As we move away from 'dirty' energy sources such as coal, gas and nuclear power, we inevitably move closer to renewable ones such as wind and solar. But can these renewable energy sources solve all our energy needs?
Wind energy is one of the world’s fastest growing energy sources, and currently relies heavily on government subsidies. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, "the average wind farm will be fully competitive by 2016", meaning they'll become far more economically viable. The European Union is vigorously pursuing wind power, and the industry is ambitious to continue this trend. People can also become self-sufficient by installing their own personal wind turbines and staying off the grid.
Although the future of wind energy is promising, the industry is still beset by limitations. Since wind is unpredictable and intermittent, power is only generates when the wind blows and a back-up source is needed. Most conventional power plants cannot be turned on and off as the wind dies or rises. Often when energy demand is at a peak, the wind is unavailable. In high winds, when you'd assume the turbines would be at their most efficient, they often have to switched off to prevent damage. In order to counteract these difficulties, the industry is working on better storage capabilities and may begin tying wind projects together over a large geographic area. Even then, additional power must be available as wind power alone cannot provide 100% of our energy needs 100% of the time.
Many people don’t want a wind farm in their backyard. Artists Against Windfarms believes that landscapes should be protected from unsightly turbines. The European Platform Against Windfarms is a group of over 500 anti-wind organizations that believe windfarms are harmful to tourism, the economy and people’s quality of life. A new disease, ‘Wind Turbine Syndrome’ has been coined to cover a disorder people suffer who live in the shadow of turbines.
Wind turbines are not isolated in a landscape. They are extremely heavy - a 300 foot tower supporting a large turbine with three blades (each of which each is 150 feet long) can weigh over 160 tons. A large tower could require a solid foundation 30 feet deep with 180 cubic yards of concrete and 12 tons of reinforced steel. While one tower requires only 42 square feet of land, access roads need to be built and heavy construction equipment will fragment the landscape.
Since wind turbines can be built much closer to humans than conventional power plants, safety concerns (including stray voltage, ice shedding and noise pollution) need to be recognized. Other concerns include sun flickering and a decline in residential property values.
Our need for energy is entering a critical stage. Globalization, climate change, unreliable sources of oil and natural gas and the competitiveness of a global economy all provide a complex web of competing factors, but time is running out. We need to change our way of thinking if we want to remain competitive in a new global market. Soon, the global energy demand will outstrip supply. While there will always be a new supply of oil or natural gas to be exploited, the days of cheap, clean, safe fossil fuels are gone.
While the demands increase each year, our current infrastructure is reaching the end of its useful life. Despite the advantages of wind power, so far a functioning and competitive internal electrical market has not been established. We need to think seriously about moving forward with clean, renewable energy. Coal, gas and nuclear power are quite simply unsustainable. Not only must we say yes to wind, we must constantly be striving for other alternative methods of energy production that will safeguard our economic, social and scientific future.