Wind energy is big and getting bigger, in more ways than one. In the U.S., wind generates twice the amount of electricity it did five years ago and provides 10% of the nation’s electricity, and that’s expected to grow to more than 25% by 2050.
If you’ve taken a road trip across the Midwest, or even down the road in rural Illinois, you’ve likely seen fields of wind turbines, with white rotor blades spinning lazily around. But they’re not lazy at all, and that’s another way wind energy is big — in physical size.
Wind turbine blades seem to circle slowly due to an optical illusion resulting from how big they are. The tips of those rotors are likely to be moving at more than 150 miles per hour.
There’s a reason for the size. Wind turbines are getting bigger and taller to capture more wind. The average wind turbine height has increased from 190 feet in 2000 to nearly 300 feet today. During that time, the size of the rotor blades doubled, making a circle more than 400 feet in diameter. That size growth has tripled the amount of electricity a wind turbine can produce.
One wind turbine can generate enough electricity to power about 900 homes, and they’re being installed at a rate of about 3,000 a year. Today, there are more than 72,000 turbines in the U.S., primarily located in the middle part of the country. But that’s about to change.
Federal and state governments are encouraging developers to build wind turbines in the ocean, where winds are more constant and the rotors can be even larger.
Bigger sizes can cause problems, though, like transporting rotor blades that average more than 100 feet long. Delivering those monsters can cost more than $30,000 in finding the right truck for the oversized load, planning the route, obtaining permits, checking clearances and recruiting escort vehicles.
Besides large onshore and offshore wind farms, wind turbines can be used as a distributed energy resource. With support from the U.S. Department of Energy, there have been significant innovations in smaller-scale wind turbines to integrate improvements seen in larger models, including longer blades to capture more wind and advanced composite materials. Smaller turbines can even be used to help power homes, farms, schools and businesses.
Across the U.S., several electric co-ops and other rural utilities have deployed one or more large-scale wind turbines in their service territories to supplement their wholesale power supply. These kinds of local resources can help boost resiliency, hedge or reduce power supply costs and support local economic development.
Photo courtesy of Artur Zudin, Unsplash