Great Plains communities are again connecting with the iconic windmill. Although the 250 ft. ivory giants are a far cry from the iconic steel structures of yesteryear, their purpose, to harvest the unrelenting prairie wind, remains unchanged.
Wind has been part of energy production for more than 2,000 years.
Persian windmills are believed to have been powering machines as far back as 200 B.C.E.
Early 1900’s farmers in Denmark constructed more than 2,500 windmills to power their milling and pumping. European windmills peaked at nearly 200,000 before being replaced by steam and combustion engines during the industrial revolution.
By the 1930’s the Great Plains of the United States were inundated with the steel and wood windmill, a hallmark of the family farm. Most of these, now iconic, pieces of machinery were used to extract water from underground wells. The image of these creaking, whirling and cross-beamed structures became such an ingrained part of mid-century farming culture, many townships and counties incorporated images of the windmill into their official logos.
Modern energy demands and steady increases in fossil fuels has afforded the windmill a second look and a technological facelift.
The modern horizontal wind turbine uses kinetic energy from the wind to create mechanical energy.
The structure, which can range from 200 to 300 feet tall, is aimed at the wind and typically employs three “blades” to catch the incoming wind. The blades can range in size from 60 to 150 ft. in length.
Wind speeds can vary the rotation of the blades, which are capable to making more than 20 rotations per minute at speeds approaching 300 ft. per second.
The complex motors are equipped with internal gearboxes, generators and brakes. The braking systems can prevent damage in extremely strong winds.
Aerodynamic modeling is done prior to construction to maximize wind currents.
As with any energy source, there are benefits and drawbacks.
Wind power produced no greenhouse gases, consumes no fossil fuels and creates no by-products during energy production.
Construction of new wind farms and turbines in the United States has also created a new sector for skilled laborers. According to the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) in Colorado, a single maintenance worker is required for every 12-15 turbines.
For farmers, land leases can be lucrative and farmland is still useable as the structures are dispersed over large areas, as opposed to the large facilities required for other energy production facilities. Landowners can receive $3,000 - $5,000 per turbine annually, with some receiving additional money relative to the energy produced.
But the variable nature of wind can create inconsistency.
Traditional energy production can produce consistent and on-demand energy through regulation and supply.
Particularly in extremely cold and extremely hot temperatures, coal, natural gas and nuclear energy production can be increased or decreased to meet energy needs. Many states have “peak” power plants, which can be turned off and on when additional power is needed.
Page 2 of 2 - Wind power cannot be produced in this way, as wind is unpredictable. Many researchers believe that an increase in wind farms will help, assuming that it will always be windy somewhere.
Critics have also taken issue with the appearance of the turbines and the noise they can create.
The cost of wind energy has also been a point of contention, although analysts predict a continued reduction of per-kWH costs as production of turbines are increased. A 2011 report by the American Wind Energy Association stated that the cost of wind energy has continued to drop nationally, reaching 5 or 6 cents per kilo-watt hour, “about 2 cents cheaper than coal fired electricity.”
The Kansas Energy Information Network (KEIN) has estimated that more than 40 new wind farms are being proposed across Kansas.