Sustainability Column: Harnessing the Wind to Power Our Cities

In the North Sea, off the coast of England, one of the biggest wind farms in the world has just finished construction, supplying 1.2 gigawatts of renewable power to England, providing electricity for over 1 million English homes. The project is called Hornsea One, and it’s the first phase of three in a massive undertaking, an offshore wind farm to supply England’s power. These wind turbines are different than most that we see while driving around, the blades of these turbines are 80 meters (260 feet) long each. On the North Sea, there is nearly constant wind, which makes these turbines much more effective than inland turbines, where the wind fluctuates much more. 

Renewable energy gets cheaper every year, allowing it to better compete with fossil fuels. However, renewables struggle to create reliability. The sun isn’t always out, and the wind isn’t always blowing, at least so we thought. The wind is always blowing out in places like the North Sea, where these wide-open oceanic corridors allow for the wind to blow unobstructed. In the electricity and utilities industry, there is a thing called base load power, which is essentially the minimum amount of power that has to be generated at any time in order to keep the lights on. Base load energy is typically supplied by coal or natural gas plants, because these plants can control how much energy they produce at the flip of a switch. Now these offshore wind projects have the capacity to replace coal or natural gas as the base load power supplier. Nuclear had been the only “renewable” supplier able to provide base load power before offshore wind, but nuclear power comes with its own set of problems, including meltdowns and storage of waste, to name a few. Offshore wind farms like Hornsea will likely become more and more popular in the future as a way to provide base load power for huge, metropolitan, coastal cities around the world as we continue to invest in renewable technologies. 

So great, we can get all of this power if we live near a windy corridor on the coast, but what if we don’t? What are we supposed to do in Hamilton, NY? Wind farms inland have actually been seeing success as well. Take Fenner Wind Farm, for example. Located in Madison County, it’s been running for the past 20 years providing the surrounding area with 30 megawatts of renewable power per day. 

Because it is inland, unlike Hornsea One, Fenner has to rent the land it builds its turbines on and being in upstate New York, they rent from farmers. This renting takes up very little space, only roughly 100 square feet, and it puts money in the pockets of farmers, about $3000 per year per turbine. This is a great way to “win over” those who typically may not be in support of renewable energy. 

However, Fenner supplies a very small fraction of the county’s electricity. If we wanted to improve our sustainability we would need to use other sources of renewable power. While wind energy continues to grow, Colgate is far from the coast and wind will need to be supplemented. Solar and geothermal are two great examples of ways to supplement the wind energy boom. With proper investment and commitment to a transition away from fossil fuels, hopefully wind farms can continue to grow in the United States and around the world, maybe even to a point where Colgate could utilize this renewable energy source.