Before oil, gas, coal, hydroelectric and nuclear power – there was wind. It advanced the spread of civilization – by powering the sailing vessels of the earliest explorers and once settled, enabling them to efficiently irrigate their fields and mill their harvests. To our ancestors, wind must have appeared to be a coy mistress – capable of progressing our terrestrial mastery of the natural world, or with little warning, able to completely wipe all traces of our work off the land. Thousands of years after our first attempts at harnessing earth’s most available source of power, it is no small surprise that we still remain in awe of its strength and unsure of how – or even if – we can appropriate this natural resource to meet our global population’s growing hunger for energy.
Make no mistake – the economic and efficient utilization of wind power could be a watershed moment for the renewable energies industry. It is abundant, potent, clean, emits no harmful greenhouse gases – and is readily available to anyone who has the technological know-how to access it. And therein lies the catch. Capturing the wind is a catch-22 of staggering proportions. We know where it is and how strong it is – but as yet, no one has created a truly feasible solution that will bring the power up there, down here. At least, not to the extent we would need to replace our centuries-old reliance on fossil fuels. Not yet, anyway.
New Wind Turbine Design
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t people who are willing to try. Wind Energy Systems Technology (WEST) is a Texas-based company that retrofits decommissioned offshore oil platforms into wind farms. Covering nearly 85,000 acres off the coast of Galveston, WEST takes advantages of the Gulf Coast region’s powerful ocean wind currents which blow the strongest during the hottest hours of the day. (Energy demand – and therefore energy prices, are at their peak at the same times.) Fitted with gigantic turbines, the platforms within the wind farm could generate enough electricity to power 45,000 homes. The utilization of existing infrastructure enables WEST to keep their overhead costs low – a key challenge facing many of their new-energy peers.
For other companies, the renewable future requires going up – way up. Although mid-desert wind farms in California and a growing number of offshore farms are able to generate modest amounts of electricity, there is still a greater source of power currently untapped – high-altitude winds. Atmospheric research has shown that at altitudes between 1,600 and 40,000 feet there is enough energy to potentially power the globe. Unlike the winds encountered at sea level, high-altitude winds are much stronger, energy dense and less prone to fluctuations. Several kite-like prototypes have been developed that would transmit the electricity to the earth by way of a tether, but there are still significant challenges to face before they become airborne. Most importantly, our current electrical grid is unequipped to handle the pressures of an all-wind energy source – with fluctuating spans of high-wattage blasts, followed by minutes, or even hours, of dead calm.
Despite it’s promise, wind power is not yet the silver bullet its proponents make it out to be. Significant investments in upgrading infrastructure and in developing more efficient technologies to harness its force will be the deciding factors in whether or not this renewable energy source will power the homes of tomorrow. But with the necessary technological advancements and the adoption of other sustainable energy practices, we may yet realize the power of the wind.