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Wind-Generated Energy


by Gary Friesen

Energy, through a variety of power sources, is the linchpin of our modern industrial society and indispensable in our daily lives. However, our world only has a finite source of oil and natural gas, the most common of the non-renewable fossil fuel energy resources.

Concerns about increasingly damaging levels of toxic energy admissions in the atmosphere abound. There is an obvious and growing need for the development and public acceptance of renewable, environmentally friendly and cleaner energy resources.

In addition to common alternative sources such as nuclear and electric power, examples of more innovative, renewable and cleaner energy sources include wind, solar and tidal-generated power, and biomass energy, which is made from biofuels like ethanol, ether and ester made from herbaceous and woody plants, agricultural and forest residues and solid municipal and industrial waste.

One of the most promising new energy sources comes from wind-powered turbines. Wind energy systems transform kinetic wind energy into mechanical or electrical energy harnessed for industrial, commercial and residential use.

Currently, wind energy is used mainly on a limited basis to produce electrical power and pump water in rural and remote areas, including farms and isolated cottages, with the excess electricity sold to local utilities. Recently expanded wind energy applications have included crop irrigation, domestic water supply, land drainage, sewage treatment and water aeration.

Wind energy is based on a simple principle: the wind rotates blades around a hub connected to a main shaft, which spins a generator that creates electricity. The structure is supported by several guy wires to increase stability. The turbine blades, usually three in number, are designed similar to airplane wings and boat sails in order to capture the most wind. As the turbine blades collect the wind, the turbine motor produces electricity, reversing the common practice of using electricity to operate a motor.

The typical wind turbine reaches heights of between 75 and 95 metres. Each blade is between 20 to 30 metres in length. The turbine tower measures about four meters in diameter. The overall weight of a typical structure is between 100,000 and 125,000 kilograms. Built to last 25 years, the turbines usually run at maximum speed, about 21 times per minute, only about 10 percent of the time, and produce various levels of power about 65-70 percent of the time.

Energy production is highest through the winter months, due to higher, stronger and colder and denser winds. Wind turbines are constructed to withstand 180 kilometre per hour winds and are properly grounded against lightning strikes. The blades start turning once the winds reach 15 kph and stop turning to prevent damage once the winds reach maximum levels. A series of batteries stores the extra energy for times when wind is below 15 kph or higher than 70 kph and for the higher energy demands during the colder winter months.

Wind turbine energy systems can be comprised of as few as one turbine, up to "wind farms," which are a vast spread of thousands of turbines. The collection of wind power is more effective with many turbines grouped together. These systems are modular and the number of turbines can be enlarged or reduced as needed. Wind farms can sprawl over thousands of hectares of land but only use a small portion of the land. Farmers who lease the land lose about one to two percent of their crop production, but may earn $20-30,000 in rent or royalties. As wind is stronger at higher altitudes, taller towers and longer blades translate into more efficient energy production.

The operating structure of wind-generated energy varies from stand-alone systems of wind power and storage batteries to hybrid systems that integrate and complement wind energy with solar-generated power or diesel generators that provide a more complete and limitless source of renewable energy.

By generating no harmful emissions into the atmosphere, wind-generated energy is cleaner than the burning of fossil fuels, easier on the environment than the destructive flooding and land erosion created by hydroelectric plants, and safer than nuclear power. Traditional energy sources have a much greater impact on wildlife and sensitive ecological habitats than wind-generated energy.

Supporters of wind power emphasise the lack of harmful toxic emissions, the abundance of renewable wind power, limited change to the landscape, the absence of negative effects on the ecosystem and the fact that wind power is a more affordable and low maintenance system, as the industry expands and equipment improves through technological advances. Wind power costs are more stable and not subjected to the same price volatility common to fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas. Another important consideration is that wind power systems require much less time to plan and construct, compared to the years necessary for the development of fossil fuel plants, hydroelectric dams and nuclear reactors.

There are negative and cautious reactions to any new and innovative product or program and wind-generated energy is certainly no exception. Sceptics cite the full dependency on the wind, that wind performance is not uniform and consistent in all locations, the relatively heavy land use and that the turbines are unsightly and noisy. Other concerns include the potential for the killing of birds by the fast-turning turbine blades and the fear that the blades themselves could fall away and become deadly projectiles. To many, wind-generated power seems experimental, somewhat dangerous, too expensive, flaky and merely a hobby-like side-show to more serious energy business. Others see no need for, or only a limited need for, alternative energy, due to Canada's seemingly abundant supply of cheap, traditional power resources. Many decry the intrusion of the turbines and blades as a blight against scenic landscapes.

Due to our geography and global location, Canada's wind energy potential is considered to be among the most significant and active in the world. There is no shortage of wind energy in Canada, with many locations offering ideal wind patterns of gusts and breezes. Land winds blow strongest across large lakes and prairies, down mountain slopes and through narrow passages.

The most dominant high winds within Canada are found off the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, over the Rocky Mountains, across the southern prairie region and through northern Quebec. A concerted effort has started to create a Canada Wind Atlas to pinpoint the best areas for wind-generated energy development.

Coastlines and high ridges are the most ideal geographical locations. Most dominant wind patterns in Ontario emanate from Hudson Bay and the Great Lakes and offer high potential for harnessing wind energy. Traditional energy sources have a much greater impact on wildlife and sensitive ecological habitats than wind-generated energy. Canada's five windiest cities are St. John's, Newfoundland with a 24 kph average annual wind speed, Swift Current, Saskatchewan (22kph), Sydney, Nova Scotia (20kph), Regina, Saskatchewan (20kph) and Charlottetown, PEI (19kph).

Wind-generated energy systems and "wind farms" are currently in operation and being developed in several areas of Canada, with Alberta and Quebec as the leaders in both production and development. The first Canadian wind farm was constructed in 1994 at Cambridge Bay in the Northwest Territories and the second near Pincher Creek in Alberta in 1994, with expansion in 1997. The largest wind farm in Canada is located along the Gaspe Peninsula in eastern Quebec. Wind energy sites in Ontario include Kincardine and Toronto, with plans underway for sites near Belleville, Cornwall, Pickering and additional sites in Toronto.

The first recorded use of wind-generated energy dates back to the Sumerian civilisation in Mesopotamia, now southern Iraq, circa 5000 BC, for grinding grains into flour. By 200 BC, the Chinese used wind power to pump water and the first Dutch windmill appeared circa AD 1175. By 1890, the windmill was common on many North American farms, mainly used for irrigation. Today, as fossil fuel resources continue to deplete, as the cost of traditional energy sources and infrastructures rise and the concern for the environment grows, Europe, India and the United States are leading the way in wind-generated energy production. Despite the need for alternative energy resources and our great potential, Canada lags far behind most industrial nations in the production and development of the world's fastest growing energy source.

This is an original story, first published in The Country Connection Magazine, Issue 41, Winter 2003. Copyright Gary Friesen.




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