Wind is simple air in motion. The origin of wind is complex. The Earth is unevenly heated by the sun resulting in the poles receiving less energy from the sun than the equator does. Also the dry land heats up (and cools down) more quickly than the seas do. The differential heating powers a global atmospheric convection system reaching from the Earth’s surface to the stratosphere which acts as a virtual ceiling.

Wind can be used to do work. The kinetic energy of the wind can be changed into other forms of energy, either mechanical energy or electrical energy. Wind energy is ample, renewable, widely distributed, clean, and mitigates the greenhouse effect if used to replace fossil-fuel-derived electricity.

History of wind as energy source

Since ancient times, people have harnessed the winds energy. Over 5,000 years ago, the ancient Egyptians used wind to sail ships on the Nile River. Later, people built windmills to grind wheat and other grains. The earliest known windmills were in Persia (Iran). These early windmills looked like large paddle wheels. Centuries later, the people of Holland improved the basic design of the windmill. They gave it propeller-type blades, still made with sails. Holland is famous for its windmills.

American colonists used windmills to grind wheat and corn, to pump water, and to cut wood at sawmills. As late as the 1920s, Americans used small windmills to generate electricity in rural areas without electric service. When power lines began to transport electricity to rural areas in the 1930s, local windmills were used less and less, though they can still be seen on some Western ranches.

The oil shortages of the 1970s changed the energy picture for the country and the world. It created an interest in alternative energy sources, paving the way for the re-entry of the windmill to generate electricity. In the early 1980s wind energy really took off in California, partly because of state policies that encouraged renewable energy sources. Support for wind development has since spread to other states, but California still produces more than twice as much wind energy as any other state.

How do we turn wind into energy?

Blowing wind spins the blades on a wind turbine — just like a large toy pinwheel. This device is called a wind turbine and not a windmill. A windmill grinds or mills grain, or is used to pump water.

The blades of the turbine are attached to a hub that is mounted on a turning shaft. The shaft goes through a gear transmission box where the turning speed is increased. The transmission is attached to a high speed shaft which turns a generator that makes electricity.

If the wind gets too high, the turbine has a brake that will keep the blades from turning too fast and being damaged. There is still the problem of what to do when the wind isn’t blowing. At those times, other types of power plants must be used to make electricity.

In order for a wind turbine to work efficiently, wind speeds usually must be above 12 to 14 miles per hour. Wind has to be this speed to turn the turbines fast enough to generate electricity. The turbines usually produce about 50 to 300 kilowatts of electricity each. A kilowatt is 1,000 watts (kilo means 1,000). You can light ten 100 watt light bulbs with 1,000 watts. So, a 300 kilowatt (300,000 watts) wind turbine could light up 3,000 light bulbs that use 100 watts!

Wind Energy

An estimated 1% to 3% of energy from the Sun that hits the earth is converted into wind energy. This is about 50 to 100 times more energy than is converted into biomass by all the plants on Earth through photosynthesis. Most of this wind energy can be found at high altitudes where continuous wind speeds of over 160 km/h (100 mph) occur. Eventually, the wind energy is converted through friction into diffuse heat throughout the Earth’s surface and atmosphere.

Wind power plants

Wind power plants, or wind farms as they are sometimes called, are clusters of wind machines used to produce electricity. A wind farm usually has dozens of wind machines scattered over a large area. The Big Spring Wind Power Project in Texas has 46 wind turbines that generate enough electricity to power 7,300 homes. Unlike power plants, many wind plants are not owned by public utility companies. Instead they are owned and operated by business people who sell the electricity produced on the wind farm to electric utilities. These private companies are known as Independent Power Producers.

Operating a wind power plant is not as simple as just building a windmill in a windy place. Wind plant owners must carefully plan where to locate their machines. One important thing to consider is how fast and how much the wind blows. As a rule, wind speed increases with altitude and over open areas with no windbreaks. Good sites for wind plants are the tops of smooth, rounded hills, open plains or shorelines, and mountain gaps that produce wind funneling.

Wind speed varies throughout the country. It also varies from season to season. In Tehachapi, California, the wind blows more from April through October than it does in the winter. This is because of the extreme heating of the Mojave Desert during the summer months. The hot air over the desert rises, and the cooler, denser air above the Pacific Ocean rushes through the Tehachapi mountain pass to take its place. In a state like Montana, on the other hand, the wind blows more during the winter. Fortunately, these seasonal variations are a good match for the electricity demands of the regions. In California, people use more electricity during the summer for air conditioners. In Montana, people use more electricity during the winter months for heating.

Small scale production

Wind turbines have been used for household electricity generation in conjunction with battery storage over many decades in remote areas. Household generator units of more than 1 kW are now functioning in several countries. To compensate for the varying power output, grid-connected wind turbines may utilise some sort of grid energy storage. Off-grid systems either adapt to intermittent power or use photovoltaic or diesel systems to supplement the wind turbine.

Wind turbines range from small four hundred watt generators for residential use to several megawatt machines for wind farms and offshore. The small ones have direct drive generators, direct current output, aeroelastic blades, lifetime bearings and use a vane to point into the wind; while the larger ones generally have geared power trains, alternating current output, flaps and are actively pointed into the wind. Direct drive generators and aeroelastic blades for large wind turbines are being researched and direct current generators are sometimes used.

In urban locations, where it is difficult to obtain large amounts of wind energy, smaller systems may still be used to run low power equipment. Distributed power from rooftop mounted wind turbines can also alleviate power distribution problems, as well as provide resilience to power failures. Equipment such as parking meters or wireless internet gateways may be powered by a wind turbine that charges a small battery, replacing the need for a connection to the power grid and/or maintaining service despite possible power grid failures.

Small-scale wind power in rural Indiana.Small scale turbines are available that are approximately 7 feet (2 m) in diameter and produce 900 watts. Units are lightweight, e.g. 16 kilograms (35 lbs), allowing rapid response to wind gusts typical of urban settings and easy mounting much like a television antenna. It is claimed that they are inaudible even a few feet under the turbine. Dynamic braking regulates the speed by dumping excess energy, so that the turbine continues to produce electricity even in high winds. The dynamic braking resistor may be installed inside the building to provide heat (during high winds when more heat is lost by the building, while more heat is also produced by the braking resistor). The proximal location makes low voltage (12 volt, or the like) energy distribution practical. An additional benefit is that owners become more aware of electricity consumption, possibly reducing their consumption down to the average level that the turbine can produce.

According to the World Wind Energy Association, it is difficult to assess the total number or capacity of small-scaled wind turbines, but in China alone, there are roughly 300,000 small-scale wind turbines generating electricity.

Enviromental concerns

Wind energy offers a viable, economical alternative to conventional power plants in many areas of the country. Wind is a clean fuel; wind farms produce no air or water pollution because no fuel is burned.

The most serious environmental drawbacks to wind machines may be their negative effect on wild bird populations and the visual impact on the landscape. To some, the glistening blades of windmills on the horizon are an eyesore; to others, they’re a beautiful alternative to conventional power plants.

Sources: wikipedia, http://www.eia.doe.gov/kids/energyfacts/sources/renewable/wind.html

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