So, first of all, I’d like to start off this post by congratulating each and every one of you reading this right now: you survived one of the most treacherous days of the year yesterday. If you made it without ending up broke, in a diabetic coma, sobbing into a jack and coke while listening to Alanis Morisette on repeat, or staring blankly at a steak knife that was stabbed into your front door with a note from that girl or guy you never called back saying “SEE YOU IN HELL, SUCKER,” then you should give yourself a serious pat on the back. It’s February 15th! Everyone breathe a sigh of relief.
Dan the Man posted an interesting story yesterday about one of the major sources of renewable energy out there – wind – and opened the conversation about one of the major downsides of wind energy, which is …noise pollution. But before we start picking the broccoli out of that salad, let’s talk a little bit about wind energy basics.
Wind turbines usually evoke an image that looks something like this:
Wind is certainly an appealing option when comes to renewable energy. But for those of you who aren’t familiar with the technology, I thought I’d give you something to crunch on. Also, for those of you who aren’t familiar with Rainbow Brite, this is what she looks like:
Rainbow Brite and her green and orange sprites are super curious how wind energy works. So here goes:
How Does Wind Energy Work? By simply converting energy from one form to another. Wind, which we are all familiar with (I hope?) moves the blades on a wind turbine, knetic energy from the wind is converted into mechanical energy. A windmill or a wind pump uses this mechanical energy to perform some task, such as rotating a wheel or the blade of a grinder. If the mechanical energy from the rotating blades is used to produce electricity, then you have a wind generator. That’s wind power. Simple, easy, and delicious.
How Much Power Does a Wind Turbine Produce? It depends on the size of the turbine and the amount of wind. A wind generator (the kind of turbine we use for power) has a nameplate capacity, which the the amount of energy generated at peak capacity, but won’t be operating fully all the time (because wind changes). But, the largest turbine currently in operation generates (nameplate capacity) of 7.58 MW. Several (about a dozen) companies claim they are close to developing a wind generator that will produce up to 10 MW.
How Much Does It Cost? Estimates for the price of new wind energy in terms of cost per Mwatt-hour (the unit of measure usually used to represent the cost of electricity – so, the amount of power generated per hour) is comparable to coal and natural gas. Wind is clocking in at $55.80, coal at $53.10, and natural gas at $52.50. No, I’m not kidding. And that’s assuming you have to go out and build the turbine. Once it’s put in place, the maintenance costs are minimal. And the wind itself is free! So it gets cheaper from there.
What are the Other Advantages of wind energy? Wind is free. Like I just said, wind is free. And there is plenty of it pretty much everywhere. Nobody is going to buy it, sell it, or form OWEC (Organization of Wind Exporting Countries) just so they can sit back and control the price of wind per barrel. Mostly because wind doesn’t come in barrels, at least, not yet (come to think of it, that could be pretty funny.) For those of you who care about things like air quality (not me, at all) wind has no emissions. For those of you who care about water quality, well, it’s pretty hard to spill your wind everywhere. For those of you who care about global warming, climate change, coral reefs, nuclear waste, ocean pollution, industrial spills, or pharmaceuticals in your drinking water, wind doesn’t have negative impacts in any of those areas. It’s zero emissions. You can grow crops and graze animals within a few feet of the base of the turbine. In fact, pretty much the worst that will happen is that some bird might fly right into the wind turbine, which is just a reminder to everyone that even though eagles may soar, weasels don’t get sucked into jet engines or wind turbines.
What’s the Main Challenge of Using Wind for Power? The fact that, when we depend on an energy source for our grid, we’re using to having it there twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. Seriously. Remember the last time that the power went out at your house during a snow storm or thunderstorm? Think about all the things you couldn’t do. That’s the problem right now with wind: storage. When operating at peak, wind can generate as much – or more – energy and electricity than other sources. But when the wind dies down, so do the turbines. C’est problem. But once we create a grid that can handle wind, the only thing we’ll have to worry about is the noise. That and the weasels getting sucked into the wind turbine.
So What About That Noise? So a wind “farm” is a grouping of numerous turbines together, which are linked and work collectively to generate power. You can group hundreds of these together, and it doesn’t even cause land use issues. But it can be noisy. Oddly enough, most towns and areas have noise ordinances, which apply to everything – factories, hydro power, drilling operations, construction operations, etc – limiting the amount of noise that can be generated, particularly at night. However, some residents who are unhappy with wind farms installed near their homes or land are complaining that there are issues with the ways wind companies predict and measure the amount of noise generated at peak hours.
The problem has many aspects to it. As Dan pointed out, everyone wants energy, but nobody really wants it generated near them – that’s the “not in my backyard” school of thinking. The problem is, it has to be in somebody’s backyard. In case none of you have ever been aboard ship, or on an oil rig (I have been both places, wheee!) neither one of those is exactly quiet. Noise complains regarding wind energy are likely exaggerated by the fact that many of these turbines are located in open, rural areas where there isn’t a whole lot of other ambient noise. People who live near a factory, drilling operation, or even off a busy highway might not even notice the level of noise generated. They’re also likely worse because, well, wind is new. People tend to dislike change.
So, what should be done about it? Quieter technology? Develop better turbines? Tell people to suck it up and use less electricity if they want less noise? Could wind farms be more carefully located? What about moving them offshore? Would the folks who want to sail complain about their view being ruined? Or is “noise pollution” really the least evil of all the evil byproducts of energy generation out there – including nuclear waste, oil spills, particulates and heavy metals in our air, batteries we don’t know how to dispose of, and a myriad of other byproducts of “dirty” energy sources such as coal, oil, and nuclear?
After all this thinking, I’m going to need another cup of coffee. And then? Let the wild rumpus begin, by that I mean: it’s comment time, people. Let’s get into this.