4 Things You Didn’t Know about Wind Energy

lightbulbAlternative Energy

It’s one of the most common topics you’ll hear in any conversation regarding sustainability and climate change. The reason? Finding an alternative energy source is imperative if we are going to combat climate change. Our current global dependence on a failed fossil fuel market is pumping massive amounts of CO2 into our atmosphere.  This leads to what is aptly christened the “Accelerated Greenhouse Effect”: the steady warming our planet past its normal temperature. 

But, unfortunately, we can’t just stop using fossil fuels cold turkey. Humans—especially those in highly developed countries like us Americans—quite like having access to bountiful energy. Cutting back our consumption of energy is urgent, but since we are unlikely to ever cut back enough to mitigate climate change, we need something to replace fossil fuels that can produce the same amount of energy—but without the GHG emissions. 

One of the darlings of Alternative Energy has traditionally been Wind Energy.  In fact, the United States Government has so much confidence in Wind Power it has a set a goal to produce 20% of our nation’s energy by Wind by 2030.  Obviously Wind Energy has the potential to play a big role in our shift from fossil fuels to alternative energy.

But how much do you actually know about Wind Energy?

Take this quiz to find out.

1. T or F: Wind Energy comes from the Sun


sun-in-fieldAlright, that was a bit of a trick question, but wind energy is actually a product of the sun—solar radiation entering our atmosphere heats the air and causes air currents (aka “wind”). Wind turbines are just a method of converting the wind’s kinetic energy (physics talk for “the energy of something moving”) to electrical energy we can use to power our stuff. Incidentally, the fact that wind is caused by temperature changes in our atmosphere means that climate change could actually have a big impact on global wind patterns—like this weird phenomenon that recently showed up in our stratosphere. This means that climate change itself could make it harder for us to reliably harvest wind energy.

2. T or F: Wind Energy is very important to Arkansas


According to this map, we in NWA are about as windy as it gets in Arkansas. Image from alumni.stanford.edu

Ok, I apologize for another trick question, but whether the answer is True or False depends on what part of the wind energy industry you’re looking at. As shown by the map above, Arkansas is not very windy. Consequently, we don’t really have the option of relying on wind to supply our energy needs. Ironically though, LM Wind, one of the largest producers of Wind Turbines in the world, has a major production facility in Little Rock.  So as far as economic importance goes, wind energy has a positive economic role in Arkansas.

3. T or F: Wind Energy production takes up too much space 


Alternative_EnergiesLook! I actually asked a straight forward question! Mostly.  Because the answer is really “FALSE (COMPARATIVELY)”

You see, the wind farm itself might take up a lot of space, but, according to European Wind Energy Association, “the turbines… take up less than 1% of the land area. Existing activities like farming and tourism can take place around them.” This sets Wind Energy production apart from other forms of energy production, including solar and fossil fuel, which reduce whatever land they’re built on to the sole function of energy production. As such, Wind Energy requires comparatively less land per unit of energy produced than most other energy sources.

4. True or False: We could meet all of our global energy needs using wind alone

ANSWER: FALSE (but not for the reasons you think)

A Harvard Study from 2009 estimated that only earth-electricity20% of the global wind energy potential could produce seven times the total current global consumption of electricity. Reading this factoid, you’re probably thinking “But wait, I thought you just said we couldn’t meet our energy needs with wind…?” The truth is that although there is theoretically enough wind available to meet our electrical needs, it still wouldn’t work as our sole energy provider for the following two reasons:

It’s not windy everywhere:  As mentioned above, Arkansas would be a terrible place for a wind farm.  We could put up all the wind turbines we want, but that wouldn’t make it windy here. As such, if we were going to run AR on wind, we would need to import our energy from elsewhere, and we honestly just don’t have the technology or infrastructure to do that efficiently. Even if we did have all the non-windy places of the world connected to the windy ones with power lines, there is still going to be a day where the wind isn’t blowing hard enough to generate sufficient energy to meet demand.  This would mean power outages, and those of us used to the “whenever, wherever” availability of energy afforded by fossil fuels are just not ok with that. Relying on wind might be feasible if we had enough batteries to save up for the gust-less days, but our current batteries are not only little, they are expensive. Which brings us to the second hiccup in the “pro-wind” plan.

Transportation:  Vehicles, by definition, are mobile—and as such their power source also needs to be mobile. The only way wind could be used to power these vehicles (i.e. your car) would be if the wind power could be stored in a battery used by an electric vehicle. Although this technology exists, it is still seen by most as impractical and expensive. The cost and time to recharge the modern battery is one of the main reasons our personal vehicles are still largely powered by fossil fuels.

To summarize, although there is a lot of wind energy on earth up for grabs, the technology and infrastructure to allow us to actually store and distribute that energy is still a ways off.

sustainabilityThe answer to the “Alternative Energy” question is likely not going to be found in just one source. Every energy source, from solar to nuclear to fossil, has its pros and cons.  To provide for our global energy needs while still stewarding our resources and protecting our planet will require maximizing the best of all the fuel sources at our disposal.

Click here to learn more about wind and other sources of alternative energy
Click here to read about the 3 Reasons we are still using Fossil Fuels


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