- Wind is the movement of air from an area of high pressure to an area of low pressure.
- Most wind energy comes from turbines that can be as tall as a 20-story building and have three 200-foot (60-meter)-long blades.
- Industry experts predict that if this pace of growth continues, by 2050 one third of the world’s electricity needs will be fulfilled by wind power
Wind is the movement of air from an area of high pressure to an area of low pressure. In fact, wind exists because the sun unevenly heats the surface of the Earth. As hot air rises, cooler air moves in to fill the void. As long as the sun shines, the wind will blow. And wind has long served as a power source to humans.
Ancient mariners used sails to capture the wind. Farmers once used windmills to grind their grains and pump water. Today, more and more wind turbines wring electricity from the breeze. Over the past decade, wind turbine use has increased more than 25 percent per year. Still, it only provides a small fraction of the world’s energy.
Harnessing the wind is one of the cleanest, most sustainable ways to generate electricity. Wind power produces no toxic emissions and none of the heat-trapping emissions that contribute to global warming. This, and the fact that wind power is one of the most abundant and increasingly cost-competitive energy resources, makes it a viable alternative to the fossil fuels that harm our health and threaten the environment.
The history of wind power
Wind power is both old and new. From the sailing ships of the ancient Greeks, to the grain mills of pre-industrial Holland, to the latest high-tech wind turbines rising over the Minnesota prairie, humans have used the power of the wind for millennia.
In the United States, the original heyday of wind was between 1870 and 1930, when thousands of farmers across the country used wind to pump water. Small electric wind turbines were used in rural areas as far back as the 1920s, and prototypes of larger machines were built in the 1940s. When the New Deal brought grid-connected electricity to the countryside, however, windmills lost out.
Interest in wind power was reborn during the energy crises of the 1970s. Research by the USDepartment of Energy (DOE) in the 1970s focused on large turbine designs, with funding going to major aerospace manufacturers. While these 2- and 3-MW machines proved mostly unsuccessful at the time, they did provide basic research on blade design and engineering principles.
The modern wind era began in California in the 1980s. Between 1981 and 1986, small companies and entrepreneurs installed 15,000 medium-sized turbines, providing enough power for every resident of San Francisco. Pushed by the high cost of fossil fuels, a moratorium on nuclear power, and concern about environmental degradation, the state provided tax incentives to promote wind power. These, combined with federal tax incentives, helped the wind industry take off. After the tax credits expired in 1985, wind power continued to grow, although more slowly. Perhaps more important in slowing wind power’s growth was the decline in fossil fuel prices that occurred in the mid-1980s.
In the early 1990s, improvements in technology resulting in increased turbine reliability and lower costs of production provided another boost for wind development. In addition, concern about global warming and the first Gulf War lead Congress to pass the Energy Policy Act of 1992 — comprehensive energy legislation that included a new production tax credit for wind and biomass electricity. However, shortly thereafter, the electric utility industry began to anticipate a massive restructuring, where power suppliers would become competitors rather than protected monopolies. Investment in new power plants of all kinds fell drastically, especially for capital-intensive renewable energy technologies like wind. The United State’s largest wind company, Kenetech, declared bankruptcy in 1995, a victim of the sudden slowdown. It wasn’t until 1998 that the wind industry began to experience continuing growth in the United States, thanks in large part to federal tax incentives, state-level renewable energy requirements and incentives, and — beginning in 2001 — rising fossil fuel prices.
While the wind industry grew substantially from the early 2000’s on, it suffered from a bout of boom-and-bust cycles due to the on-again, off-again nature of federal tax incentives. In 2006, a period of uninterrupted federal support for wind began, which led to several years of record growth.
In other parts of the world, particularly in Europe, wind has had more consistent, long-term support. As a result, European countries are currently capable of meeting more of their electricity demands through wind power with much less land area and resource potential compared with the United States. Denmark, for example, already meets about 30 percent of its electricity demand from wind power. Wind generation also accounts for about 17 percent of the national power needs in Portugal, 13 percent in Ireland, and 11 percent in Germany. Serious commitments to reducing global warming emissions, local development, and the determination to avoid fuel imports have been the primary drivers of wind power development in Europe.
How does the wind work
Most wind energy comes from turbines that can be as tall as a 20-story building and have three 200-foot (60-meter)-long blades. The wind spins the blades, which turn a shaft connected to a generator that produces electricity.
The biggest wind turbines generate enough electricity in a year (about 12 megawatt-hours) to supply about 600 U.S. homes. Wind farms have tens and sometimes hundreds of these turbines lined up together in particularly windy spots. Smaller turbines erected in a backyard can produce enough electricity for a single home or small business.
Nevertheless, the wind energy industry is booming. Thanks to global efforts to combat climate change, such as the Paris Agreement, renewable energy is seeing a boom in growth, with wind energy leading the way. From 2000 to 2015, , cumulative wind capacity around the world increased from 17,000 megawatts to more than 430,000 megawatts. In 2015, China also surpassed the EU in the number of installed wind turbines and continues to lead installation efforts.
Industry experts predict that if this pace of growth continues, by 2050 one third of the world’s electricity needs will be fulfilled by wind power.