From basic windmills used to pump water to 1.5 MW mega machines weighing up to 164 tons, the way wind is harvested for energy has made huge improvements in the last century. It's basically the difference between a Ford Model T and a Shelby Mustang. Even better, the wind energy industry is just hitting its stride and there are more exciting things coming soon. And, as more people see the potential of renewable energy, they'll keep breaking themselves away from fossil fuel. This will mean more wind energy jobs and a more sustainable future for everyone.
1. Size counts
In the world of wind energy bigger is better. In 30 years, turbines have gotten four times taller and rotors have gone from 150 feet to about 400 feet in diameter! That extra wingspan means the blades are running through a larger area. This, combined with taller towers that can reach winds that are further from the Earth's surface, has upped the efficiency of wind turbines and driven down costs. While this growth is reaching its ceiling (eventually the turbines' weight will overshadow the efficiency benefit), right now it means wind energy is becoming less expensive.
2. Low is the new high
Wind energy has always had the need for speed. The quest to place wind turbines in areas of high wind have limited the possibilities for wind farm sites. But, a new innovation, the vortex generator (VG), is changing that. The VG is a small, simple fin that's smaller than a wallet and attaches to wind turbine blades. VGs actually attract wind and help it attach to the blade to keep it from scattering in different directions. This means turbines are more easily able to harvest medium and low speed winds.
3. The good and the bad of incentives
Government incentives are both good and bad for wind energy. On the good side, incentives, like the Production Tax Credit, encourage private investments in the industry. That kind of investment makes prices lower and increases available jobs. At the same time, the bad news is that when those incentives stop, often so does investment in the wind energy industry. So far the wind industry has been able to ride out all the ups and downs, but this relationship may not be able to stay the same forever.
4. A very particular set of skills
Like Liam Neeson in Taken, being a wind turbine technician takes a very particular set of skills. More and more of those skills are learned in colleges and other training programs. But, that wasn't always the case. A few years ago much of the training happened on the job. Today, there are training programs that teach things like the fundamentals of electricity, circuitry, safety protocols, basic business principles and the ins and outs of power generation. As wind turbines become more sophisticated and have more electronic parts, getting more formalized training will become increasingly important.
5. Wind's role in the smart grid
The power system in the U.S. is old school, really old school. The country is still using a system that was built in the 1890s – that's before smart phones, computers and even the first electric refrigerator! This impacts the cost of electricity. For example, there's more than a 10-cent difference between what people in New York pay versus people in Washington. Many experts think the answer is the smart grid. The smart grid works more like the internet, where there's information going in and out of a house which means if a particular house is using more or less electricity the grid can respond better. In the future wind turbines will be part of the smart grid making it more stable and standardizing electric rates across the country.
6. After-market parts
Some of the oldest wind turbines are still under warranty so even though there are better, more efficient components available they can't be installed. That's like trying to restore a 1971 Monte Carlo using factory parts issued forty years ago! These warranties will be expiring in the coming years which means technicians will have the freedom to use different components, often with better technology making the turbines cheaper and more efficient.