Wind Power Gains Speed: Efficient, Clean, Endless Energy Source

Wind power produces no pollutants like carbon dioxide, and it requires no input of water or fuel resources, making wind one of the planet’s cleanest and most abundant sources of renewable energy.  And it’s been front-page news in recent weeks:  the Thanet Offshore Wind Farm in England officially began operations in September, becoming the largest such project in the world.  But how does Thanet stack up to other wind power systems, and what’s on the horizon for wind power generation?  Read on to find out.

The Thanet Offshore Wind Farm, developed by European energy giant Vattenfall, is comprised of 100 Vestas turbines situated 7 miles off of Kent on England’s eastern coastline.  The total capacity of the farm running at peak production is 300MW, or enough to power roughly 200,000 homes.  Some “real-life” projections that factor in the variability of weather conditions estimate a still-impressive 100MW of power production.

Thanet offshore wind farm
Vestas Turbine At Thanet Wind Farm (image: Vattenfall/Lavernder Blue)

It’s important to note that current offshore wind farms are not necessarily suited for all coastal regions.  They must be located in areas where wind levels are strong and consistent enough to provide reliable power production.  Seafloor topography needs to be considered for anchoring the turbines, and factors like shipping lanes and wildlife migration corridors need to be factored in.  But where these issues can be addressed, offshore sites provide vast amounts of space where wind farms can capture strong winds blowing unhindered by land features.

An offshore wind farm even larger than the Thanet project is under development in Massachusetts, and it will be the first of its kind in the US.  Cape Wind will use an array of 130 3.6MW turbines, anchored in Nantucket Sound’s relatively shallow Horseshoe Shoal, to produce up to 468MW of electricity.  The actual projected output is closer to 170MW, which would still be nearly enough to provide power to all of Cape Cod’s residents.

Cape Wind proposed site
Site Of Cape Wind Offshore Development (image: Cape Wind Associates, LLC)

The Cape Wind project has been complicated by the need for both state and federal approvals, as well as a small but vocal group opposed to the project.  Nevertheless, all required permits were acquired by spring of 2010, and a survey conducted by ORC showed 93% of Massachusetts residents approve of the project.  Once funding is secured, construction of the Cape Wind array is expected to take approximately 2 years.

The future of offshore wind power may be deep water floating turbines like the Hywind prototype currently deployed off the coast of Norway.  Developed by Siemens and StatoilHydro, this single 2.3MW turbine was towed out to sea fully assembled and entered service in September 2009 for a two year test period.  If the Hywind proves successful, future wind farms could be positioned far offshore where they would avoid many of the problems of near-shore arrays.

Hywind Prototype Floating Wind Turbine
Hywind Prototype Floating Wind Turbine (image: Siemens AG)

Land-based wind farms can be trickier to develop than offshore arrays, owing to terrain and geography as well as land-use considerations.  But where the conditions are right, the potential for power generation is staggering.  Consider the “wide open spaces” of Texas that make it one of the top wind power regions on the planet:  according the the American Wind Energy Association, Texas provides roughly a quarter of current US wind power.  In fact, the recently completed 781.5MW Roscoe Wind Farm surpassed the nearby Horse Hollow Wind Energy Center to become the largest wind farm in the world.

roscoe texas wind farm
Cotton And Wheat Farms Share The Land With Turbines At The Roscoe Wind Farm, Roscoe, TX (image: E.ON North America)

In addition to such massive wind farms, smaller scale projects are popping up all over the US, including some privately developed turbines.  One example is the Jiminy Peak ski resort in Massachusetts, which in 2007 used a combination of renewable energy grants and its own funding to install a single 1.5MW turbine (known locally as the “Zephyr”) on an optimal ridgeline location.  Although the turbine was only designed to provide a third of the resort’s electricity, energy conservation measures have pushed that figure closer to half.  The turbine is expected to pay for itself within 8 years, and the pollution reduction amounts to millions of pounds of CO2 each year when compared to electricity from local power plants.

jiminy peak zephyr wind turbine
"Zephyr" Wind Turbine At Jiminy Peak Ski Resort (image: Flickr/PilotGirl)

The environmental benefits are impressive, but the Jiminy Peak wind project simply made economic sense for the resort too.  Power from the turbine is far cheaper than from the municipal grid, but just as important, energy prices are now much more predictable which allows the resort to better plan its budgets.  And as a bonus, any surplus power from the turbine is sold back to the grid for pure profit.

Residential wind power generators are now available too.  Unfortunately, even if a home is in a perfectly windy spot, most homeowners can’t simply stick a turbine on the roof:  zoning restrictions vary widely, as do utility company policies about integrating independent energy sources into their power grids.  So for now, solar panels are probably a better investment for renewable household energy – but where the logistics can be arranged, or for off-the-grid applications, a residential “windmill” can help supplement or replace grid power.

sunforce whisper 900w wind turbine
SunForce Whisper 900w Residential Wind Turbine

SunForce produces several different models of residential wind turbines, including the 900W Whisper model pictured.  It’s available at Amazon for $1,739.16, or you can learn more at the SunForce website.

Kite Gen Wind Power Generator
Kite Gen Wind Power Generator (photo: Kite Gen Research S.r.l.)

So what does the future hold for wind power?  As turbine designs advance and become more efficient, they have the potential to provide a large portion of electrical power in certain regions.  Vast arrays of floating turbines hidden far offshore could power coastal cites.  And high-altitude wind systems that soar like kites, designed to capture powerful winds thousands of feet above the earth, are currently being tested in Europe.  The wind is there, and we’re just now figuring out how to use it.

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