Out West student blog

Wind Energy

Visiting the Altamont Pass wind farm.

By Gabby Wright
Alternative Spring Break 2017

This report was produced during the 2017 Alternative Spring Break course Environmental Policy in California. During winter quarter, students learned about environmental policy in California from a variety of Stanford faculty. Subsequently, over the course of spring break, the class traveled to Monterey and Sacramento to meet with policymakers, stakeholders, and visit energy and water facilities.

One of the areas that we explored during our Alternative Spring Break trip was wind energy. We visited the Altamont Pass Wind Farm and spoke with multiple leaders and technicians about the current state and future of wind energy. We were able to tour the farm and even go inside of one of the wind turbines to see how they operate.

Wind turbines convert energy from wind flow into electricity. Modern turbines are quite large as larger blades are more efficient. The turbines at this wind farm were described to be the width of a football field in diameter. Current turbines are also very tall since the wind is more consistent at higher altitudes. The turbine uses energy from the grid to start the initial rotation. The blades are shaped in such a way that a difference in air pressure is created which makes the blades spin faster, generating electricity. So there is consistent energy creation with absolutely no emissions of any kind.

We learned that wind energy is not only clean and reliable, but also highly profitable. There are many people who probably think that going green and making a considerable difference means losing profits or spending more, but this simply is not the case anymore. Renewable energy options, including wind, are now cheaper to produce than many nonrenewable ones. Therefore, the market alone will favor the growth the wind industry regardless of any measures taken by anti-environmentalist political powers.

One possible area for further development of wind energy is in offshore wind energy. Offshore wind carries with it more risks and costs. These cons include acquiring the equipment needed to move the turbines to the location, the measures that would need to be taken to fix any problems that would occur offshore, and decreased worker flexibility since the technicians would have to remain close to the site. Some benefits to offshore wind are: less public resistance: there are many who do not like the look of wind turbines and fight proposed wint-turbine construction near residential areas. Another benefit: the wind is even more consistent offshore, so the energy capture is even more efficient.

We also talked with the technicians at the farm about a concern that many have had in relation to wind energy: the safety of birds. Although the magnitude of bird deaths has been exaggerated by some, there have indeed been some birds who have died because of the turbines. However, wind energy businesses are doing all they can to protect the birds. Whenever a protected species is spotted near a farm, all of the turbines must be shut off immediately. Any injured birds must be reported to the appropriate officials. Thankfully, over time, the birds have learned to stay away from the turbines.

The most important takeaway from our studies about wind energy can be connected to the White House. The current administration is making efforts to curb progress in fighting climate change and other environmental degradation. For some reason, they insist on trying to promote coal, one of the dirtiest sources of energy. But, because of the innovations that have been made in renewable energy production over the last decade, renewable energy is economical enough to grow without the help of the federal government. The primary lesson to be learned from all this: in a free market society, one of the best ways to promote eco-friendly progress is to make it profitable.

For the past 30 years, Alternative Breaks@Stanford have allowed undergraduates to explore complex social and cultural issues through a week-long immersive program. In 2017, the Bill Lane Center for the American West was pleased to support an Alternative Spring Break co-led by one of our Sophomore College alums, Matthew Cohen, and Elizabeth Trinh. Between winter and spring quarters, Matt and Elizabeth led a group of 12 students studying Environmental Policy in California, focused on climate change’s effects the Monterey Bay Peninsula. This series of blog posts highlights their experiences meeting with local leaders in Monterey and policymakers in Sacramento.

Read more at the Out West Student Blog »

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