The renewable energy industry is a powerful agent for global change. Not only does it increase the amount of clean energy generated on a year-over-year basis, but the costs for creating that electricity continue to drop in terms of manufacturing, generation, distribution, and more. This is especially true for wind energy, which has decreased in price by 69% over the last decade.1
While Chariot Energy provides exclusively 100% solar energy plans to Texas residential customers, we wanted to highlight the important role that wind energy plays in the greater green energy marketplace.2 In this article, we’ll examine the following:
- What wind energy is
- How it’s created
- Applications for wind energy
- A comparison of solar and wind
- The future of the wind energy industry
If we’re going to convert everyone away from fossil fuels and achieve energy independence, we’ll need to create a holistic strategy that encompasses every form of sustainable energy.
The Definition of Wind Energy
At its most fundamental, wind energy represents the harnessing of the breeze to productive ends.3 This can mean generated electricity, grinding grain, sailing ships, and more. Wind itself is created when the sun heats the surface of the earth unevenly, courtesy of the rotation of the earth, changes in temperature and pressure and Earth not being perfectly round or smooth.4
However, for the purposes of this article, we’ll define wind energy as any electricity created by wind blowing across the blades of a turbine to spin a generator.5 Using that definition, there are three primary forms of wind energy:
Land-based wind farms
If you’ve ever driven through West Texas or Southern Oklahoma, you might have seen large gatherings of towering wind turbines.6 These powerful machines work together to generate electricity in large amounts. It’s then purchased by the local utility company and sent to the electricity grid to be used by the public.
You might have also seen a single wind turbine spinning in the middle of some farmland. In this instance, the farmer decided to power their farm with wind energy instead of drawing electricity from the grid.7 Also known as “small wind,” the “distributed” part comes in when the farmer sells any excess wind energy to the grid to offset the grid electricity used when the wind isn’t blowing.8 For the same reasons, you’ll often see farmers use rooftop solar panels in conjunction with a turbine.
Offshore wind turbines
Think of these as supersized wind farms.9 These are larger, more powerful, and more efficient at creating electricity than their land-based counterparts, with many of them standing taller than the Statue of Liberty. This is necessary because they receive wind with greater consistency and intensity, as the surface of the ocean is flat instead of rolling and varied like the land.
How is Wind Energy Created?
The technology behind wind energy has existed for centuries. It’s how windmills ground grain on family and feudal farms.10 Using wind turbines to create electricity has been possible since the invention of the generator in the 1800s.11 And in both cases, the idea is remarkably the same:
- The wind blows across the blades of the turbine.
- This kinetic energy spins them in a clockwise direction.
- The rotation of the blades spins a drive shaft inside the body of the turbine.
- That shaft then sets a gearbox spinning, increasing the speed by a factor of 100.
- The kinetic energy of the gearbox spinning is funneled to the generator, creating electricity.
- The electricity is then sent out of the nacelle and down the main tower.
- After leaving the main tower, it passes through a transformer so it can be added to the electricity grid.
At this point, that pure wind energy mixes in with all the other electricity in the grid, whether it’s solar power, geothermal energy, or electricity from fossil fuels.
What is Wind Energy Used For?
Historically, wind energy has been a powerful means of propulsion and tremendous labor-saving help.12 It’s powered sailing vessels traverse bodies of water both large and small, spun windmills on granaries, fueled sawmills, and even helped drain bodies of water. But with the rise of electricity generated by wind, you can now power the following with renewable energy from wind:
- Your home
- Your business
- Your factory
- Your farm
- Your community center
The possibilities are literally endless, just like the wind!
What is Cheaper: Solar or Wind Energy?
We get this question a lot at Chariot Energy, especially from eco-friendly customers who want to do their part to increase the use of renewable energy around the world. Even though we are an electricity company specializing in solar power, we appreciate hearing that people want to use more sustainable energy sources for their homes and businesses.
Thus, we want to provide a decent comparison of these two energy sources that’s relevant to people who sign up for green energy plans and those who want to invest in the actual technology. That being said, the short answer is: “It depends.”13
Current Costs for Solar Energy
In 2018, the “Global Weighted Average” for generating electricity from photovoltaics was 8.5 cents per kWh, a 13% reduction from the 2017 price alone.14 In the same year, the national average for installing a solar panel system on an average home was between $16,200 and $21,400, before factoring in any federal tax credit.15
However, not everyone can install solar panels on their home, as they could be renters, have too much tree coverage, or simply can’t afford the upfront cost of installation. Additionally, the price you might see for a solar energy plan in your area can vary dramatically, and not every utility company provides renewable energy options for their customers.
Current Costs for Wind Energy
The “Global Weighted Average” in 2018 for creating electricity from land-based wind farms was 5.6 cents per kWh, also a 13% decrease from 2017.16 Research also states it can cost up to $5,000 for every kilowatt of power generation a house needs. Thus, that average house above would require about 8 kW of energy for everyday use, resulting in a wind turbine that costs about $40,000.
Much like solar panels, getting a turbine for your home isn’t feasible for everyone. This is especially true for suburban and urban locales that place firm deed and homeowner’s association restrictions on building such devices. Similar issues with buying a wind energy plan for your home, as not every utility company or retail electric provider delivers such options.
Hence, the answer is quite relative to your situation and location. Yes, solar panels are technically cheaper to install than wind energy, but both are also limited by the fact that you can’t draw electricity from them all the time. In a perfect situation, you could install both of them for your home — solar for the daytime and wind for the night — and both would pay for themselves in terms of return on investment before you need to replace them.
What is the Future Potential of Wind Energy?
The entire wind energy industry is currently enjoying lower costs for both generation and home energy plans, thanks to enhancements in technology.17 The long-term health of wind power will depend on three specific situations, all of which call for even more research and development than ever before.
As of 2018, the United States has over 96,000 megawatts of installed wind generation, enough capacity to power 30 million American homes. That’s an 8% increase over 2017, and the current projects in development across the country will eventually create an additional 35,000 MW of capacity.18 In fact, Texas alone is the 5th largest generator of wind energy in the world.
Currently, most wind turbines operate at 45-50% efficiency in terms of converting the air that blows past the rotors into electricity.19 The theoretical limit of this efficiency is 60%, also known as the Betz Limit.20 Hence, there are improvements to be made, but the true increases in the efficacy of the technology lie in other sectors.
Developments in Distribution and Storage
Much like solar power, the long-term viability of wind energy is markedly dependent on improving how electricity is saved and sent.21 This is especially pertinent because of the intermittent nature of when and how the wind blows. Yes, we have ever-growing levels of wind energy capacity, but not we don’t always need all that energy at once. Until we can locate more efficient ways to store electricity from wind energy when supply outstrips demand, wind energy will always trail more reliable forms of energy.
The future of wind energy is just as bright as that of solar power! Both industries are continually growing in terms of long-term employment, capital investment, and sustainable energy capacity. Chariot Energy is excited to cheer on our wind energy friends!