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FROM CHINA TO THE US: TEN WIND ENERGY POWERHOUSES

Here, CNBC’s Sustainable Energy looks at ten of the world’s wind energy powerhouses, according to the Global Wind Energy Council’s Global Wind Report 2016. The figures are in megawatts (MW), and represent cumulative capacity in December 2016

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Wind Power as a Viable Solution to Meeting Alternative Energy Needs

Although it is much less expensive to initially get hooked into the local electric company’s grid than it is to set up and hook into wind turbines, in the long run one saves money by utilizing the wind for one’s energy needs—while also becoming more independent. Not receiving an electric bill while enjoying the advantages of the modern electrically-driven lifestyle is a wondrous feeling.

Electric bills and fuel bills are rising steadily—but the cost of wind turbine energy is zero, and the cost of installing and hooking up a turbine is steadily coming down as demand rises and more commercial success is realized by various companies producing the turbines and researching technologies to make them ever more efficient. In addition, people are moving away from the traditional electric grids and the fossil fuels for personal reasons including desire for greater independence, the desire to live remotely or rurally without having to “go primitive”, political concerns such as fears of terrorist strikes on oil fields or power grids, or concerns about the environment. Again, this motivation to get away from the traditional energy sources is the same one that causes people to seek the power of the wind for their energy, giving more business opportunities to profit from wind turbine production and maintenance, which drives their costs down for the consumers. In nearly thirty states at the time of this writing, homeowners who remain on the grid but who still choose to use wind energy (or other alternative forms) are eligible for rebates or tax breaks from the state governments that end up paying for as much as 50% of their total “green” energy systems’ costs. In addition, there are 35 states at the time of this writing where these homeowners are allowed to sell their excess energy back to the power company under what are called “net metering laws”. The rates that they are being paid by the local power companies for this energy are standard retail rates—in other words, the homeowners are actually profiting from their own energy production.

Some federal lawmakers are pushing to get the federal government to mandate these tax breaks and other wind power incentives in all 50 states. Japan and Germany already have national incentive programs in place. However, “A lot of this is handled regionally by state law. There wouldn’t really be a role for the federal government,” the Energy Department’s Craig Stevens says. And as might be imagined, there are power companies who feel that it’s unfair that they should have to pay retail rates to private individuals. “We should [only have to] pay you the wholesale rate for … your electricity,” according to Bruce Bowen, Pacific Gas & Electric’s director of regulatory policy. However, the companies seem to be more worried about losing short term profits than about the benefits, especially in the long run, of the increased use of wind turbines or wind farms. Head of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies of California V. John White points out, “It’s quality power that strengthens the grid.”

Will We Soon Be Riding on Solar Roads?

The Idea Gains Traction

 Countries—U.S., France, Netherlands—are testing ways to pave roads with solar panels. Their plans have skeptics.
 

Solar is popping up just about everywhere, even landfills and parka pockets. So why not roads? Indeed, solar road projects are gaining interest around the world, and some promise to even charge electric cars while moving.

The Netherlands built the first solar road, a bike path, in 2014. France announced a bolder move in January—over the next five years, it plans to install 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) of solar roads, designed to supply power to five million people.

In fact, on December 22, France opened the world’s first solar road for cars, in a Normandy village. The 0.6-mile route in Tourouvre-au-Perche is covered with 2,800 square meters of electricity-generating solar panels. The goal is powering street lighting.

The project, which cost around 5 million Euros, is expected to be used by about 2,000 motorists a day.

German company Solmove aims to bring solar panels to German roads, and Idaho-based Solar Roadways has received three rounds of U.S. government funding (plus $2 million in venture capital) to test its technology.

“We have interested customers from all 50 states and most countries around the world,” says Julie Brusaw, who co-founded Solar Roadways with her engineer husband Scott. She says before hitting the open road, they’re testing their panels in non-critical areas such as parking lots, walkways, and their own driveway.

“We are in talks about some very interesting projects,” she says, noting the Missouri Department of Transportation wants to install the panels at a rest area along the I-70 highway. The couple say their tempered-glass panels offer asphalt-like traction, support the weight of semi-trucks, include LEDs for signage, and contain heating elements to melt snow and ice.

Could solar panels really pave the roads of the future? Proponents see endless possibilities, but others raise questions about cost, efficiency, and durability.

“We just place our solar panels on an existing pavement,” says Jean-Luc Gautier, inventor of the Wattway technology that will be tested this spring in France before its polycrystalline silicon layer is applied to actual roads. Gautier, technical director at construction company Colas, says he was inspired by the fact that roads look at the sky so they can collect solar energy.

Julie and Scott Bursaw, an Idaho couple who co-founded Solar Roadways, poses in front of a prototype for their solar-embedded pavement.

 

PHOTOGRAPH BY SOLAR ROADWAYS

“The sheer amount of surfaces each country devotes to roadways is enormous,” the Bursaws write on their website. “Allowing this space to double as a solar farm could have very positive implications in the battle to put a halt to climate change.” They estimate that their panels, if used in lieu of existing U.S. roads and walkways, could produce more than three times the electricity used in the United States.

Besides, they say their panels could charge electric vehicles, first on solar parking lots. With enough solar highways and cars with the right equipment (to pick up energy from induction plates in the road) they might even be able to charge vehicles while moving.

THE COST CHALLENGE

“In theory, solar PV roadways sound great. The issue is cost.” says Mark Jacobson, an engineering professor at Stanford University who has promoted a plan for powering the U.S. solely with renewable energy. (Read about his blueprint for a carbon-free America.)

“Aside from road dust, particularly black tire dust and diesel exhaust, which will quickly cover a portion of each panel, the continuous traffic covering panels will reduce their solar output,” says Jacobson, adding they’ll likely suffer more wear and tear and need more repairs than other solar panels.

He also says that while they don’t require land acquisition costs, as do solar power plants, their panels cannot be rotated for optimal solar exposure. He expects a solar road won’t be able to compete on cost, but “I’m hopeful it will.”

“Installing photovoltaics in roads seems like a daft idea at first, “says a report last month byIDTechEx, an independent research and consulting firm. “A closer look reveals that most of the problems are easily overcome and even at poor efficiency, that local electricity has viable uses.”

Despite high costs, company chairman Peter Harrop says solar roads might work in places that are putting down roads for the first time. “They need early (technology) adopters like China that want to leapfrog in development.”

In contrast, “I can’t see solar roads in London,” he says, noting the city often digs up its roads for underground repairs.

So far, the Netherlands’ solar path is popular. In its first year, 300,000 bikes and mopeds rode the initial 70-meter (230-foot) stretch connecting two Amsterdam suburbs. Officials say the SolaRoad produced more energy last year than expected—enough to power three households. It’s made of crystalline silicon solar cells, encased in concrete and covered with a translucent layer of tempered glass.

In the U.S., Solar Roadways has received more than $1.5 million from the Department of Transportation over the last six years to develop and test its hexagonal-shaped panels.

“One of the shortcomings Solar Roadways has yet to resolve is the manufacturing process,” two DOT officials wrote in a December post, noting the solar cells are handmade and thus “very costly” to produce. Julie Bursaw says the company’s most recent prototype is less costly to produce, 25 percent more efficident, and easier to install.

The DOT officials, Michael Trentacoste and Robert C. Johns, say the agency has received “a lot of positive feedback” about the project; the company’s promotional video has 21 million views on YouTube. Because the panels can melt snow or keep water from freezing, even with high costs, they say the innovation “could still be useful in smaller areas such as parking lots, sidewalks, driveways, and bike lanes.”

This story was originally published on March 10, 2016 and was updated on December 22, 2016 with information about the opening of the solar road in France.

The story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

On Twitter: Follow Wendy Koch and get more environment and energy coverage at NatGeoEnergy.

 

Home » Wind Energy Guide » Environmental Concerns

Wind energy development environmental concerns include, noise, visual impacts, and avian and bat mortality.

Although wind power plants have relatively little impact on the environment compared to fossil fuel power plants, concerns have been raised over the noise produced by the rotor blades, visual impacts, and deaths of birds and bats that fly into the rotors (avian/bat mortality). These and other concerns associated with wind energy development are discussed below, and are addressed in the Wind Energy Development Programmatic EIS. To get more information about these concerns and access current research, please visit the suggested web sites listed on the Wind Energy Links page.

Noise

Like all mechanical systems, wind turbines produce some noise when they operate. Most of the turbine noise is masked by the sound of the wind itself, and the turbines run only when the wind blows. In recent years, engineers have made design changes to reduce the noise from wind turbines. Early model turbines are generally noisier than most new and larger models. As wind turbines have become more efficient, more of the wind is converted into rotational torque and less into acoustic noise. Additionally, proper siting and insulating materials can be used to minimize noise impacts.

Visual Impacts

Because they must generally be sited in exposed places, wind turbines are often highly visible; however, being visible is not necessarily the same as being intrusive. Aesthetic issues are by their nature highly subjective. Proper siting decisions can help to avoid any aesthetic impacts to the landscape. One strategy being used to partially offset visual impacts is to site fewer turbines in any one location by using multiple locations and by using today’s larger and more efficient models of wind turbines.

Avian/Bat Mortality

Bird and bat deaths are one of the most controversial biological issues related to wind turbines. The deaths of birds and bats at wind farm sites have raised concerns by fish and wildlife agencies and conservation groups. On the other hand, several large wind facilities have operated for years with only minor impacts on these animals.

To try to address this issue, the wind industry and government agencies have sponsored research into collisions, relevant bird and bat behavior, mitigation measures, and appropriate study design protocols. In addition, project developers are required to collect data through monitoring efforts at existing and proposed wind energy sites. Careful site selection is needed to minimize fatalities and in some cases additional research may be needed to address bird and bat impact issues.

While structures such as smokestacks, lighthouses, tall buildings, and radio and television towers have also been associated with bird and bat kills, bird and bat mortality is a serious concern for the wind industry.

Other Concerns

Unlike most other generation technologies, wind turbines do not use combustion to generate electricity, and hence don’t produce air emissions. The only potentially toxic or hazardous materials are relatively small amounts of lubricating oils and hydraulic and insulating fluids. Therefore, contamination of surface or ground water or soils is highly unlikely. The primary health and safety considerations are related to blade movement and the presence of industrial equipment in areas potentially accessible to the public. An additional concern associated with wind turbines is potential interference with radar and telecommunication facilities. And like all electrical generating facilities, wind generators produce electric and magnetic fields.