Wind energy is a hot topic these days, which isn’t surprising considering wind power could account for a third of the world’s energy supply by 2050. To help you get your head around the stats, we’ve compiled a run-down of the best wind energy myth-busters and did-you-knows. Here’s our insider’s guide to everything you need to get stuck into wind energy, in 8 easy facts…
1. Newsflash - wind energy is really a form of solar energy
Sure, wind energy is a sustainable energy source, but a type of solar power? Let’s unleash some science to explain this one. The uneven heating of the ground and the Earth’s rotation causes different atmospheric pressures to form in the air. Warm air rises, cold air sinks and the result is a gust of wind. Once the sun’s warmed up the Earth and set off this chain of events though, it’s up to power companies to put the wind turbine somewhere the flow of wind won’t be interrupted. Bodies of open water and land let the wind pick up, whilst peaks and dips in forests and hills slow it down.
2. Steady now, strong winds won’t help you…
As strange as it sounds, you wouldn’t build your wind turbine somewhere prone to sudden gusts of wind. Obstacles, like buildings, cause turbulence because they break up the steady flow of wind. This turbulence actually damage the turbine’s blades and reduce their lifespan – which makes the upkeep expensive. In reality, the best place to install a turbine is somewhere with a regular, steady flow of wind. In the sea or on a hill is perfect, but towns and cities are best avoided. And why are wind turbines so tall? This is because, the higher up you are, the faster the wind speed will be.
3. … but some simple physics will. So, how do wind turbines actually work?
Glad you asked. When the wind blows, it causes the blades of the wind turbine to spin – just like an old-fashioned windmill. This movement turns a rotor at the heart of the turbine, which boosts the speed of the spin. A generator then turns this speed and energy into electricity.
Still with us? Good, because here’s where it gets clever. Just like traditional power stations, wind turbines are connected to the National Grid. The electricity in the turbine flows through a transformer, which increases the voltage of the charge. It’s then distributed over the National Grid network. Pretty smart, right?
4. Wind farms are built to last
Wind turbines can last up to 25 years, and are built to withstand some pretty tough conditions. Offshore wind farms, in particular, need to be strong enough to stand up to strong sea winds, and corrosion. To do this, the steel base is built directly into the sea bed or onto solid stilts, depending on how deep the sea bed is. For example, E.ON’s own Humber Gateway wind farm was built 15 meters under the water, and rests on foundations installed in the seabed.
Once the base is in position, builders then stack and slot sections of the turbine on top of one another to create the tower. As soon as the tower is complete, it’s time to lift the rotor and blades. The blades are already assembled, so a crane has to slowly pull them up and slot them on to the top of the tower. The result is a seriously sturdy tower.
Once the hardware is in place, it’s time to do the clever bit behind the scenes. The electrical cables are run along the sea-bed and back to the shore. From there, the cables are connected to the transformer and the grid. Think of it like a really long, very waterproof extension cable.
5. … and you can even create your own wind turbine
Goggles at the ready, because wind farms aren’t always built by the government or energy companies. People can – and do – create their own turbines and generate their own power. To create a mini turbine, you need blades for the propellers, an axis, a generator and a transformer – plus some good instructions on how to put it all together. Once your wind turbine is up and running, you can even get paid for the energy you generate by connecting your windmill to the National Grid through a Feed-in Tariff.
6. Wind farms can actually help marine life flourish…
Worried about the impact on local wildlife? No need! Some very clever scientists have recently proven that offshore wind farms can actually benefit animals, and in particular local marine life. The solid banks below wind farms form ‘artificial reefs’, where shellfish and crustaceans can breed and where fish can find shelter and protection from trawlers. From there, colonies of seals flock to nestle on the banks of the turbines and to feed on the crabs and cod beneath the waves.
7. … and protect their future
Not only do wind farms offer localised benefits, but longer term advantages for wildlife too. Renewable energy sources like wind power reduce CO2 emissions. More CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere traps greenhouse gases, which results in global warming. By keeping our emissions low, we are protecting the future of our planet’s animals and ensuring continued biodiversity in the UK. Phew.
8. Wind energy is a bigger part of the energy mix than you might think…
But surely wind energy is just a tiny proportion of the UK’s power? Well, actually, no. The UK produces more wind energy than you might think. 4% of the UK’s total energy output now comes from wind – and this will only increase over the next decade and beyond. By 2030, an impressive 40% of the UK’s energy is expected to come from renewable sources.
Energy companies are investing more in renewables such as wind energy: there are currently over 900 wind projects across the UK. E.ON’s Humber Gateway farm is just one of these and it can produce enough electricity to power 170,000 homes. That’s equal to 1.5 times the number of houses in nearest city, Hull.
Think that sounds good? There’s more. Not only is the UK’s energy portfolio looking greener every year, but we’re topping our European neighbours as well – as a country, we actually have more offshore wind turbines than the rest of Europe combined. Not bad for a little island, right?
So there you have it. All of the information you’ll need to channel your inner science geek and bust those common wind energy myths!