Wind Energy Research Paper

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Sails were one of the first inventions to convert wind energy into motion, and windmills have been used since the tenth century to harness the power of the wind for grain milling and water pumping. In the early twenty-first century, wind is the fastest growing renewable energy source, forecasted to provide 20 percent of the world’s electricity by the year 2040.

Only a small portion of incoming solar radiation (less than 2 percent) powers the atmospheric motion. The combination of diurnal and seasonal changes of insolation (exposure to sun’s rays) and of differential heating of surfaces (vegetated vs. barren, land vs. water) mean that wind frequencies and velocities range from prolonged spells of calm to episodes of violent cyclonic (rainstorms, tornadoes, hurricanes) flows. Sail ships, used by the earliest civilizations of the Old World, were undoubtedly the first converters of wind energy into useful motion. And before the end of the twentieth century, one of the world’s oldest energy sources has become one of the most promising modern providers of renewable energy as wind-generated electricity has been the fastest growing segment of modern renewable energetics.

The first written record of windmills comes a millennium after the first mention of water wheels: al-Masudi’s report of 947 CE notes the use of simple vertical-shaft windmills in Seistan (in today’s eastern Iran) to raise water for irrigating gardens. The first European record comes only from the closing decades of the twelfth century. Subsequent development of windmills was uneven in both time and space.

Windmills and Their Uses

The earliest vertical designs were used basically unchanged for many centuries in the Near East, as were the horizontal European machines. These mills pivoted on a massive central post that was supported usually by four diagonal quarterbars, and the whole engine house had to be turned to face the wind. Post mills were unstable in high winds and vulnerable to storm damage, and their low height limited their efficiency. Still, unlike China and India, where wind power made historically little difference, post mills became a major source of rotary motion in Atlantic Europe.

As with watermills, grain milling and water pumping (the Dutch drainage mills being the most prominent examples of this application) were the most common applications of wind power. Other common uses included grinding and crushing, papermaking, sawing, and metalworking. Post mills were gradually replaced by tower mills and smock mills. Only the top cap of these machines had to be turned into the wind, and after 1745 the English introduction of the fantail made it possible to turn the sails automatically. The fantail catches the wind bearing away from the sails and it turns the cog ring at the top of the tower until the sails are returned square on to the wind. More than a century before this innovation the Dutch millers introduced the first relatively efficient blade designs that provided more lift while reducing drag. But true airfoils, aerodynamically contoured blades with thick leading edges, were introduced in England only by the end of the nineteenth century.

America’s westward expansion on the windy Great Plains created demand for smaller machines to pump water for steam locomotives, households, and cattle. These windmills were made of a large number of fairly narrow blades or slats that were fastened to solid or sectional wheels, and they were usually equipped with independent rudders and either the centrifugal or the side-vane governor.

Windmills reached the peak of their importance during the latter half of the nineteenth century: in 1900 about thirty thousand machines with a total capacity of some 100 megawatts worked in countries around the North Sea, and the U.S. sales of smaller brands of American windmills amounted to millions of units during the second half of the nineteenth century.

Wind Electricity

Many machines that continued operating in the twentieth century were connected to generators to produce electricity for immediate household use and for storage in lead-acid batteries. Gradual extension of electricity networks ended this brief era of wind-generated electricity and little research and even less field testing on converting wind into useful energy was done until the early 1970s, when the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) suddenly quintupled the price of crude oil, reigniting the interest in renewable energies.

Modern Wind-Driven Electricity Generation

The first modern boom in wind energy was launched by U.S. tax credits during the early 1980s. By 1985 the country’s wind turbines had installed capacity of just over 1 gigawatt, and the world’s largest wind facility (637 megawatts) was at Altamont Pass in California. Low load factors, poor turbine designs, and the expiration of tax credits in 1985 ended this first wind wave. Better turbine designs, with blades optimized for low speeds, and larger turbine sizes have led the expansion that began around 1990. The average size of new machines rose from a mere 40–50 kilowatts in the early 1980s to over 200 kilowatts a decade later, and today’s typical sizes in new, large wind farms are 1–3 megawatts (one megawatt equals 1 million watts, or one thousand kilowatts). Germany, Denmark, and Spain have been the leaders of this expansion. New laws that guarantee a higher fixed price for wind-generated electricity have been essential, and the Danish government has been particularly active in promoting wind power: the country now has the highest per capita installed capacity, and it dominates the world export market in effi cient wind turbines. Germany is the world leader in absolute terms, and by 2007 Europe had about 60 percent of the globally installed wind capacity.

Wind-generating capacity in the United States rose from 1 gigawatt (1 billion watts) in 1985 to 2.5 gigawatts by the end of 2000, and it reached 20 gigawatts by September 2008. Global capacity of wind turbines reached 1 gigawatt in 1985, 10 gigawatts in 1998 (equal to nuclear plants in 1968), and 17.4 gigawatts in 2000, and then it grew rapidly to 59.1 gigawatts by 2005 and to nearly 94 gigawatts by 2008. As a result wind-driven electricity generation is seen as the most promising of all new renewable conversions, far ahead of other solar-based techniques both in terms of operational reliability and unit cost. Some experts argue that at the best windy sites, even unsubsidized wind electricity is already competitive with fossil-fueled generation, or even cheaper than coal or gasfired production, and hence we should go for a more aggressive maximization of wind’s potential. Some plans foresee 20 percent of the world’s electricity demand generated by wind by the year 2040, and 20 percent of America’s electricity coming from wind by 2030. That is not a modest goal considering that in the year 2000 wind generation produced just 1 percent of the country’s electricity.

Available resource is no obstacle to even the boldest dreams. Only about 2 percent of all solar energy received by Earth is needed to drive the atmospheric motion, and if a mere 1 percent of this flux could be converted to electricity, the global capacity would be some 35 terawatts (one terawatt equals 1 trillion watts), or more than ten times the 2000 total installed in all fossil, nuclear, and hydro stations. A much more restrictive estimate that considers only wind speeds above 5 meters per second up to 10 meters above ground puts the global wind power potential at about 6 terawatts, or about 350 times larger than the total installed in 2000. The main problems associated with tapping this potential result from the fact that wind is unevenly distributed in both space and time.

Many windy sites are far away from centers of electricity consumption, and many densely populated areas with high electricity demand experience long seasonal periods of calm or low wind speeds and hence are utterly unsuitable, or only marginally suited, for harnessing wind’s energy. Virtually the entire southeastern United States, northern Italy, and Sichuan Province (China’s most populous province) are in the latter category. Wind’s intermittence means that it cannot be used for base-load generation. Its fluctuations are only imperfectly predictable, and peak wind flows only rarely coincide with the time of the highest demand. Inevitably, these realities complicate efficient commercial utilization. The visual aspect of siting large turbines and building connection and transmission lines is another concern. Offshore siting of wind turbines should help to minimize or eliminate these impacts.


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