AAT BONUS ONLINE: Clean Energy Series, Part 2: On the Wind and a Prairie
by Christie Chapman
Driving through Somerset County, Pennsylvania, you see them. Up there, high on the rolling hills, the wind turbines look like giant mechanical flowers, their petals spinning peacefully. The sight is striking—these modern-day windmills don’t exactly blend into the rural landscape, but they are graceful and serene from afar.
Wind energy is an appealing, almost utopian-sounding notion—a renewable energy source in abundant supply that doesn’t pollute the air. The topic is especially relevant to those of us concerned with respiratory health.
People have been using wind energy for more than a thousand years. Farm windmills are still used today for pumping water in rural or remote locations. But large wind turbines also generate electricity for many homes and businesses and for sale to utilities. You can buy a very small turbine for your roof for about $5,000—however, buyers should thoroughly educate themselves before relying on this method for all of their household energy needs. (Home Power magazine offers a buyers’ guide.
In the U.S., we see wind-turbine farms on mountaintops, but in the future we may see more and more of them offshore—the wind blows harder out there and larger turbines can be installed. This has become a popular notion in densely populated areas of Europe where land is limited.
As with all energy options, there’s good and bad about wind power.
Pros: It’s a clean energy source—unlike burning fossil fuels such as oil and gas, turning wind into electricity doesn’t produce carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases. Vestas Wind Systems, a company in Denmark, creates wind turbines—one of its standard-sized turbines produces the same amount of electricity as 13,000 barrels of oil each year, without the carbon dioxide emissions.
Nor does wind energy create particle pollution, which poses a major problem to hearts and lungs.
Wind energy also spares our already-scarce drinking water, unlike coal and nuclear power plants that use large amounts of water. Creating electricity through wind is also hazardous waste-free.
Cons: Wind energy is erratic in most areas and storage of electricity poses a problem. Even in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain states where wind is abundant and steady, the wind resources meet only 10 to 25 percent of the states’ electricity needs.
Some people who live near large wind farms complain about how they look, and the farms can create noise problems, although new blade technology is being used to reduce this.
Wind turbines that aren’t installed properly can cause soil erosion.
Also, bird and bat mortality has been an issue at some wind farms. Improvements in turbine technology and choosing better locations for turbine sites have helped reduce bird deaths, and research on turbines’ effects on bats is now underway, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Powering the future. Energy is central to our 21st-century world—life as we know it couldn’t exist without it (just think of the disruption of a power outage). The energy industry also employs millions, and there seem to be pros and cons to each approach we consider.
Wind energy may not be perfect, but if you happen to pass one of these giant mechanical flowers, stop to think for a moment about how far we’ve come from early windmills, and how clean electricity from wind may power the future.
More about wind energy:
- See a 3-D hologram of a wind turbine at GE’s Smart Grid site!
- The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA)
- The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Clean Energy Resources
First published: Allergy & Asthma Today, October 2009
Medical Review by Cathy Boutin and Tera Crisalida, PA-C