BY: PHILIPPE DE JOCAS
Wind power isn’t quite the realm of dinky pinwheels and spindly turbines anymore. At its core, wind turbines run off a deceptively simple plan that produces clean and environmentally friendly energy from the breeze. Wind power spins the blades, which in turn spins a magnetic coil that allows for the clean and safe production of electricity.
That said, wind turbines have suffered some profound disparagement: even environmentalists have criticized turbines for their noise pollution and the potential hazards they pose towards wildlife, especially flocks of migrating birds that enter the blades and exit pureed. At one time, environmentalists dreamed of great sprawling “wind farms,” where several dozen turbines would gather on the hilltops and reap the fruit of the wind. It’s clear that this vision of the future will soon be consigned to the realm of personal jetpacks and moon-cities. In essence, it’s not happening.
More aggressive methods of gathering energy from the zephyr have prompted engineers to move away from wind farms as a concept. More and more countries seek to abandon fossil fuels and adopt a more renewable energy source. Wind technologies, although they have not yet paid off the “carbon debt” that their solar brethren have, have started to innovate, evolve…and supersize. While most technological innovations have focused on shrinking their products, wind turbines are ratcheting up the size. The latest innovation, Denmark’s V164-model turbine, takes the basic concept of the wind turbine and cranks everything up to eleven.
Towering at more than 220 metres, almost two thirds the height of the Eiffel Tower, the colossal Vestas V164 windmill is too big for any one city to host. Instead, this prototype stands off the coast of Østerild, Denmark. In some ways, this floating turbine is built more like an oil rig than a windmill. Each one of its three blades measures more than eighty metres – once it kicks into full gear, its “swept area” covers more than 227,000 square feet. In the North Sea, where cold gusts of northern wind roar unimpeded over the water, windmills can operate almost 24/7.
As turbines get larger and larger (and in that regard the V164 is probably just a baby compared to the designs of tomorrow), they become more cost effective. It takes less time and energy to maintain one gigantic, seaborne turbine than it does to maintain the old farms of several dozen dinky landlubbers. How does the V164 stack up to the plants of old? Running constantly, the turbine produces more than 216,000 kilowatt-hours over a day of continuous operation. That’s more than enough to power 7,200 homes in the US. Several V164s could probably supply power to a small state.
In fairness, wind power is still a very situational method of alternative energy. Coastal regions and hilly lands are generally the only regions with enough ambient wind to make implementing windmills a viable economic option. But as turbines continue to grow in both physical size and financial prominence, it’s only a matter of time before they really start to contribute to the fight against global warming.