What you should know about the state of wind power technology

Wind power technology is becoming much more viable, and has huge potential around the world. Here's what you need to know about the state of things.

Wind turbines at sunset.
Image: iStock photo/JoseIgnacioSoto

Today, wind power represents about 5% of total US energy generation. According to the Department of Energy's report released in May 2015, Wind Vision: A New Era for Wind

Power in the United States, there are 65 gigawatts of power generated in 39 states. In 11 of those, wind power represents 12% of energy generation. The DoE also concluded that more wind power can be deployed affordably and reliably, and in this report, looked at the potential for wind power in all 50 states. The bottom line is that wind power has a lot of room to grow.

If wind power grows to serve 20% of US electricity demand by 2030, it could provide up to $30 billion in benefits by 2030 because of the reductions in air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. It could also add more than 200,000 jobs and save consumers billions of dollars total. All of wind power's benefits could offset its extensive costs, the report said.

That report is nice and all, but how realistic is wind power as an energy source?

As energy storage technology advances, and wind and solar power become cheaper and more efficient, we will start to see large-scale deployments of renewables that generate electricity around the world. But first, let's take a look at the state of the industry.

Engineering logistics have been holding wind power back.

Many of the barriers to installing wind turbines and systems are physical ones. For example, the blades, which are extremely long and spin at incredibly high speeds, are hard to transport, difficult to replace, and pose dangers to birds (but don't let that last one fool you — cats kill way more birds than wind turbines do annually). And the towers are also difficult to manufacture and transport to wind farms.

Most wind power is generated by turbines as tall as a 20-story buildings, that have three 200-foot-long blades, and wind farms sometimes have hundreds of turbines to power hundreds of homes or buildings. Because of this immense scale, companies like GE are working to develop lighter, more reliable materials for blades to solve some of these problems of transporting and maintaining blades and towers in order to make it more feasible for companies and cities to utilize them.

But, the technology is rapidly advancing

One of the main complaints about wind turbines is how loud they are. So, researchers around the world are looking for ways to make them quieter in addition to making them more nimble, lighter, and easier to transport. That way, wind farms, both large and small, can be closer to communities to generate power and won't be such a nuisance. This is important because to move forward with renewable energy, the US will have to use hybrid systems of solar and wind, depending on geographical locations, and making sure turbines are safe for people, animals, and the earth before building them is critical.

For example, researchers at the University of Cambridge have used owl-inspired technology to cut down the noise level of wind turbines. They developed a new coating that uses similar qualities that owl wings have to scatter noise and silence them as they fly. With a prototype material using 3D printed plastic, the noise was cut down by 10 decibels.

Another option may be no blades at all. One startup called Vortex led a campaign on Indiegogo that was funded in less than a week. The campaign stated: "Instead of capturing energy via the rotational motion of a turbine, the Vortex takes advantage of what's known as vorticity, an aerodynamic effect that occurs when wind breaks against a solid structure." It uses less raw materials and is safer for environments. The concept hasn't been fully proven, but people =want to see it happen.

The industry is maturing.

As the global demand for renewable energy increases, the demand for hybrid systems of wind and solar are rising, and the market for small and medium wind turbines is growing especially quickly, according to a Navigant Research report. It showed that the UK market is booming, and China and Italy remain important markets as well. According to the report, however, The US has been limited thus far due to "a reduction in state-level incentives and competition from solar PV systems that have declined in price dramatically." And, global annual installations of small and medium wind turbines are expected to grow from about 254.9 megawatts in 2014 to 587.7 MW in 2023.

In the first quarter of 2015, the US installed 131 megawatts of wind energy systems. That's 68 new turbines. All in all, about 13,600 megawatts are currently under construction in 23 states in the US, according to the American Wind Energy Association's most recent report.

About 780 megawatts of power purchase agreements were signed this quarter, as well. Power purchase agreements are a contract between two parties. One generates electricity for the purpose, and sells it to a buyer. Corporate purchasers are also buying in. Companies like Walmart, Google Energy, and Dow Chemical have invested big in wind energy in 2015 so far.

There's a lot of potential for wind power globally.

A new report from the European Commission showed that wind power has had the largest deployment in the last two decades, and also shows much potential for future energy generation in Europe and around the globe. According to the report, wind energy will provide at least 12% of Europe's electricity generation by 2020. The report, which looked through wind energy market through the end of 2014, showed that the global cumulative capacity was 370 gigawatts. Europe alone was 129 gigawatts.

Europe has also long been using offshore wind energy, but the US is somewhat far behind. However, the first offshore wind farm in the US is set to be built, and should start generating power, next year. People are hoping this will jump-start the offshore wind energy economy in the US, and there are apparently 11 projects in the works right now. But, there are objections to offshore wind generation, especially from a tourism standpoint.

There's huge potential throughout the rest of the world as well. Kenya has just started working on its Lake Turkana Wind Power Project, which covers 40,000 acres with 365 turbines that will be the most efficient wind farm in the world. India is expecting a 13% growth rate of wind energy in the next five years, and should become a leader and spur growth throughout the entire the Asia Pacific region.

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About Lyndsey Gilpin

Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.

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