Though mankind has harnessed the wind for centuries to produce energy, interest in this method of power generation has recently intensified as a result of both increases in conventional energy costs and the debate over the extent of humanity’s responsibility for climate change.
Policy-makers and generating companies are considering the extent to which wind power can serve as a viable and sustainable alternative to fossil fuels, and are already determining how to encourage wider use at all levels.
Historically farmers and millers were the chief users of wind power – for irrigation and grain milling respectively – and this trend carried on with farmers and others in isolated communities being foremost among the early users of windmills to provide electricity. Recent advances in technology have led to the appearance of large-scale wind farms, and it is these that governments are looking at as a solution to problems with increasing energy prices and climate change. There may be debate as to the extent of human involvement in the latter, but for now most governments are set on reducing reliance on fossil fuels so the issues surrounding wind power must be considered.
Many government initiatives have been designed to facilitate construction of large scale wind power facilities, commonly known as wind farms. Designed to complement or even replace conventional power stations, wind farms supply power to the grid for distribution to domestic and commercial users. The main benefit is the efficiency in power generation gained from economies of scale: a large scale wind farm will be far more effective at producing electricity than a collection of small scale generators. Cost, though, is a brake on the construction of more large scale wind farms, especially at sea. In the present financial climate companies are becoming increasingly wary of investing in projects that will have little chance of seeing a return, or in projects that often run into objections from local groups, for instance land-based wind farms.
Small scale wind power – provided mainly by individual generators for homes and businesses – does not suffer from such opposition, but implementation still has to satisfy local planning authorities. The main problem with it seems to be new research which indicates that due to reduced wind speeds in around concentrations of buildings, wind generators do not provide as much power in cities as in rural areas. However this is disputed, and the potential savings combined with ease of installation and the availability of grants and incentives for the adoption of small scale wind power mean that its future seems brighter than that of larger scale wind power projects.
Indeed, it seems that a proliferation of small wind power generators is the best chance wind power has of providing an alternative to fossil fuels, with generating capacity widely distributed and in the hands of consumers rather than centralised and in the hands of traditional generating companies. It is ironic, but wind power seems to be going full circle, from small-scale local generation through large-scale national projects and back to small scale again, with governments and multinationals having little say in the matter: a true democratisation of energy supply.