The greenhouse effect is a term that describes an increase in the average global temperature and is often associated with global warming which is the subject of great debate and concern worldwide. Although warnings about the human-generated causes of an enhanced greenhouse effect and the subsequent catastrophic outcomes have been sounded for over 100 years, global warming has only recently become an important political matter, at least in the U.S. President Bush, for the first time in his term of office, referred to the subject in his State of the Union speech earlier this year.
Even then, he chose his words carefully by calling this phenomenon, ‘global climate change.’ In 1997, the Kyoto Treaty, which has now been signed by more than 160 countries, is, to date, the most comprehensive global effort to decrease CO2 emissions. Though the agreement was signed by the U.S. and then President Clinton consented to decrease greenhouse emissions in the U.S. by 40 percent, it has been dismissed by the Bush administration and has yet to be ratified by the U.S. CO2 greenhouse gases have since increased in the country that produces well more than any other (Melinin, 2005).
Unfortunately, the country that causes the most harm is lead by a person that seems to have ‘cause the most harm’ as his calling card. The major contributors to CO2, one of the main pollutants in the atmosphere, are the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation.
The solution to some of these issues may lie in the development of alternative means of energy generation such as wind power. Wind power is one of the ‘new’ technologies America has been looking to as a means of reducing the burning of coal for energy while still providing the same or greater levels of consumable electricity to power America’s homes, but several questions remain regarding the feasibility of wind power or whether this is even the best direction to take in addressing the nation’s energy issues.
Wind power has been a technology used by people for thousands of years. “The first historically well-documented windmill dates from 947 (AD), in Persia, close to the border with Afghanistan,” but it is believed that the ancient Chinese and Japanese knew how to harness the wind to capture its power as much as 3000 years ago (Wizelius, 2006: 7). There are numerous remnants of windmills throughout Europe testifying to their widespread use well into the 19th century. According to Wizelius (2006), there were approximately 9000 windmills in use in the Netherlands, 18000 in Germany, 8000 in England, 3000 in Denmark, and 20000 in France in the middle 1850s.
However, the windmills were only capable of providing power with the wind and retained no means of saving the power generated if it wasn’t utilized as it was generated. With the rise of the industrial age, the use of fossil fuels as a more predictable means of gaining energy at any time demanded introduced a shift in focus for nearly a century. When the oil crisis of the 1970s brought attention to the industrialized world’s dependence upon this substance for their way of life, many countries determined it was time to make a change.
The Danish led the way in a return to wind power through their innovative approach to research and development.
While other nations focused on providing subsidy programs to encourage electric companies to develop the technology needed, the Danish nurtured wind energy as a marketable commodity, providing tax breaks to those individuals who participated in funding renewable energy development. “They [Danish citizens] formed wind power cooperatives, where some persons (households) invested a few thousand Danish kroner each and bought a turbine together so that they could get clean green electric power for their households” (Wizelius, 2006: 21).
The government also supported the efforts of a special research center that was dedicated to certifying the wind turbines sold and served as a central point of contact between researchers and manufacturers. Other countries began to make headway in this technology following the Dutch example by the late 1980s, but early failures in America kept this country from truly maximizing its potential in this field until very recently.
The state of California made an early attempt at maximizing wind farm technology coming out of the 1970s, but funding was withdrawn in the mid-1980s as the wind turbines either quickly broke down or were blown apart by the winds they were supposed to collect (Wizelius, 2006: 22). While the rest of the world was launching a new form of the power grid, the United States continued to resist efforts at developing renewable energy sources.
According to a study by the United States Government Accountability Office conducted in 2004, wind power generation in 2003 accounted for only one-tenth of one percent of total U.S. electric power generation, but this was already quadruple the amount of energy that had been generated through this means in 1990.
The early failures seen in California were often pointed to as justification for lags in development, but the reasons America failed to develop wind power earlier are probably much more political and possibly exaggerated. According to a report from the Global Wind Energy Council and the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA, 2005), the U.S. was among the top five countries generating power through wind resources in 2005.
This level of involvement is, to a great extent, the result of individual state action more than federal government involvement. As of 2004, 32 states had laws that allowed home-owners generating their power to sell any excess power back to the power grid, 20 states offered property tax exemptions or other special assessments for the property that was dedicated to renewable energy generation and 15 states allowed sales tax exemptions for renewable energy sources (GAO, 2004).
A population increasingly aware of the effects of global warming as a real condition of the planet rather than a political beaten horse has also spurred interest in developing these technologies at the same time that our fossil-fuel resources are increasingly limited, dependent upon foreign involvement, and have demonstrated, to our horror, the degree to which our country is reliant upon the goodwill of those who call themselves our enemies.
With improvements in the technology used to harness wind power and collect electricity, wind power was reported in 2003 to have dropped from 30 cents per kWh in the 1980s to a more competitive 3 to 6 cents per kWh (GAO, 2004). “In the United States, a wind turbine with generating capacity of 2 megawatts, placed on a tower situated on a farm, ranch or another rural land, can generate enough electricity in a year – about 6 million kilowatt-hours – to serve the needs of 500 to 600 average U.S. households” (GAO, 2004).
Thus, enough wind turbines might be reasonably equipped to replace fossil fuels as the country’s main source of energy. According to all reports, wind power is expected to see increasing attention in future years as the cost of natural gas and other fossil fuels began to increase and as more wind farms are built, making it more available. As might have been expected, these decreases in energy costs were realized faster in the western portions of the country where there is a great capacity of wind to be used as opposed to the east where connections into the power grid were not so prevalent and wind not so reliable. This is one of the areas in which wind power must take a back seat to fossil fuels.
Although coal-burning plants are capable of running day and night if necessary to produce the energy demanded by a given urban center, wind power is uncontrollable and unpredictable. There is no means by which technicians might quickly, easily, and accurately determine the amount of energy that will be produced in a given day or force the energy output to be higher than normal due to unusual additional power demands.
Both wind and solar technologies are capable of providing a great deal of energy with no waste materials to deal with and without permanently destroying natural resources. However, a comparison of wind and solar energy is provided by Detronics Limited (2006) that demonstrates how the two technologies are more probably complementary sources of energy rather than competing firms.
The company found that the purchase price of the wind system at a specific location was approximately $7 per watt of energy produced while the cost of the solar-powered system averaged $12.25 per watt, making it seem obvious that the wind-powered system was much preferable. However, calculating the speed and availability of wind at a given location in a given time frame makes the production of electricity a guessing game at best with wind power as opposed to more traditional methods. While solar energy collection is also less predictable than fossil fuels, it is more predictable in terms of available sunlight in a given time of year and the most advantageous location for the solar array.
Throughout history, windmills had a basic shape that remained relatively uniform throughout European nations. As the technology was reintroduced at the end of the twentieth century, wind turbines began developing in new ways and shapes. Originally only available in large towers that automatically precluded any attempts to use on small properties, wind technology has advanced to the point where they can be used for establishments as small as a suburban home providing 100 watts of power or be as large as blade diameters of more than 160 feet generating more than 1 million watts of electricity to be fed into a grid (Baird, 2008).
Although most wind turbines are currently made with three blades on horizontal access, this design is not exclusive as some are made on the vertical access and other designs are being developed. Other improvements being developed include the use of lighter-weight composite materials that will take less wind energy to move and yet be able to withstand the constant pressure as well as the development of alternative locations for wind farm development, such as floating arrays anchored just offshore.
One of the advantages of wind power is that it doesn’t produce the types of waste materials produced in the development of other energy sources. The turbines simply present a momentary obstacle to the winds blowing across them and energy is produced. However, this is not meant to indicate that there will be no absolutely environmental impacts upon installing wind turbines. To begin with, the towers are generally erected to at least 100 feet, which can have a significant impact upon the generally scenic areas that are most conducive to wind generation (cited in GAO, 2004).
In addition, there have been some reports of bird deaths as the avian creatures fly into the path of one of the turbines which can be a significant issue when these are placed in nesting areas or along migratory routes of endangered species. These risks can be reduced through careful study of the area to determine which species use it or fly over it during various times of the year. Other means of addressing these concerns have included slight changes in the design of the towers to discourage birds nesting and slowing the speed of the turbines to a point at which birds can see them turning during daylight hours.
Given the essential nature of power to the continued existence of society, as we have come to know it, it may seem an unnecessary consideration to worry about environmental concerns. After all, we have done irreparable damage to mountains and rivers as we dig into the land for the coal and other minerals we have used to build society to this point.
This seemingly harmless activity led to the global warming trends we are seeing now by releasing greater carbon emissions into the atmosphere than natural cycles could filter. Weather events in the United States in the past few years suggest that something significant is occurring to disturb the natural balance. In a 2008 report by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program, annual temperatures throughout the nation have been changing, with average high temperatures seeing an increase during the past ten years and a reduction in severe colds (USCCSP 2008).
Other alternative forms of energy, such as nuclear power, produce other waste products that have a potential for far greater negative impacts yet seem to be the only means of obtaining nearly inexhaustible energy at a consistent and reliable rate. By keeping the environment at the heart of the question, we might be able to avoid such impossible consequences for future generations.
Given these concerns, it is reasonable to ask whether we shouldn’t be more focused on reducing our energy requirements. Steps have already been taken to some degree through the development of the increasingly popular fluorescent ‘curly’ light bulbs that operate on a fraction of the energy needed for previous carbon filament bulbs.
However, it is unlikely that we will find we need less energy as the nation continues to grow and increasingly operates in an online environment, requiring full-time electrical usage to function. In addition, research and development of ‘plug-in’ electric cars as a means of reducing vehicular carbon emissions from the burning of oil and reducing dependency upon foreign resources will introduce yet further need for electricity generation.
Although it is unlikely that wind-generated power through existing technology will be able to replace fossil fuels any time shortly, it is becoming increasingly available for use and may begin to provide a great deal more of the energy consumed in the United States. Wind power is preferable to fossil fuels because it has a very low impact on the environment and is a renewable energy source that remains competitively priced with more traditional fossil fuels in many parts of the country.
However, it is not perfect in that wind turbines are still not believed to be at optimum efficiency, only specific areas of the country receive strong enough winds to power the turbines, and power cannot be generated when winds aren’t blowing, which is an impossible variable to predict.
Compared to current solar technology, wind power is more efficient but less reliable while solar power is capable of providing the energy generation needed during those periods when the wind isn’t blowing at a more predictable rate. While it may be hoped that the current energy crises would encourage more people to reduce their dependence upon electricity as a way of life, this is unlikely as new developments and technologies depend upon electricity as an alternative means of power to coal or oil.
Baird, Stuard. “About Wind Power.” Sharing Sustainable Solutions. (2008). Web.
This is an article that explains the basics of wind power geared toward educating the Canadian public. The article covers a brief overview including the history, the mechanics both on a natural as well as a technological scale, the environmental impacts of this form of energy generation, the present levels of use of this technology and the more immediate future possibilities.
Detronics staff. Renewable Energy Comparison of Wind and Photovoltaic Solar. Canada: Detronics Ltd., 2006.
This report presents the results of an experiment conducted by the authorial group that attempted to compare which form of energy production had greater plausibility as a possible replacement to fossil fuels. It is particularly helpful in that it helps to illustrate how wind and solar power might be used in a complementary system so as to provide maximum energy production for a variety of needs. It also clearly illustrated the strengths and weaknesses of each form of energy production.
GWEC & AWEA (Global Wind Energy Council & American Wind Energy Association.) “Global Wind Power Continues Expansion.” Global Wind Energy Markets. Belgium: GWEC, 2005.
This is an official international report looking into the present level of research, development and use of wind power as of the date it was written. The report directly refutes claims that America is behind the curve in developing wind power technologies, suggesting that it is, as of 2005, one of the top five wind power producing countries in the world.
GAO. Renewable Energy: Wind Power’s Contribution to Electric Power Generation and Impact on Farms and Rural Communities. Report to the Ranking Democratic Member, Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, U.S. Senate. Washington D.C.: United States Government Accountability Office, 2004.
This is an official government report regarding the feasibility and applicability of wind power development in the country as of 2003. The report provides many intricate details as to how wind power has been developed in this country and answers specific questions about wind power generation. This provides support for information gained elsewhere as well as foundational knowledge regarding current levels of technology and potential impacts, both positive and negative.
Malinin, Sergei. 2005. “USA, China and India Outlaw Kyoto Protocol and Set Forth New Climate Change Initiative.” Pravda.
This is an article translated from a Russian newspaper that discusses the United States’ role and stance in the Kyoto Protocol. It seems to highlight US arrogance in mistrusting the science of other nations and in its refusal to acknowledge an overwhelming majority of American scientists who concur. The article is primarily helpful in providing a brief outline of the Kyoto Treaty and the reasons it was developed, primarily in response to rising levels of greenhouse gasses and the potential harmful effects this could create for all life on Earth.
USCCSP (U.S. Climate Change Science Program). “Scientific Assessment of the Effects of Global Change on the United States: Summary and Findings.” USCCSP. Washington D.C.
This is an official U.S. government report regarding scientific conclusions of the effects of greenhouse gasses on our weather patterns. The report acknowledges global warming as the cause of increasingly damaging weather events across the nation including floods, droughts and fires and provides a solid measure for the encroaching tideline on our coasts. It is significant to use this source because it has been the U.S. government that has been perceived as resistant to the possibility of climate change as a real physical process.
Wizelius, Tore. Developing Wind Power Projects: Theory and Practice. London: Earthscan Publishers, 2006.
This is a book that discusses all the various technologies and mechanics involved in collecting wind for use in generating power. The book provides very technical information into the workings of various kinds of wind turbines. It is the first chapter of the book that will be most helpful in this application as it provides a detailed history of the use of wind power back into ancient times and helps to illustrate why the switch was made to fossil fuels and now back again to wind.