Wind power

Even in the years when we don’t have much in the way of crops around these parts, we always have wind–which got me thinking, isn’t it a shame there’s no way to farm the wind? (It’s not a new notion; after all, even the Bible says, in Hosea 8:7, “They sow the wind and reap the whirlwind. The stalk has no head; it will produce no flour.” Sounds like Saskatchewan in a bad year, doesn’t it?)

Well, believe it or not, nowadays you can farm the wind. In fact, windfarms are cropping up all over, with the newest one recently announced for two of the windiest places in Canada (neither of which, believe it or not, is the Scarth Street mall). Unlike other farms, however, windfarms don’t produce food. Instead, they produce energy.

The two new Canadian windfarms are both in Quebec; one is located near Cap-Chat in the Gaspé and the other near Matane in the Lower St. Lawrence region, where the wind velocities average 28 kilometres an hour. Together they will boast 133 55-metre (15-story) towers, each topped with an enormous propellor-like turbine 48 metres in diameter. When fully operational, the two windfarms will produce about 100 megawatts of power, enough to supply the needs of a 16,000 households, which will be sold to Hydro-Québec.

The Le Nordais Wind Farm, the largest development of its kind in Canada and one of the largest in the world, is being built by a unique consortium of Quebec, Danish, Japanese and Toronto companies. The consortium hopes the new Wind Farm will provide a major boost to the commercialization of wind power in Canada. So do a host of other people, ranging from environmentalists to companies that have been longing for years to attempt similar developments in places where the wind blows almost constantly–like the Prairies, for instance.

It’s sad but true that, though Canada has lots of windy places, it’s lagged behind other countries in developing wind power. There have been a few commercial efforts in Alberta, and that’s about it. Wind power did make the news in Saskatchewan a few years ago, but that was because SaskPower decided to pull the plug on a wind power demonstration project proposed for southwestern Saskatchewan because it was too expensive.

Humans have been harnessing the power of the wind in a variety of ways for millennia, beginning with the development of sailing vessels more than 5,000 years ago. As early as 200 B.C., windmills were being used to grind grain. In the 14th century, the Dutch used windmills to drain the marshes and lakes of the Rhone River delta and create new land. In North America, windmills have been used to grind wheat and corn, pump water and cut wood. It was only natural that, as electricity came into use, windmills were also used to generate electricity.

Generating electricity from wind in many ways is simplicity itself. As the wind blows, it causes the blades of a turbine to turn (because, as the wind flows around the blades, it moves faster on one side of each blade than the other, creating an area of low pressure. The higher pressure on the other side of the blade pushes it in that direction.) The turbine spins a tight coil of copper wire inside a magnetic field, which generates an electrical current in the wire. The turbine is typically placed on a high tower because wind speed is more consistent high above the ground.

As is true of almost every other form of energy, wind power really originates with the sun, because it’s the uneven heating of the Earth’s surface by the sun’s rays that causes the wind to blow.

Wind power got a boost in the 1970s when the price of oil increased, spurring governments all over the world to institute research and development programs. Fossil fuel prices fell again, however, and wind power suffered from technical problems and cost difficulties that caused interest in it to taper off for a while. The foremost technical problem has always been that wind speed is variable, which means the amount of energy produced is variable, which makes it hard to integrate wind power into a conventional power grid. (For that reason, most wind-power generating systems include banks of batteries that store excess energy production when the wind blows hard and feed it into the system when the wind dies away.) The foremost cost problem has been that windmills are expensive to build. Recent technical breakthroughs by European researchers, however, have reduced the cost of wind power to the point that it is competitive with other forms of energy. Last year, the world’s total wind-power generating capability reached 7,200 megawatts–enough energy to supply 1.1 million households. That’s four times the generating capacity of just six years ago, and in another four years, it’s expected to almost triple, to more than 20,000 megawatts.

The benefits of wind power are obvious: the wind itself is free, and a spinning turbine doesn’t pollute (although, of course, manufacturing the turbines and towers in the first place does generate some pollution). The biggest environmental downside is that windfarms take up large amounts of space. However, the towers are quite thin and the turbines are high above the ground, which means that the land surrounding them can be used for other purposes, such as farming or ranching (once the cattle get used to the whirring high above their heads). In fact, a typical windfarm only occupies about five percent of the land it’s installed on.

The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that the world’s winds could potentially supply as much as 10 times the current total world energy demand each year. A more realistic figure of what we might eventually achieve is 20 percent of the current demand. Even that would represent an enormous reduction in global pollution.

Hosea’s prophesy of reaping the wind and sowing the whirlwind was one of doom and despair; but today, farming the wind actually holds great promise for a brighter, cleaner future.

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