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The Answer is Blowing in the Wind?

Seems like famous poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow could have maybe seen into the future when he wrote the line … “the wind blows wild and free” … in his poem entitled “Twilight” back in the 19th century. In our current age of renewable energy, we are harvesting that wild wind and turning it into free energy! Well, kind of free.  

But how is that wind collected by those twirling blades, converted into energy, then stored and eventually used to charge our digital devices and electric vehicles? As intricate as it might sound, it’s both simple and complex. Confusing, huh? Well, this might straighten it out at bit. 

Humans have been using wind energy, or wind power, for thousands of years to grind grain or pump water up from the grounds via windmills. Out on the prairies, this free energy was a lifeline to providing water to livestock or to grind grain into flour to make bread. 

Most of us aren’t watering herds or baking our own sourdough (OK, maybe those few months in quarantine), but we’re still using basically the same technology to power our electric-based lifestyle. Basically, the wind turns a propeller-like blade of a turbine around a motor, which spins a generator, which creates electricity. That’s the “simple” part, as mentioned above.  

As for the “complex” part for everyone who wants to know, the wind turbine turns wind energy into electricity using the aerodynamic force from the rotor blades, similar to a helicopter blade. When wind flows across the blade, the air pressure on one side of the blade decreases. The difference in air pressure across the two sides of the blade creates both lift and drag. The force of the lift is stronger than the drag, causing the rotor to spin. That rotor connects to a generator and a series of gears that speed up the rotation. The translation of aerodynamic force to rotation of a generator creates electricity.  

You can decide if you preferred the simple or complex interpretation. Either way. It’s all about wind being converted into energy. 

But, since we’re not generally right there to use that energy--such as for a water pump pulling water up from the earth--we need that energy to be stored and transported to our outlets or electric vehicle charging stations. While old-fashioned versions of a windmill conjure up visions of the Wild West or of those in Holland, the contemporary versions, while using the same concepts, have fascinating similarities and differences. 

Land-Base Wind — You’ve probably seen these giant white turbines — approximately 295 feet high with a blade diameter of 410 feet  — spinning either in small groups or large wind farms with as many as 150 wind turbines. If you’ve seen this in desert areas or near windy shores, they’re quite spectacular … and mesmerizing … to behold. Currently, 44 states (plus Puerto Rico and Guam) have 67,000 turbines in 1,500 wind power project sites, all constructed in the past 40 years, generating wind power.  

Offshore Wind — If you thought the land-base turbines were big, they ain’t nuthin’ compared to the ones out in the open water. Since the size is not limited to being transported on road, but rather on the ships, they dwarf the land-based models, topping out over 800 feet tall with a rotor diameter of 410 feet. Mind boggling to think they’re 1.5 times the height of the Washington Monument and the rotor diameter is longer than a football field. That’s massive! 

Distributed Wind — The complete opposite extreme of offshore wind, distributed wind turbines are smaller, and installed near the point of end-use to meet onsite energy demand, usually in residential, agricultural or community sites. Much smaller than the other models, they still reach between 100 and 300 feet high, with varying rotor diameters. Analysis has found that distributed wind turbines could be used in nearly 50 million residential, commercial or industrial sites. That’s 44% of all building in the U.S.  

But no matter what the type or size, all of that energy has to be transported to where it needs to be used or stored until needed.  

First, electricity from wind turbine generation travels to a transmission substation, where it is converted to extremely high voltage, between 155,000 and 765,000 volts,  for the long-distance transmission on the 3 major transmission grids in the U.S. — Eastern, Western and Texas. Grids are comprised of a series of power lines that connect the power sources to the demand centers.  

Then, at power substations, the high voltage power is converted to lower voltage, around 10,000 volts. From there, to another grid and converted to consumer voltage of either 120 or 240 volts, by a transformer. Your wall outlet, that you plug in your electronics, is 120 volts, while higher-demand appliances are 240 volts. 

If the power isn’t used, it’s stored in lead batteries that reduce power fluctuations and increase reliability, basically storing excess energy when demand is low and releasing it when demand is high, to help power millions of U.S. homes and businesses that depend on renewal energy. 

Besides the use of lead batteries here in our country, it’s profound to think that nearly 25% of people in developing countries have no access to electric grids like we do in the U.S. Lead batters can store and optimize energy sources where there is no access to a power grid around the world.  

So, next time you’re walking outside with your earbuds, playing your favorite tunes, when a big gust of wind blows through your hair, consider that this very wind can be collected by spinning turbines somewhere, stored in batteries, transported by grids to your home, then charge the very electronics that are playing those tunes you’re singing along to. 

Now, that is the new circle of life, the renewable energy version.

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