Modern society runs on one thing – electricity.
It is the form of energy that powers almost all of the tools that makes 21st-Century human life so much more comfortable than it was as few as six decades ago. Nearly everyone of us now can carry in our pockets a device more powerful than possibly could be imagined just 30 years ago, thanks to electricity.
Without it, we’d still be cranking our car engines by hand and watching our children die from what have become easily treatable maladies, thanks to modern, electrically powered, medical equipment. What we humans can do with just a few magnets and some coils of copper wire – which is basically all the hardware it takes to generate an electrical current – is truly amazing.
To generate electricity, one spins a coil of conductive wire, usually copper, between the two poles of a magnet. That’s the very basic principal behind just about every electrical device that we use. One of the few exceptions is a solar or photovoltaic cell.
In order to spin that coil of wire, though, one needs to expend energy. If one does this by hand, the energy that one uses comes from the food that one eats. Turning cranks is really not something that anyone wants to do all day, so we human beings have figured out a few ways to turn our wire coils a bit more quickly and without need of our constant attention.
By far, the most popular method is heating water into steam and using the steam to turn a wheel or turbine that turns the wire coil. We heat this water by burning coal, gas or oil. Sometimes we even split an atom or two. All of these methods release much more energy than some guy turning a crank.
What does all this have to do with central South Dakota, one may ask? Well, a while back, some folks figured out that they could turn their wire coils with windmills, which use the energy of wind currents to power machines. Now, there’s a California-based corporation intending to build a massive wind farm in Hughes County.
Wind power has been gaining in popularity as society pushes for “cleaner” sources of energy. Burning stuff tends to have some negative consequences. In the case of coal, for example, there’s acid rain. For other fossil fuels such as natural gas, there’s the release of once-trapped carbon back into the atmosphere, which most scientists believe is contributing to changes in the Earth’s climate.
Splitting atoms, on the other hand, tends to be kinda scary for most folks. They don’t see nuclear power as much of an option, despite it’s lack of carbon – or any other greenhouse gas – emissions and surprisingly good safety record.
Wind turbines, on the other hand, don’t directly emit carbon, though there are some emissions from building, transporting and assembling them. Wind turbines also aren’t as scary as nuclear power plants, which have been much maligned by popular culture.
There are, however, a couple of major drawbacks to generating electricity with wind turbines at a utility scale. The most obvious drawback is the surface area that industrial wind farms require. Hundreds of turbines must be spread across many square miles in order for a wind farm to be commercially viable. This is more than a little aesthetically displeasing. Some folks may be willing to put up with the noise and marring of the skyline, others will not. Lincoln County has been dealing with this same issue and it’s been pretty contentious. Is a wind farm worth the societal discord that one of these projects inevitably causes?
Turbines annually kill hundreds of thousands of birds and bats, some of which are threatened or endangered. Hughes County also is adjacent to the Missouri River, which is a flight path for a wide range of migratory bird species including bald eagles, falcons, several types of hawk, ducks and geese – birds that don’t typically fly into windows. There’s even some research out of the United Kingdom that shows that wind turbines may have an impact on deer populations. What impact will wind turbines have on wildlife and is that worth the reward?
Efficiency is another question mark. The wind doesn’t always blow. Because there’s no way to store excess, wind-generated electricity for those times when there’s not enough wind, we’ve got to have a backup in place. Right now, that means coal or natural gas. What happens to those big, ugly wind turbines when a cleaner, cheaper, more efficient source of electricity is discovered?
Wind power may not be right for Hughes County.
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding