A generation ago the poet-singer Bob Dylan wrote in one of his lyrics that “the
answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind, the answer is blowin’ in the wind.” He wasn’t singing about the electric power industry (thankfully), yet he may have been more right than he knew when it comes to how we generate electricity for a growing world.
Wind is a powerful force of nature. Since ancient times mankind has sought to harness the wind in various ways, from sailing ships carrying people and goods across the seas, to windmills providing energy for grinding grain into flour, or pumping water for crops, farm animals, and homes.
According to scholars, wind power systems were invented in Persia, now known as Iran, around 500 A.D. , although some believe the Chinese or Babylonians invented them even earlier. The crusades spread this technology back to Europe, where it was used heavily by the English, Dutch, Spaniards, and Greeks.
Windmills became popular in America in the mid-1800’s, with over six million small wind-powered water pumps eventually being installed. Very few of these are left operating, however, since electric-powered pumps replaced them.
The high cost of electricity is now bringing windmills back. Now known as wind turbines, they are being used not to pump water, but to generate electricity for our homes, schools, and businesses. Wind turbines that generate electricity are operating in 30 states in the US with strong, steady and predictable winds, including California, Colorado, North Dakota, Kansas, Texas, Minnesota and other central plains states, and coastal states where ocean winds can be harnessed.
Wind power is fast becoming the leading renewable or alternative energy source in the world. With more wind-generated electricity being produced, we will no longer have to rely so heavily on polluting technologies such as the burning of coal or natural gas to generate electricity, or on nuclear technologies that produce radioactive waste that must be stored securely for many centuries. Wind power can’t be used up, and the earth produces enough wind to supply electricity to all the homes and businesses on the planet. If only we had enough turbines to harness it!
The turbine generator is based on the principle of electromagnetic induction discovered by the British scientist Michael Faraday in 1831. Faraday found that if an electric conductor, like a copper wire, is moved through a magnetic field, an electric current will flow (be induced) in the conductor.
In a wind turbine the huge blades catch the wind and turn a shaft connected to copper wires that rotate inside a set of powerful magnets. This is how the mechanical energy of the moving blades is converted into the electrical energy of the current that flows in the wire. The electricity generated is then fed to the power grid through the local electric utility.
Money also plays a major role in the energy market, where the cost of producing electricity from an alternative source such as wind power is critical to it becoming widely used. The less expensive wind power becomes as compared to other forms of production, the more investment there will be in this “green” technology. Recently, with the price of natural gas hitting record highs, wind power became for the first time less expensive to produce than natural gas generated electricity. Customers of some electric utilities in the U.S. now can choose to contract exclusively for green power, and it’s paying off for them in cost savings.
With the growth of wind power worldwide, don’t be surprised if you soon see the giant, pinwheel-like wind turbines arriving where you live, helping to provide your home, school, and community with clean, unlimited power.