As you travel America’s interstates, more and more you’ll come across some of the largest and cleanest farms you’ll ever see. What they produce, though, will never make it to the dinner table. Rather, what they produce will aid in the preparation of what’s for dinner. They’re wind farms; they harvest their crop right out of thin air. And the ‘crop’ lights the lights, heats the homes and provides a new, clean source of energy in the 21st century.
Wind turbines work on a very simple principle. The turbines capture the energy created by wind and convert it into electrical power. They work essentially the same way windmills have for centuries. They have taken one of nature’s most ubiquitous forces---wind---and harnessed it for a greater good.
Windfarms can both dominate and mesmerize. They are gigantic. A typical tower is between 82-96 meters high, approximately 282-300 feet. The world’s tallest tower resides in Germany. It tops out at 584 feet with blades stretching more than 800 feet in length.
In an environmentally conscious world, utility companies are betting on wind as they move gradually away from carbon-based fuels. “In the last couple of years wind has become competitive,” said Tony Knopp, Vice President of Vestas Wind Energy located in Pueblo. The era of green energy has also created a need for a round the clock workforce at the Pueblo plant. Knopp estimates he has approximately 900 workers.
Over the last forty years, energy companies have learned that the cleanliness, abundance and practicality of wind as an energy source have made it a no-lose proposition.
“We build towers and blades,” said the affable Knopp. But Pueblo is just one Vestas site in Colorado. To keep up with the demand for its product, it also runs operations in Brighton and Windsor. All tolled, Vestas statewide workforce is around 6,000.
Choosing a location for a windfarm might seem like an easy choice. It is not, said Knopp. It’s not as simple as eyeballing a site. “We do is wind studies,” said Knopp. “It might take two years,” of study to make a final decision. Another part of any pre-build decision is a close-up look at how any windfarm will impact the environment. As perfect as a site might seem, no one site will be perfect. And no project is without unintended consequences.
“We do kill birds,” he candidly admits. But in the next breath, Knopp added that Vestas and the utility that will operate the windfarm do everything they can to minimize bird deaths well in advance of any construction. “Before a project is put together, an environmental study is done.” Everything that can be known, including bird migratory patterns, is known before a single shovel-full of dirt is turned.
From a distance it may be hard to judge the speed of the rotating blades. But they move faster than most would guess. Each turbine moves at sixteen revolutions per minute. But it’s the outer tip of a blade---which can stretch a hundred feet from tip to tip –where the speed is greatest. There speeds can reach “248 miles per hour,” said Knopp.
Since he has been in office, President Trump has spoken about energy but most often his focus has been on coal and not renewables. But coal, while not history---in energy terms---is yesterday. Renewables, wind and solar, are the future. Solar now employs twice as many workers nationwide as coal. There are also more than 100,000 workers in wind energy.
While wind turbines still are not perfect---environmental, aesthetic and noisiness---they have much to tout. “Wind has become affordable,” said Knopp. Once in the ground, said Knopp, a turbine “uses no water and generates no carbon dioxide.” It also has a life of up to four decades.
The state’s largest windfarm sits on the eastern plains south of Limon. “It has 300 turbines and generates enough power for more than 245,000 homes,” he said. But that designation may only be temporary. Government mandates, falling costs and federal incentives requiring cleaner air have all factored into the 42 percent growth in the industry in the last few years, Knopp said.
Energy’s future, as the song says, may actually be blowing in the wind.