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Energy’s Answer is Blowing in the Wind

By Benjamin Kahane

For hundreds of years, humans have used wind to pump water and grind grain, mostly with small windmills. Large, modern wind turbines are used to generate electricity for individual use and to feed into the electric grid. Wind turbines generally have three blades and, because higher altitudes yield higher wind velocities and lower turbulences, the turbines are mounted on tall towers to capture as much energy as possible. As the blades turn, the central shaft spins a generator to make electricity.

In the United States, total wind power constitutes a little more than 1 percent of the total country’s energy output — about 40,000 megawatts as of 2010. The 1,020 megawatt Alta Wind Energy Center, in California’s Tehachapi Pass, is currently the largest onshore wind farm in the world. Offshore wind power is even more promising since the winds over the oceans are more consistent and less turbulent than over land. Currently, most of the world’s offshore wind farms are in Northern Europe, but there are groups in the United States fighting to build offshore wind farms here as well. It is estimated that by 2020, worldwide capacity for offshore wind farms will reach 75 gigawatts.

Figure 1: Historical U.S. electric generation, in trillion British thermal units, from non-hydroelectric renewable sources. Hydroelectric is excluded in order to allow for scale. Wind power is really taking off. (Waste includes municipal solid waste, landfill gas, sludge waste, agricultural byproducts and other biomass; until 2000 it also included non-renewable waste, such as tire derived fuels.)

The major roadblock to wind farm development is the aesthetics complaint. Some people believe that wind turbines will ruin scenic views of the shoreline, mountain peaks and open fields. However, wind turbines made today are different and more aesthetically pleasing than the turbines of even 10 years ago; the truss structure which would make up the tower of a wind turbine was much less elegant than the long mono-pole that supports today’s modern wind turbines.

Compared to the environmental impacts of fossil fuels, wind power has a relatively minor climate impact. Since there are no emissions from the farm in operation, the only factors to consider are the fossil fuels consumed during production of the necessary components of the wind farm and the construction efforts to build it. This question is similar to that posed of the solar plant: There are varying opinions, but the bottom line is that it is a vast improvement to continually polluting the air and water with combusted fossil fuel byproducts. There also have been some incidents of bird and bat deaths due to collision with the turbine blades. Wind power enthusiasts will tell you that large buildings cause more bird deaths than a wind farm ever has. While this is a true statement, it does not make killing birds right; caution must be taken when siting a wind farm. It should not be sited in a known path of migrating birds and studies also should be done to determine if there are large populations of bats in the area to avoid harming local wildlife. That said, modern wind turbines are designed to turn their blades at slower speeds, naturally reducing any potential negative impact on bird and bat populations.

If we are going to move beyond our dependence on fossil fuels, then wind power will need to be part of the basket of solutions.

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Benjamin Kahane is a utility scale project engineer at SunEdison, where he designs photovoltaic solar energy systems. He has provided engineering support for the development of more than 100 megawatts of ground-mounted photovoltaic projects across North America. Kahane previously worked as a project engineer developing photovoltaic installations at Conergy. He earned his master’s degree in sustainable energy engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park.

The Jewish Energy Guide presents a comprehensive Jewish approach to the challenges of energy security and climate change and offers a blueprint for the Jewish community to achieve a 14% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by September of 2014, which is the next Shmittah, or sabbatical, year in the Jewish calendar.

The Jewish Energy Guide is part of COEJL’s Jewish Energy Network, a collaborative effort with Jewcology’s Year of Action to engage Jews in energy action and advocacy. The Guide was created in partnership with the Green Zionist Alliance.

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