Harnessing Wind Power for Today and Tomorrow
Mankind has been harvesting the energy locked in the four winds for at least 5,500 years with sailing ships, and then harnessed it to power crude windmills from the seventh century B.C. on. Wind power has been used to generate electricity for homes and other structures far from the power grid since the early 20th century. It is only since the 1970's, however, that the human race has used wind power on an industrial scale to generate electricity for humanity's burgeoning energy needs.
Harnessing Wind Power
Some of the most innovative recent proposals for harnessing wind power are quite ambitious, not to say revolutionary, such as floating an armada of sea borne wind generators anchored to the ocean floor to create electricity for coastal communities. A sea-based power generation system has many advantages, such as not taking up space on land that can instead be used for housing, commercial properties, parks, or farmland. They can also tap into the strong wind currents arising over large bodies of water that are actually more powerful than the winds that blow over any land mass.
Disadvantages of Wind Power
However, one big drawback, according to some residents of the aforementioned coastal areas, is that any array of large wind turbines situated on top of tall pylons would spoil their ocean views. Another, more serious, drawback is that wind generators would exact an awful toll on the seabird population. Experts estimate that the annual yearly total of birds killed by wind generators is approximately 100,000 when they fly into the pylons or blades of wind turbines. (According to this article.) That seems like a large number, but it is significantly less than the number of birds that will be killed by domestic and feral cats or are claimed by oil spills. For example, experts estimate that more than 300,000 birds die from oils spills off the coast of Newfoundland alone. So although the price of wind energy in terms of bird mortality is rather high, it is considerably less than the total number of bird lives claimed by humans' reliance on fossil fuels.
Switching over to wind power would logically result in lower totals of bird deaths both from oil spills and air pollution if this changeover were implemented on a more massive scale than is currently implemented. There are also wind turbines that are purposely designed to minimize their impact on bird populations.
Wind Power Generation Can be Sporatic
Of course, any serious discussion of wind power must also acknowledge that wind power is intermittent. If it is used as a component of an existing power grid, it needs to be augmented with solar arrays and conventional power plants in order to maintain a constant supply of electricity. Utilities can also use other power management techniques such as reducing demand when winds are not present, and importing electricity from another part of the existing power grid. As with tapping into any renewable power source, flexibility is the key to using it effectively with no interruptions in the power supply.
Wind Power Generation Today
Humans generate approximately 197 gigawatts (GW) of energy from wind power worldwide, and it is estimated that the use of wind power to generate electricity has grown by approximately 27% every year for the last five years. Several factors that hamper a faster expansion of wind power in certain regions of the Earth, include the absence of consistent wind streams in those areas, and a lack of capital for startup costs in certain Third World countries that lack the exploitable natural resources necessary to provide funds to build wind turbines, as well as the electrical grid needed to supply power to those countries' entire populations.
Fortunately for Americans, the North American continent boasts abundant wind resources in various regions. The start-up costs for generating wind power are actually pretty moderate, much less so than for building nuclear power plants, and comparable with the startup costs for conventional coal and natural gas installations. So if there exists the collective political and economic will to harness wind power to generate electricity, it is eminently possible to expand its use in most regions of the world. Here's a startling fact that you may not be aware of - the potential energy contained in the world's winds is greater than what can be derived from all other power sources combined.
Wind Power for the Future
Considering current rates of wind power exploitation, the experts estimate that by 2013, 8% of the world's energy needs will be met by wind power. That said, as oil, coal, and natural gas are tapped out at ever-increasing rates and become more and more expensive to use, the future for wind power is brighter than ever. If it is paired with other renewable energy sources such as solar, tide power, geothermal, and renewable biomass, it is plausible, even inevitable, that the winds that daily soar over every continent could reliably be providing safe, clean, renewable power for up to 20% of the world's energy needs before the end of the 21st century.