The Good and the Bad of Blowin in the Wind

The wind never dies.

Because winds are created by the uneven heating of the earth's atmosphere by the sun, irregularities of the Earth ' s surface, and the rotation of the Earth, there will always be wind, which means there will always be a source of free and inexhaustible energy. This free fuel is similar to the free fuel we get with solar; and really all we are doing with both wind power and solar power is taking the modeling clay nature gives us and sculpting it into usable forms of clean energy.

The main advantage to wind power generation is the free, and 100 percent clean, fuel source. Wind energy does not emit CO 2 or other GHGs the way fossil fuel electricity generation plants do. Because wind energy is a local proposition, it' s a domestic source of energy for any country where wind supplies are abundant. In the United States there are many regions conducive to wind power generation, and that means a lot of opportunity to power much of the country.

Wind energy also is one of the lowest-priced renewable energy technologies available today, costing between 4 and 6 cents per kilowatt-hour, according to the DOE. The cost here varies due to, among other factors, the source of the wind and the cost of building and operating the wind power generation facility.

Another advantage of wind power is that wind turbines can be built on farms or ranches, which benefits the economy in rural areas. It makes sense, too, as most of the best wind sites are found in rural areas. Also, because wind turbines are big structures that require a lot of space between them, the land where a wind farm sits can be used for multiple purposes. Farmers and ranchers can continue to work the land literally between and below wind turbines. The added benefit to farmers and ranchers is that wind power plant owners will actually pay them to use their land. For a land owner, this practice is akin to having a great big house and then renting one of the rooms.

Hey, who even needs land? Wind power can be harnessed at sea, where the winds are actually strong and unencumbered by terrain like buildings, trees, or mountains. This offshore capability of wind, that is to say, the ability to build offshore wind turbines, is another advantage to wind power generation.

Despite the advantages of wind power, it does come with a few disadvantages. And like we've seen with other alternative energy sources, cost is once again a big issue. In order to become really attractive, wind power must compete with conventional power generation on a cost basis. Depending on how robust a wind site is, the wind farm may or may not be cost competitive. Even though the cost of wind power has decreased dramatically over the past decade, the start-up technology still requires a higher initial investment than fossil-fueled electrical generation. Adding to this cost equation is the need to build additional power transmission lines, and possibly even infrastructure such as roads to help service remote wind farms.

Another major disadvantage to wind power is intermittency. Although the wind never dies, it doesn't always blow hard enough to turn a wind turbine. Because wind energy cannot be stored without the help of batteries, it is not always capable of generating electric power when that power is needed. Ironically, if the wind blows too hard, power generation can be stymied because wind turbines can be damaged in very high winds. This Goldilocks scenario means that the wind has to blow just right or a wind farm won't be able to generate power.

Also in the disadvantage column are concerns over noise. The sound produced by a wind turbine' s rotor blades is a nuisance to some, as are the aesthetics of wind turbines. There is also the issue of ecology as large wind turbines can kill birds that fly into the turbine's rotors. Given these considerations, this technology does have its beauty and poetry as you can see in the box "Desert Inspiration."

Desert Inspiration

I revved the engine on my 1989 Porsche 911 as soon as I saw the huge white posts on the horizon. Appearing like sentinels guarding the entrance to southern California's San Gorgonio Pass, my foot instinctively pushed the throttle down in an effort to get a closer look at these mechanical creatures that appeared as if they were characters from an H.G. Wells novel.

I turned the top down on the Porsche to get an even better, more spectacular view of the towering devices, which I knew to be the large-scale wind turbines that help supply power to the nearby Coachella Valley. Pulling up along a remote road off of Interstate 10 for an up-close inspection, I sat in the car and stared upward at the giant blades silently spinning overhead, their rotor sweep nearly half the length of a football field.

Nearly two decades later I can still remember the sense of awe I felt looking up at those spinning blades. For me, they represent the genius of man's mind in concrete, physical terms. Maybe because I've lived in southern California most of my life my local bias clouds my judgment, but in my opinion there is no better example of how man has learned to reshape the world for his own life-sustaining purposes.

If there is a nobler pursuit for mankind, then I am clearly not aware of it.

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