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Wind energy: how does it work? Is it renewable?


Humans have relied on the power of wind for centuries to carry out daily activities, using windmills for processes like grinding grain or pumping water. Today, contemporary turbines use wind energy, a natural, auto-replenishing, and therefore renewable resource, to generate electricity.

How wind energy works

Wind energy refers to the ways in which wind is used to produce mechanical power or electricity. Wind energy is actually a sub-form of solar energy, since it relies on processes that begin with the sun. Three events must happen simultaneously for wind to be produced. The Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy of the United States government describes them as follows: “The sun unevenly hitting the atmosphere, irregularities of the earth’s surface, and the rotation of the earth.”

In even simpler terms, for wind to arise, first the sun must warm a portion of land and the air above it. Once that hot air rises, cooler air will come along to replace it, creating a gust of wind.

Wind turbines are the main tools used to harness wind power. It may be helpful to visualize wind turbines as fans in reverse to understand how they function. While electricity powers fans to create artificial wind, wind turbines use wind to generate electricity, relying on the force generated by their propeller-like rotor blades. Blades are spun, and the pressure sets off a chain of events: the rotor and internal shaft begin rotating, too, reaching, in some cases, up to 60 revolutions per minute. As described by The Scientific American, “The ultimate goal is to spin an assembly of magnets in a generator which will generate voltage in a coil of wire thanks to electromagnetic induction.”

How wind energy works

Wind energy uses

For our busy modern society, electricity and, secondarily, water pumping are the most relevant day-to-day uses of wind energy. Recreational activities like sailing, kite-flying, and windsurfing also harness the power of wind, albeit for less urgent purposes or universal needs.

A shift toward using wind energy in transport is also occurring, likely as an outgrowth of more companies becoming conscious of their carbon footprints. For example, some commercial fishing vessels and sectors that use cargo ships have installed large kites to cut back on their fuel consumption.

Advantages of wind energy

Wind energy is renewable because it stems from a limitless natural resource. It boasts many advantages over both non-renewables, like fossil fuels, and other renewable energy sources like hydropower. According to the International Energy Agency, onshore wind and solar photovoltaic systems are the two least expensive ways of introducing new electricity-generating plants. Wind energy is broadly considered to be the best renewable energy source because it is also categorically considered green and clean. Wind energy is clean energy because it derives from a zero-emissions source and does not pollute the atmosphere. This also helps mitigate the risk of environmental disasters.