Wind energy

Wind is air in motion. It is produced by the uneven heating of the earth’s surface by the sun. Since the earth’s surface is made of various land and water formations, it absorbs the sun’s radiation unevenly. When the sun is shining during the day, the air over landmasses heats more quickly than the air over water. The warm air over the land expands and rises, and the heavier, cooler air over water moves in to take its place, creating local winds. At night, the winds are reversed because the air cools more rapidly over land than over water.

Similarly, the large atmospheric winds that circle the earth are created because the surface air near the equator is warmed more by the sun than the air over the North and South Poles. Wind is called a renewable energy source because wind will continually be produced as long as the sun shines on the earth. Today, wind energy is mainly used to generate electricity.
Wind turbines

Windmills work because they slow down the speed of the wind. The wind flows over the airfoil shaped blades causing lift, like the effect on airplane wings, causing them to turn. The blades are connected to a drive shaft that turns an electric generator to produce electricity.

Today’s wind machines are much more technologically advanced than those early windmills. They still use blades to collect the wind’s kinetic energy, but the blades are made of fiberglass or other high-strength materials.

Modern wind machines are still wrestling with the problem of what to do when the wind isn’t blowing. Large turbines are connected to the utility power network—some other type of generator picks up the load when there is no wind. Small turbines are sometimes connected to diesel/electric generators or sometimes have a battery to store the extra energy they collect when the wind is blowing hard.


Types of Windmills
Two types of wind machines are commonly used today, the horizontal–axis with blades like airplane propellers and the vertical–axis, which looks like an egg-beater:

1) Horizontal-axis wind machines are more common because they use less material per unit of electricity produced. About 95 percent of all wind machines are horizontal-axis. A typical horizontal wind machine stands as tall as a 20-story building and has three blades that span 200 feet across. The largest wind machines in the world have blades longer than a football field! Wind machines stand tall and wide to capture more wind.

The main elements of Horizontal-axis wind machines are:

2) Vertical-axis
wind machines make up just five percent of the wind machines used today. The typical vertical wind machine stands 100 feet tall and 50 feet wide.

Each wind machine has its advantages and disadvantages. Horizontal-axis machines need a way to keep the rotor facing the wind. This is done with a tail on small machines. On large turbines, either the rotor is located downwind of the tower to act like a weather vane, or a drive motor is used. Vertical-axis machines can accept wind from any direction.

Both types of turbine rotors are turned by air flowing over their wing shaped blades. Vertical-axis blades lose energy as they turn out of the wind, while horizontal-axis blades work all the time. At many sites, the wind increases higher above the ground, giving an advantage to tall horizontal-axis turbines. The small tower and ground-mounted generators on vertical-axis turbines make them cheaper and easier to maintain.


Wind & the Environment

In the 1970s, oil shortages pushed the development of alternative energy sources. In the 1990s, the push came from a renewed concern for the environment in response to scientific studies indicating potential changes to the global climate if the use of fossil fuels continues to increase. Wind energy offers a viable, economical alternative to conventional power plants in many areas of the country. Wind is a clean fuel; wind farms produce no air or water pollution because no fuel is burned.

The most serious environmental drawbacks to wind machines may be their negative effect on wild bird populations and the visual impact on the landscape. To some, the glistening blades of windmills on the horizon are an eyesore; to others, they’re a beautiful alternative to conventional power plants.

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