Thursday, September 14, 2006

Wind Power on the Illinois Horizon

Link to University YMCA Friday Forum page.

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

Wind has an immediate impact on us just about any time we step out of doors. In winter a blast from the north adds insult to the injury of January’s bitter cold. On a summer day, even a slight breeze provides a touch of relief from the heat. But wind has the potential to play a much more significant role in our lives in the near future, as we harness its energy to produce electricity on a large scale.

Capturing wind energy to generate electricity is not new. Americans first used wind to generate electric power more than a hundred years ago, when a windmill with a fifty-six-foot-wide blade could produce about twelve kilowatts.

The scale of wind energy projects today is entirely different. Most of the high-tech, utility-style wind turbines being manufactured now generate between seven and eighteen-hundred kilowatts—up to a hundred-fifty times more than the electricity produced by the first wind turbines. Today’s turbines are much larger than their predecessors, with blades more than two hundred feet wide, and they convert wind to electricity much more efficiently.

The U.S. Department of Energy rates the potential for wind energy in most of Illinois as “fair,” but there are also areas that fall into the “good” category. If the potential were fully developed, it is estimated that power generated from these areas could meet between five and ten percent of current use.

At present there are four major wind energy projects operating in Illinois, and together they generate enough electricity to meet the demands of 25,000 to 30,000 households. A number of other proposed projects would quadruple that capacity.

One of these projects is coming to the UIUC campus in the near future thanks to the “Clean Energy Technology Fee” that students assess themselves, a grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, and capital support from the University.

The plan is for the University to build and operate three one-and-a-half megawatt turbines. These turbines will be more than three hundred feet tall at the tip of an extended blade, and they’ll occupy a site on the new South Farms. Together they will provide just under three percent of the electricity used on campus.

The U of I’s wind turbines will also serve as a demonstration for landowners who might be interested in wind energy, and for teaching and research by U of I faculty and students.

None of this is to say wind energy is without drawbacks. Today’s turbines really loom over the landscape, and they’re not the sort of thing many people want to look at in otherwise unspoiled natural settings. In addition, they affect wildlife to some degree although careful siting and design can minimize their impact.

On the whole, the tradeoffs are compelling. Wind energy generates electricity without producing greenhouse gases or other air pollution, and it entails none of the immediate or long term environmental problems associated with nuclear power.

Credit for the information in today’s spot goes to Matt Malten, sustainability coordinator at UIUC. [You can learn more about wind energy in Illinois from his article in the Spring 2006 issue of The Illinois Steward magazine.]

You can learn more about efforts to make the U of I a testing ground for environmental sustainability at a talk tomorrow by Bill Sullivan, director of the UIUC Environmental Council. He’ll be speaking at noon at the University YMCA as part of the Friday Forum series, which is this Fall devoted entirely to environmental issues.