Wind energy is a form of solar energy created by a combination of factors, including the uneven heating of Earth’s atmosphere by solar radiation, variations in topography, and the rotation of the Earth. People have been putting wind energy to use throughout history to propel sail boats, mill flour from grain, and pump water. Today the wind-induced motion of huge multiblade rotors—sweeping circles in the air over 100 yards in diameter—transforms the rotors’ mechanical power into electricity.
Between 2002 and 2006, the United States more than doubled its wind electricity generation, and in 2008, it overtook Germany as the top producer of wind electricity in the world.
This renewable technology, already widely deployed in 31 states, produced more than 1% of America’s electricity in 2008. Due to government incentives, wind electricity has been a booming resource in recent years. Between 2002 and 2006, the United States more than doubled its wind electricity generation, and in 2008, it overtook Germany as the top producer of wind electricity in the world. Continued expansion of wind power depends on a variety of factors, including fossil fuel prices, federal tax credits, state renewable energy programs, technology improvements, access to transmission grids, and public concern about environmental impacts. Assuming business as usual conditions, the EIA predicts that wind energy will provide 4.5% of America’s electricity by 2030. However, another DOE study claims wind’s contribution to electricity generation by 2030—given a sustained effort and accelerated deployment—could go as high as 20%.
Like solar energy, wind energy is an intermittent source that currently lacks an inexpensive and practical way to store its energy output. In addition, huge wind turbines (sometimes grouped into “wind farms” containing hundreds of turbines) can prompt complaints on aesthetic grounds from communities whose sight lines are altered. Current designs can also be a hazard to birds and bats.
Despite these drawbacks, wind energy has several advantages. Wind power doesn’t burn fossil fuels and therefore does not contribute to greenhouse gas emissions or other harmful air pollutants. It is also a domestic source of energy, contributing to our energy independence. Wind turbines can also help the local economy in rural areas, where farmers and ranchers can rent their land to wind energy companies and still have enough space to grow crops and raise cattle.
Wind energy’s potential contribution is large, and with developments in storage technologies and an expanded and upgraded electrical grid, it could provide a substantial portion of our electricity.
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