Public Domain: U.S. DOE & NREL
First, there is the power of the Wind, constantly exerted over the globe…. Here is an almost incalculable power at our disposal, yet how trifling the use we make of it! It only serves to turn a few mills, blow a few vessels across the ocean, and a few trivial ends besides. What a poor compliment do we pay to our indefatigable and energetic servant! — Henry David Thoreau, 1866
Based on data from the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, enough wind blows across the plains, mountains, and shores of the Earth to generate approximately 73 million gigawatt-hours of electricity a year using current technologies at 50% deployment* — roughly 4x the electricity consumed globally today. Including deep offshore wind resources, a 2005 Stanford University study shows we could meet the growing global demand for electricity many times over through wind power (PDF).
And wind has seen explosive growth in the past 10 years, resulting in larger and more efficient turbines that (as of 2010) produce electricity more cheaply in many regions than new coal-fired power plants. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, it now costs an average of $65 to produce 1 MWh (megawatt-hour) of electricity with wind, versus $68 per MWh for coal. And now, innovative wind turbine designs, like the “wind lens” prototype recently patented in Japan, could double or even triple wind power output in the near future.
It’s important to point out out that the rocketing 30x growth in wind energy investments ($243 billion in 2010 versus $8 billion in 2000), and its cost parity with coal power, has occurred despite massive subsidies to fossil fuel companies. Historically, in the U.S. for example, for every $1 spent on national subsidies of wind, solar and geothermal combined, $13 was spent on oil & gas subsidies, $9.50 was spent on nuclear, and $3 on biofuels (source: CleanTechnica).
Wind power also offers numerous advantages over other methods of power generation (source: NRDC):
- It relies on a free fuel — wind. No mining or drilling and it is infinitely renewable.
- Unlike conventional fossil fuel and nuclear power, wind power produces no pollution or CO2 emissions
- Wind farms can be built in a fraction of the time it takes to construct coal or natural-gas power plants.
- Wind offers the fastest “energy paybacks” — 6 month avg. to recoup energy consumed in construction.
- Wind turbine leases give extra income to farmers & ranchers with only small reductions in usable land.
- Wind energy creates more manufacturing and technical jobs per dollar than any other energy investment.
There are 3 broad categories of wind power generation — Onshore, Offshore, and Micro-generation.
Onshore Wind Power
Though wind power has now become cost-competitive in many regions, the greatest perceived challenge for the wind industry is intermittency. Clearly, the wind doesn’t blow all the time, so when a wind project is connected to the grid, other energy sources are required to compliment wind generation. But, according to The Union of Concerned Scientists, wind variability is by no means insurmountable.
In practice, many utilities are already demonstrating that wind can make a significant contribution to their electric supply without reliability problems. Xcel Energy, which serves nearly 3.5 million customers across eight Western and Midwestern U.S. states, currently obtains 8% of its electricity from wind and plans to increase that to about 20 percent by 2020. There are also several areas in Europe where wind power already supplies more than 20% of electricity with no adverse effects on system reliability. For instance, three states in Germany have wind electricity penetrations of at least 40% (Source: UCS).
Offshore Wind Power
Offshore wind has additional advantages — they result in fewer bird and bat strikes, they are not audible, and they do not interfere with the aesthetics of a landscape — 3 of the most common complaints about wind. Also they take advantage of higher class 6 and 7 winds which are normally not found on land. There is however one major disadvantage to offshore wind — cost.
Offshore wind turbines cost about 3x more per MWh of energy production than their land-based counterparts, mostly from the additional material and engineering required for underwater installation. But as turbines get larger and larger (several 10 MW turbines are now under development) these upfront costs will be outweighed by the many advantages of large-scale offshore turbines.
Photo Courtesy of Windspire Energy
Occasionally mistaken for kinetic sculptures, micro-wind turbines can take a variety of forms inspired by the most efficient structures in nature — everything from conch shells and dragonfly wings to seed pods and whale flippers. This sector of the wind industry is still it in its infancy but can be grouped into 2 turbine types — vertical-axis and horizontal-axis.
Ideal for off-grid locations or roof-mounted commercial buildings, these turbines are not generally used at industrial scale but rather to provide off-the-grid power supply that can supplement or even replace a building’s primary energy needs. In some areas pairing a wind turbine with a solar panel system can create a naturally complimentary system that generates solar energy during the day, and wind energy primarily at night:
*Note: Country-by-country data wind data in the Tck Climate Guide uses the following benchmarks to conservatively estimate total wind potential by country:
Quick Facts on Wind Power:
- The most mature technology, wind, continued to dominate the renewables sector, accounting for 94.7 billion dollars of investment projects in 2010. [CCI]
- The Committee on Climate Change report says that the cost of onshore wind is lower than nuclear in 2011, and will still be lower in 2020, 2030 and 2040. [Financial Times]
- Despite a global financial recession, wind energy capacity grew in 2009 by over 30 per cent. [IPCC]
- Energy efficiency and key renewable technologies (such as wind) are resilient to other resource threats such as rising water stress, which are posing increasing constraints on conventional thermal power generation. [HSBC]
- The Global Wind Energy Council last year showed how wind could meet 12 percent of global power demand by 2020, and up to 22 percent by 2030. In fact, 2010 saw the global wind industry install two wind turbines an hour — a total of 36,000 MW. [Grist]
- Wind power grew at nearly 32% in 2009 – the highest rate since 2001. [WWEA]
- All wind turbines installed by the end of 2009 worldwide are generating 340 TWh/yr, equivalent to the total electricity demand of Italy, the seventh largest economy of the world, and equaling 2% of global electricity consumption. [WWEA]
- While currently faced with extreme drought, the state of Texas is relying on wind energy to keep the lights on. [The Energy Collective]
- A single 1MW wind turbine can offset approximately 2,600 tons of carbon dioxide annually, and power more than 400 households. [Mass.Gov]
- On a 250-acre farm in the U.S. wind leases can generate about $14,000of annual income with only 3 acres taken out of production. [NRDC]
- As of 2008, top performing wind farms in areas with excellent wind resources produced energy for 5.9 cents per kilowatt-hour, a price competitive with those at new coal- or gas-fired power plants. [NRDC]
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