of posing a threat to birds, measures that can be taken includes burying transmission lines, and following standards set by the Avian Power Line Interaction Committee has also been recommended by the American Bird Conservancy (2010). Still, various animal species including birds continue to suffer because of greenhouse gas emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels to provide energy, which is also a problem of comparable weight.
A social and potentially environmental issue with wind turbines is noise pollution. According to OMAFRA, a typical wind turbine can be heard at about 45 decibels from 250 metres away. That sound level is approximately 15 decibels lower than an average conversation which is typically around 60 decibels. It is important that zoning laws and regulations are adhered to when choosing a sitting sites, but also to take into consideration the feelings of neighbours in the area. Many people who live in areas with wind turbines frequently complain about the aerodynamic and mechanical noise generated at all times of day. It is suggested that small, privately-owned turbines are placed at least 250-300 metres away from neighbours (Clarke). It is also possible that this noise may interfere with animals’ abilities to survive, particularly ones that depend on sense of hearing for hunting, eluding predators, or even navigation.
Despite some social resistance to the use of wind turbines, their potential to help in the social development of more environmentally-conscious communities poses an advantage that will be considered in making global decisions regarding wind power. One aspect of this development is in already-developed countries, regarding the amount of fossil fuels consumed in production and household use. There are individuals who believe that some wars are caused by the greed for oil, and by replacing this depleting commodity with renewable resources such as wind power which can be applied in many different areas, a country becomes less dependant on oil imports. This can improve the environmental, social, and economic state of a country, encouraging a more healthy planet and creating more environmentally-conscious jobs and another possible source of income for those owning wind turbines connected to power grids (Nannette Richford),. The versatile technology of wind power allows it to be used in a variety of places, including in countries that are considered ‘underdeveloped’. Wind power can give countries with available wind resources an industry and source of electricity which does not contribute to the problem of pollution (Abramowski J., Posorski R., 2000). The social advantage of wind power is broad enough that it encompasses reducing carbon emissions from already-industrialized regions, and potentially improving the quality of life in regions where some people may feel they are lacking because of unavailability of fossil fuels.
The possible dangers associated with the use of wind turbines has motivated some staunch resistance, but the possibility of improvement has also sparked some movement in a world in dire need of renewable energy for environmental, social, and economic reasons. The debate continues over whether or not to utilize this powerful force of nature to generate energy for our own use, but what we do know is that wind power is proving to have a potential place of supplementing other cleaner sources of electricity for vital change to be made for the sake of the Earth and all of it’s inhabitants.
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