Wind Power: The Cheap, Effective and Reliable Energy Source

Wind Power: The Cheap, Effective and Reliable Energy Source

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Wind Power: The Cheap, Effective and Reliable Energy Source


In 1996, the Moores were faced with a disturbing problem. A nearby mine owned by Arch Coal had removed the top of a mountain near the town of Blair to access the coal seam beneath. Most residents chose to move out to avoid the "blast rock," or chunks of rock that came raining down after the massive blasts, and the thick chocking dust that filled the town. The Moores, however, stayed. According to Victoria Moore, the conditions were atrocious. The thick dust upset their son's asthma, and the sound of explosions constantly shook the town. "If you were inside, it interrupted your life. If you were outside, it interrupted your life," said Victoria. "...I couldn't sit on my porch without getting dust on me, I couldn't even walk in my grass. I couldn't get in my car. I couldn't even let my kids go out and play." Finally even the Moores were forced to move out (Buying Blair). This Logan County coal mine is one of hundreds across the United States. The majority of the coal from these mines goes to run coal-fired power plants that provide electricity to homes across America. The sad part of this story really is that it did not need to happen. Now, with massive advancements in wind energy, coal has become largely outdated and ineffective. Instead of removing the top of the mountain near Blair, a wind farm could have been built.

Electricity produced from new wind farms is more economical in dollar terms than electricity produced by new coal-fired power plants. And, if the detrimental environmental side effects and costs of burning coal are factored in, wind power looks even better.

Wind power has been around since early civilization. It possibly preceded the use of animals to grind grain, and was invented either in China or Persia. Historians speculate that the windmill technology was then moved to Europe during the crusades. The Dutch were the first major industrial users of windmills. They used them to pump sea water out of the hand made dikes to increase land area. Until the invention of electricity, windmills were mostly used for pumping and grinding grain (Berry).

In the US, as electricity became widely used, many people still living too far away from the power lines attempted to use their water pumping windmills to run generators. This failed because the pumping wind mills were used for high torque, low speed applications, which was the opposite of what the electric generators required.

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The problem was solved with the discovery that propeller like blades mounted on the wind mill provided an optimal power to torque ratio. Initially, propeller blades were hard to come by, but several companies that produced pumping windmills saw the opportunity and began to produce "radio chargers." These small windmills usually had two airfoil blades and some form of aero braking to prevent high wind speed damage. These radio chargers became an essential part of life for many ranchers living in remote areas who depended on their radios to receive all of their news. Quickly radios evolved beyond crystal sets, and vacuum tube radios became common. Vacuum tube radios were much more effective, but they took more power. The old generator windmills could not supply sufficient power for the vacuum tube radios, so many people ran them off batteries, that were then recharged in town by gas generators. The invention of a powerful new six volt windmill satisfied the electricity demand of the new radios. Many of the six volt wind mills could be used with batteries so people could listen to their radios when the wind was not blowing (Sagrillo, 14).

To understand modern wind turbines, it is useful have a basic knowledge of electricity. Electricity usage is measured in watts and watt-hours. Measuring watts is similar to measuring horsepower, it is a unit of "strength." A watt-hour is the work that one watt can do in one hour. A 100 watt light bulb uses 100 watts, thus 100 watt-hours every hour. A kilowatt hour is 1000 watt-hours. One kilowatt-hour can power a 100 watt light bulb for ten hours, or ten 100 watt light bulbs for one hour. An average household uses about 500 kilowatt-hours per month. One megawatt-hour is 1000 kilowatt-hours. One megawatt-hour can power two average households for one month. A one megawatt generator puts out one megawatt hour every hour, so if the generator ran for five hours, it could power ten households for an entire month. One average sized coal power plant produces 500 megawatts. If running for one hour, a 500 megawatt coal power plant can run 1000 homes for one month.

Wind machines have evolved a lot even the "radio chargers." Today, industrial wind turbines have three highly engineered airfoil blades. The more blades a wind turbine has the more torque it develops, but the slower it rotates. For electricity production, speed is needed. Wind turbines with another blade would gain torque, but lose speed, so the fewer the blades, the better. Turbines use three blades instead of two because of the intense vibration caused by a two bladed turbine. Most modern turbines only require a breeze of about seven to eleven miles per hour to run. Wind turbines comes in a massive range of sizes, from a tiny 400 watt machine, to the largest GE wind turbine on the market, at 3.6 megawatts ("3.6...Turbine").

With the new technology of wind, the price of wind produced electricity has dropped over the last ten years, and the price of wind produced electricity drops about 20% every year. Wind electricity can currently be produced for about 3.5 cents per kilowatt-hour if the machine is own by and investor own utility company, (a company where the people who use the power own part of the company) and about five cents per kilowatt hour if the turbines are owned by a power developer ("What are...Wind Turbines"). Wind turbines are relatively cheap to install, at about 1,000 dollars per kilowatt, or 1,000,000 dollars per megawatt (Brown, 118).

However cheap wind may be, coal is still currently cheaper. This is especially true of old coal power plants that do not have the expensive "scrubbers" that remove ash from the smoke. Coal fired power plants can produce electricity for as little as three cents per kilowatt hour, not much cheaper than wind, but cheaper none the less. Installation costs of a coal power plant are actually higher than wind, however, costing about $1,400,000 per megawatt. An average coal power plant runs at about 500 megawatts, so to install a plant costs about $701,500,000 ("Coal...Plants")

Even though the short term economic costs of wind and coal are similar, wind is far and away the environmental winner. Pollution from wind power is minimal, limited almost completely to the manufacture and installation of the turbines. Water usage in wind turbines is almost as small as the pollution they produce, consuming a couple hundred gallons a few times a year to wash the dust and bugs off the blades. Wind machines also have very small footprints, meaning they take up very little land. A wind farm can be installed in a field and still leave plenty of room for the owner to grow a crop. Other than the concrete foundation, only an access road and power lines to carry the power out from the wind turbines are required. Although wind turbines are built from steel, copper, iron and aluminum, all of which are mined, there is no required mining or drilling for fuel for a wind turbine. The fuel is literally as free as the wind.

By contrast, coal power plants have a very bleak environmental record. Coal power is one of the largest pollution sources in the world. A 500 megawatt coal power plant (the size of plant it takes to provide electricity to a city of 140,000) burns about 1.43 million tons of coal yearly, and about 2.2 billion gallons of water. The pollution output exceeds the coal intake by 2.7 million tons. The largest part of this output is in carbon dioxide, or CO2. While not toxic itself, carbon dioxide is the major contributor to such atmospheric effects as global warming. Other emissions from a 500 megawatt plant include 10,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, the leading cause of acid rain; 10,200 tons of nitrogen oxide, a primary cause of smog, and another factor in acid rain; 500 tons of particulate matter, basically small airborne particles that are proven to have damaging effects on people's lungs, 220 tons of hydrocarbons, or unburnt fuel, which is the leading cause of smog; 720 tons of carbon monoxide, a poisonous gas that is also considered a greenhouse gas, much like C02; 125,000 tons of ash, captured by the scrubbers that clean out smokestack emissions (ash is often put in a landfill); 193,000 tons of scrubber sludge, which is mostly ash, limestone and heavy metals; 225 pounds of arsenic, a metal so deadly that 1/100 of a tablespoon ingested is enough to kill a person in under a minute; 114 pounds of lead, proven to cause brain damage in humans; 4 pounds of cadmium, another toxic heavy metal; and mercury, the exact amount is unknown, but which is found in elevated levels in bodies of water around power plants. These statistics are for the one year operation of a 500 megawatt power plant, and do not cover all the damaging emissions. In fact, a power plant releases so many airborne pollutants that only 16 naturally occurring elements from the periodic table of the elements are not found. Elements released in trace quantities include uranium, which is released in high enough quantities that radiation levels around a coal power plant are actually higher than those around a properly functioning nuclear power plant. Water intake for this same 500 megawatt coal power plant would stack up to about 2.2 billion gallons per year (Muhley, 33).

A coal power plant also has a massive footprint. The plants themselves take up many acres, and the infrastructure needed to supply them with coal takes up thousands more. Mines that supply coal to the power plants usually take up extensive chunks of mountainside land. A single mine can disturb up to two square miles of land. Water run off this area is often polluted, and many mines have to employ an expensive runoff pond filter system. The railways and coal slurry pipe lines travel hundreds of miles across the country side. Coal mining is just as problematic as the powerplants it feeds. Coal mines can be very dangerous and disruptive, and difficult to clean up once the coal seam they are mining has been depleted.

Although wind power is an excellent source of electricity, it has a few problems of its own. These problems are often exaggerated by people who do not approve of wind energy, even though they are really quite minimal. Bird kills are often sited as one these problems, and probably the most controversial. Early wind turbines were somewhat dangerous to birds due to their fast blades and latticed towers. Birds were attracted to the lattice towers as nesting and roosting spots, and many were killed by the blades. The problem of bird kills has been drastically reduced, however, by the use of solid towers that provide no place for the birds. Without this attractive roosting spot, almost all birds see and avoid wind turbines. Studies have demonstrated that less than one out of every 10,000 birds killed is by a windmill. Windows are thousands of times more dangerous to birds than windmills, clocking in at 5,500 bird deaths out of 10,000 (Sagrillo, 29).

Noise created by windmills are another cited issue, but the noise that windmills create is really quite minimal. People who have stood underneath a wind turbine describe the sound as a whooshing noise, and consider it unobtrusive.
Reliability in wind turbines is never really cited as a problem because most turbines are extremely well built. One source suggests that a wind turbine, if compared to a car, would outperform a record breaking car (clocking in at 900,000 miles before an engine replacement) by four times. Eric Eggleston, a worker at the Department of Agriculture in Texas, compares a windmill installed at his job site to a car: "The most trouble-free car on the market would pale in comparison to what is regularly expected and demanded of wind turbine life and reliability" (Eggleston).

Finally, the sporadic nature of windmills is sometimes cited as a potential problem. Wind does not blow all the time. This factor is one of the main reasons that wind power is not used more widely. This fact, however can be misleading. Until wind machines supply more than 40 percent of all power within the grid, there will be no noticeable energy shortages. This is due to "noise," or unidentifiable fluctuations already in the energy lines. Once wind turbines make up more than 40 percent of the grid, issues of wind consistency arise. But this 40 percent is only considering the wind machines being located in one geographical area. If wind machines were spread out so that each farm was in a geographically independent area, the power grid could theoretically be supported by more than 40% wind power.

Wind is a more economical and environmentally safe energy source than coal, but is it better than other energy sources? Nuclear power plants dwarf the output of wind machines. Each reactor can output thousands of megawatts, but they are inherently much less safe. A chain of small errors can cause a meltdown, like what happened at Three Mile Island, or a nuclear explosion like Chernobyl. Aside from the inherent danger of the nuclear power plant itself, there are always the byproducts, such as radioactive wastes and contaminated parts. Oil and gas are other sources of power, but their problems lie in the limited domestic oil reserves and the huge ammount of CO2 they produce. Because the United States is not an oil-rich country any more, it relies upon other countries to get a majority of its oil. This makes the US dependent on these other countries, and a massive amount of money is spent to purchase foreign oil. Large hydro power is considered renewable, and it is, but the detrimental side effects are still larger than those of wind power. Large scale hydro power installations flood the valleys and canyons they are built in, displacing all the wildlife and people that live nearby. Hydro power plants are dependant on a series of up-stream dams to prevent flooding, and if one of the up stream dams it breached, it spells disaster for the hydro power plant. Solar power is a very promising renewable energy, but its problem lies in that it is generally more expensive than wind.

Wind power is truly an energy of the future. It is cheap, effective and reliable. It provides more jobs per dollar invested than any other energy source, ("For Consumers") and it is a low maintenance, reliable source of energy. Coal power, the most commonly used source of power in the United States has become outdated compared to the technology of wind. If the World spent one trillion dollars per year, only 1/40 of the annual world income on wind power, within 10 years the world could run completely off the wonderful currents of air running directly overhead. (Brown, 118).

Works Cited

"Buying Blair." Charleston Gazette. 22, Nov 1998. 4 April, 2004. <http://www.wvgazette.co
/static/series/mining/MINE1122.html>.

Berry, Mark. "History of Windmills." Windmill World. 4 April, 2004. <http://windmillworld.
.com/history.htm

Sagrillo, Mick. Solar Energy International. Wind Power: Renewable Energy Education Program. SEI, 2003.
"3.6 MW Wind Turbine." G.E. 4 April, 2004. <http://www.gepower.com/prod_serv/products
/wind_turbines/en/36mw/index.htm>.

Brown, Lester. Eco-Economy. New York: Norton, 2001

Muhley, David. "The Legacy of King Coal." Home Power Magazine. 97 (2003): 30-34

Eggleston, Eric. "Wind Turbine Life and Reliability." American Wind Energy Association. 4 April, 2004. <http://www.awea.org/faq/reliab.html>.

"For Consumers." National Wind Technology Center. 4 April, 2004. <http://www.nrel.gov/wind
/consumers.htm>.

"What Are the Factors in the Cost of Electricity from Wind Turbines?" American Wind Energy Association. 4, April. 2004. <http://www.awea.org/faq/cost.html>.

Stockman, Vivian. "Wind Power is Now Cheaper Than Coal in the US." 4, April. 2004. <http://
www.wvhc.drw.net/VoiceSept01/WindCheaper.VS.Sept01Voice.htm>.

"Coal Fired Power Plants." New Counsil.org. <http://www.nwcounsil.org/energy/powerplan
/grac/052202/coalfireplants.htm>.
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