Catching the wind: Turbines play key role in renewable energy

As California considers boosting its use of renewable energy, wind power is playing an increasingly important role.

Wind turbines, which  represent a major source of renewable energy, are not to be confused with windmills, which grind stones, cut lumber and pump water.

Wind turbines are often placed together in large fields called wind farms, which are large scale green energy producers. The United States is the world’s top producer of wind turbine energy, and California is the third biggest wind-producing state in the country, with 2,723 megawatts of energy generated in the first quarter of 2010.

California’s investment in wind energy has created several wind farms throughout the state. Currently, 95 percent of wind energy comes from wind farms located in Altamont Pass near San Francisco, in one of the country’s oldest farms that has been around since the 1970s and uses older models.

Other wind farms are located at Tehachapi near Bakersfield and San Gorgonio near Palm Springs.

According to the California Energy Commission, these wind farms generated 1.5 percent of the state’s power in 2004, which is enough to completely light San Francisco, and 2.3 percent of the power in 2006.

The California Wind Energy Institute suggests that turbines could produce 20 percent of wind energy by 2020, which is their stated goal.
Though wind turbines do provide renewable energy, they also cause a few problems.

Noise is sometimes an issue. Wind farms take up large amounts of land, with 17 acres for an average wind farm, though farmers and grazing cattle can still utilize the land around the wind turbines. The turbines also present an unlikely source of brushfires through short circuits. Perhaps the biggest downside to wind turbines is their danger to birds.

The Altamont Wind Farm annually kills 4,700 birds, including 1,300 birds of prey and 70 federally protected Golden Eagles. The fast-moving, small blades used by the older turbines at Altamont Wind Farm are seen as responsible for bird deaths, with the newer large-bladed and slow moving modern turbines presenting little dangers to fowl.

Wind turbines first appeared in large numbers during the oil crises of the 1970s and came to prominence in the ‘80s thanks to government tax deductions and subsidies. Today, the federal government still maintains programs to support wind farms. California offers tax rebates for Small Wind Energy Generation Systems – privately owned wind turbines that generate 50 kilowatts or less.

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