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Subject Frequently Asked Questions on Wind Energy
Author Sascha
Question: What happens when the wind stops blowing?
Answer: Wind energy is an intermittent resource. When the wind blows between about 7 meters per second (16 miles per hour) and 27 meters per second (60 miles per hour), wind turbines can generate electricity. When the wind doesn't blow, or blows too hard, the turbines can't generate electricity. Unfortunately, the wind doesn't always blow when electricity is needed. Batteries can store only a modest amount of electricity to be used when the wind doesn't blow.

Power producers that are installing wind turbines understand and plan for the intermittent nature of wind energy. They also appreciate that wind turbines offer a number of benefits that conventional generation doesn't: shorter construction lead times, modularity (more turbines can always be added if loads grow), no fuel costs, no air emissions, and higher customer approval. If the wind resource is well matched to peak loads, wind energy can effectively contribute to system capacity. Winds are often higher in the afternoon, for example, when electricity usage is high.

Question: If this technology is so great, why isn't it everywhere?

Answer: Wind technology is, in fact, the fastest-growing generation source in the world. In the United States, growth is slow because power producers have delayed construction of all types of new generation until uncertainties about utility deregulation are resolved.

Despite the slowdown in new generation, the United States is experiencing the largest surge in utility-scale wind development since the 1980s. In 1998, more than 200 megawatts of wind energy was installed. Another 600 megawatts are projected to be on-line before 2000. Low wind energy costs, combined with a Production Tax Credit of $0.017 per kilowatt-hour, have made wind energy projects financially attractive. The cost of electricity from the wind, however, is still higher than from conventional generation but other benefits add to the value of wind energy.

Question: Are wind turbines hazardous to birds?

Answer: Bird deaths are the most controversial biological issue related to wind turbines. The deaths of federally protected birds at a wind farm site in California has raised concerns by fish and wildlife agencies and conservation groups. On the other hand, several large wind facilities have operated for years with only minor impacts on birds.

To prevent further bird deaths, both the wind industry and government agencies are sponsoring or conducting research into collisions, relevant bird behavior, and mitigation and avoidance measures at wind facilities. And project developers are conducting biological surveys to avoid choosing sites for new wind projects near major bird feeding, roosting, and resting areas, wetlands, rookeries, or low-level flight paths.

Although bird mortality is a serious concern for the wind industry, structures such as smokestacks and radio and television towers have been associated with far larger numbers of bird kills than have wind facilities. Other sources of bird mortality, such as highways and pollution, are responsible for a much higher proportion of total bird deaths.

Question: Are wind turbines noisy?

Answer: Noise may be a concern to people living near wind projects. However, much of the turbine noise is masked by the sound of the wind itself, and the turbines only run when the wind blows. Noise from wind turbines has diminished as the technology has improved. Early model turbines are generally noisier than most new and larger models. As blades have become more efficient, more of the wind is converted into rotational torque and less into acoustic noise. Under most conditions, modern turbines are quiet.

Question: Do wind turbines pose a safety hazard?

Answer: Unlike most other generation technologies, wind turbines do not use combustion to generate electricity and hence don't produce air emissions. The only potentially toxic or hazardous materials are relatively small amounts of lubricating oils and hydraulic and insulating fluids. Therefore, contamination of surface or ground water or soils is highly unlikely. The primary health and safety considerations are related to blade movement and the presence of industrial equipment in areas potentially accessible to the public. Depending upon their locations, wind facilities may represent an increased fire hazard. And like all electrical generating facilities, wind generators produce electric and magnetic fields.

Question: Is wind power cost competitive?

Answer: Today, the cost of electricity from wind is about $0.05 or less per kilowatt-hour, which represents an 85% drop over the past 15 years. A modest federal Production Tax Credit, now valued at $0.017 per kilowatt-hour, is available to encourage wind energy development. Even so, wind must compete on a cost basis with other generation sources with costs of about $0.015 to $0.03 per kilowatt-hour. Recognizing that wind energy must be cost-competitive with other generation, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has set a cost goal of $0.025 per kilowatt-hour by 2002 (at sites with annual average wind speeds of 7 meters per second [15 miles per hour]). DOE is working with industry to develop these new, low-cost new turbines.

Despite its higher cost, wind energy offers many benefits that add to its value. It is a clean, renewable technology that does not pollute the air with greenhouse gasses or other emissions. Wind energy projects bring economic development in the form of jobs, tax revenues, and land lease payments to rural areas. The wind is a free and domestic resource, which can reduce U.S. reliance on foreign fuel imports.

Question: How has the technology improved since wind turbines were first developed?

Answer: Turbines designs have improved since the 1980s, when a large number of turbines where put up in California. Many lessons were learned from the performance of these early designs. Thanks to the DOE Turbine Research Program, and the trend towards wind turbine certification, today's turbine designs undergo rigorous engineering analysis and testing before they are commercially available.

Question: Are aesthetics a concern for wind farms?

Answer: Wind projects have different visual impacts than most other electric generation technologies, in part because wind projects usually are located in rural or even remote areas, often with few nearby homes and only occasional human visits and use. Aesthetics may be an issue, depending upon the value people place on the visual quality of the project setting and other considerations. Strategies to minimize visual effects involve the spacing, design, and uniformity of the turbines, markings or lighting, roads, and service buildings.

(Courtesy of US Department of Energy)
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