Global Wind Day: The power of wind

Windmills have been used for centuries to convert power into energy, from the early models using sails to the ultramodern, sleek blades generating green energy today.

A view of ancient windmills of Nashtifan in Khaf, Razavi Khorasan Province, Iran

These windmills in Nashtifan, northeastern Iran, are among the oldest in the world. Made of clay, straw and wood and standing up to 20 meters (65 feet) tall, they’ve been catching the area’s strong winds to grind grains into flour for centuries. One of the few such windmills still in operation, they were registered as a national heritage site by Iran’s Cultural Heritage Department in 2002.

View of windmills at Zaanse Schans in Netherlands at sunset

Early Persian models inspired the classic windmills of Europe, which have become a symbol of the Netherlands. Used to power industry and pump water out of the lowlands, there are still around 1,000 Dutch windmills left today. Sails can be used to convey messages, such as a death in the family, a happy occasion or a period of inactivity. Sail signals were even used to warn against Nazi raids.

Wind turbines in a field beside a highway; Palm Springs, California

Modern wind turbines are used around the world to provide a clean, sustainable source of energy, such as here in Palm Springs, California. Wind energy is the largest renewable energy source in the US, providing more than 7% of the country’s electricity in 2019. In the European Union, wind energy accounts for around 15% of total supply, mostly generated in Germany, Spain, the UK, France and Italy.

The Strata building at the Elephant and Castle in London

Catching the breeze

Wind turbines aren’t just restricted to windswept fields and coastlines. Modern structures have also begun adding them as an alternative way to generate electricity, though the idea isn’t widespread just yet. The Strata building in London, which opened in 2010, is the world’s first building to integrate wind turbines into its design. They generate 8% of the tower’s energy needs.

A prototype of a floating wind turbine in Lower Saxony, Germany

Riding the waves

This floating version, tested on a small lake in Lower Saxony in April 2020, could end up bobbing off the coasts of Europe in the coming years. The new model is tethered with a line to the seafloor, rather than anchored with steel frames, reducing costs and allowing it to be used in waters up to 100 meters (330 feet) deep. Energy company EnBW and Aerodyn Engineering are behind the project.

A prototype of the Wind Tree, a tree with small wind turbines for leaves

Power in the park

Smaller wind turbines haven’t generally been worth the expense. But the Wind Tree, introduced by French green tech company NewWind in 2015, uses small, leaf-shaped turbines — some outfitted with solar panels — to produce around 80% of the average household’s electricity needs. Quiet and stylish, they don’t need much of a breeze to get going. But they’re pricey: a basic model costs nearly €50,000.

Children play at a new playground made of recycled materials such as windmill blades in Rotterdam, the Netherlands

A whirlwind of fun

The lifespan of the average wind turbine is around 20 to 25 years. After that, they’re decommissioned and usually end up in landfills — the blades, longer than the wing of Boeing 747, are made of resistant fiberglass and difficult to recycle. But this playground in Rotterdam found a home for at least five old blades, creating a maze-like climbing structure complete with slides and climbing nets.

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Power-to-X: The secret to a 100% renewable energy system?

By turning renewable electricity into fuel, power-to-X could free transport, heating and industrial process from fossil fuels — once costs fall.

Deutschland | Wasserstofftankfahrzeug (picture-alliance/dpa/A. Arnold)

Around the world, more and more electricity is being generated from the sun and wind. The technology has advanced massively over recent decades and the price of renewable power is plummeting.

Read more: Green growth: Africa chooses between renewables and fossil fuels

But if we look beyond the power sector at our overall energy consumption, renewables are still only a bit player. Heating, transport and industrial processes are still dominated by fossil fuels, and many of these systems can’t run on electricity; they need fuel.

That’s where power-to-X (also referred to as P2X or PtX) comes in. An umbrella term, it covers various processes that turn electricity into heat, hydrogen or synthetic fuels, meaning that ever-more of our energy system might say goodbye to coal, oil and natural gas.

Turning power into hydrogen

Power-to-X could also solve another of the energy transition’s biggest hurdles: storage. At the moment, wind turbines in northern Germany, for example, sometimes produce so much power they have to be disconnected from the grid to prevent it from overloading.

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