If you’ve ever driven along I-65 between Chicago and Indianapolis, you’ve probably seen the massive wind farms where hundreds of wind turbines rotate day and night, their little red lights blinking as the blades rotate in the wind.
These are just a few of the major wind farms in the United States that produce renewable electrical energy for use in businesses and homes.
But what is wind power really about?
How does it benefit the nation and the world?
Is the upfront cost of these goliaths worth the investment over time?
Let’s take a look at the positives and the negatives of wind energy and how it can and has shaped our world as people try to reduce the carbon footprint and provide clean energy.
Some Basic Facts About Wind Energy
Before we look into the specifics of wind energy benefits and disadvantages, let’s take a look at a few of the facts behind it all.
How Many People Use Wind Energy for Residential Locations?
As of 2016, wind generators accounted for 8% of the operating electricity generated in the country, which was higher than any other renewable energy use that year, including solar and hydroelectric energy use.
In 2017, the rate was 6.3% of the country’s national electric supply. But in 14 states, it contributed 10% of the total energy generation, with more than 30% contribution in four of those states.
In 2018, the rate of use increased by another 8%, with the ability now to power over 30 million American homes. The industry, therefore, is capable of covering 114,000 American jobs, with over 500 domestic factories. It also brings in more than $1 billion each year in revenue for the states and communities that host wind farms.
The U.S. wind energy industry reached a huge milestone in September 2019 with new wind projects producing over 100 gigawatts of energy. There are more than 100,000 megawatts of wind energy being produced with 57,700 wind turbines operating in 41 states, Puerto Rico, and Guam.
How Much Wind Energy is Coming?
Experts at the EIA expect non-hydroelectric renewable energy resources, like wind and solar energy, to be the fastest-growing source of electrical energy generation in the United States over the next few years.
The 2019 outlook forecast for electrical energy generation via wind energy expected 12% and 14% growth between 2019 and 2020.
In 2019 alone, 11 gigawatts of wind capacity came online to produce more and more renewable energy for the nation to use. This means that wind energy surpasses hydroelectric generation – or at least will be doing so by the end of the year in 2020.
Overall, the national expectation is that 2020 will find 9% of all electrical energy will come from wind power. These figures are expected to increase and grow each year.
How Efficient is Wind Energy?
So that brings us to the question: how efficient is wind energy anyway? If the government, businesses, and even individuals are investing so much in this growth, is it even worth it?
If positioned properly in open spaces with low air density, wind turbines can produce, on average, between 35 and 45% efficiency.
The wind is a natural resource that is created in the earth’s atmosphere due to the differences in temperature in earth temperatures both locally and globally.
When the air heats up, it rises and leaves the place with low air pressure. Air from cooler regions with high pressures moves to create an equalized air pressure across the surface.
Wind turbines and windmills take advantage of this kinetic movement created by this wind – air movement – as it transfers from one place to another. The turbines use this kinetic energy and converts it into electricity.
The blades of the turbines move in the wind. The blades rotate a motor. The gears increase the rotations to produce electricity.
But wind efficiency is not the same thing as wind capacity. Most people think of them as the same, but wind efficiency is the amount of kinetic energy in the wind that is converted to electricity, while wind capacity is the actual amount of wind that is moving.
This brings us to the design behind wind turbines. There are different models and types of turbines, and different sizes, which all affect how efficient wind energy generation will be.
But an even larger factor for the efficiency is the location and position of the wind turbine, along with local weather conditions. Some days, there is simply more wind than on other days. Some locations produce more wind in general than other locations that may be more sheltered,
Wind speeds below 30 miles per hour produce very little energy, according to Wind Watch, an organization dedicated to wind energy facts and figures. Even a small increase in wind speed can translate to substantial increases in electricity created by a turbine.
How is the Use of Wind Energy Growing and Improving?
The wind is a clean source of energy that’s renewable. That means it produces no water or air pollution and it doesn’t require significant oversight once a turbine is erected. In fact, besides the initial cost, and occasional maintenance and repair, wind energy is a zero-cost energy source.
And because mass production of the technology has improved and bettered itself in recent years, wind turbines are becoming cheaper to build and to purchase and install, and there are many government tax incentives for using wind energy.
The industry is booming, despite some milder complaints of noise and “ugliness” of the turbines. And thanks to the global efforts being put into place more consistently than ever, wind energy is growing and increasingly more desirable for reducing our footprint on the planet.
In fact, industry experts believe that by 2050, 1/3 of the world’s energy will be produced through wind turbines and windmills. This means they’ll continue to develop better, lower-cost technology that will become more and more easily available to the general public.
What is the Outlook for Wind Energy Usage?
By 2030, experts believe that 19% of the world’s energy will be produced through wind energy generation, which would drop production of over 3 billion tons of CO2.
And, as mentioned above, by 2050, it’s expected that something like 33% of the world’s electricity will be produced through wind turbines.
In just five years’ time, wind power could reduce CO2 emissions by a billion tons.
That’s the equivalent of all of Germany and Italy’s emissions combined, or the total of Africa’s emissions, or Japan and 2/3 of India’s emissions.
Wind power production itself has increased by around 26% each year for the past two decades, bringing us to our current figures. And because wind power has become the lowest-cost option for adding new power capacity to the grid, wind energy is on the rise and is expected to continue on that line for decades and centuries to come.
Benefits of Wind Energy
There are benefits of using wind energy to create renewable electrical energy for our homes and businesses across the world.
1. Wind Power is a Clean Fuel Source
The first and most obvious benefit of using wind energy is that it is a clean fuel source. It doesn’t pollute the air like power plants do.
It doesn’t rely on fossil fuels, either, like coal or natural gas, that create emissions and smog throughout the planet, along with acid rain and greenhouse gases.
2. Wind Energy is Domestic
Wind energy is also a domestic source of energy, meaning that the nation’s wind supply is abundant.
The capacity in each country is growing by the year, and as this grows, the necessary use of fossil fuels from other nations shrinks.
3. Wind Energy is Sustainable Over the Long Run
Wind energy is a far more sustainable power option, as well, over nearly every other energy source. As long as the earth is inhabitable by human beings – meaning there’s an atmosphere, water, breathable oxygen, et cetera – the wind will be produced naturally.
As long as the wind is produced naturally, we have a sustainable energy source that won’t be depleted, unlike fossil fuels.
5. It’s A Cost-Effective Energy
Wind power is considered the lowest-cost renewable energy source and the prices for development are dropping and will continue to do so for many years. This makes it more affordable for large farms as well as individuals to create their own electricity through wind turbines.
Wind power costs between two and six cents per kilowatt-hour to produce, depending on the wind resource, of course. And electricity from wind farms is sold at a fixed rate over long periods of time – like 20+ years. It’s also a free fuel source, which helps to sustain prices as they are.
6. Wind Turbines Can Be Added to Existing Land Projects
One exceptionally great thing about wind turbines is that they can be added to existing land projects. Meaning, if there’s a farm or ranch already employed in producing food, grasslands for cattle, or other such products, wind turbines can be placed throughout the land without much interference.
Admittedly, an entire large wind farm could probably not be positioned throughout an existing cattle ranch and still provide enough land for both projects.
But smaller wind farms or several turbines could be placed throughout. This provides wind power plants with land – which they rent from farmers and ranchers for the use of – and landowners with extra income.
7. Wind Power Creates Jobs
Like all industries, wind power production produces jobs for local workers.
In the U.S. alone, in the wind sector, there were already more than 100,000 workers, as of 2016.
Wind turbine technician was actually one of the fastest-growing American jobs in the 2010s decade.
And according to the Wind Vision Report, there’s a potential to support more than 600,000 jobs between manufacturing, installation, maintenance, and support services in the wind power industry by 2050.
8. Wind Energy Allows Industry Growth and U.S. Competitiveness
Wind energy production has an economic impact of about $20 billion each year on the U.S. economy. This means that the United States is training workers with intensive understanding and high skill levels in the industry, making the U.S. a strong competitor globally in the clean energy economy.
9. Wind Energy Revitalizes Local and Rural Economies
Wind power production can help to diversify the economy of rural communities. This adds to the tax base as well as providing new streams of income. They also add a new source of property tax in these rural areas that otherwise may find it difficult to attract new industry.
For example, every 100 megawatts of wind development in southwest Minnesota has consistently generated around $1 million per year in property taxes and brought in $250,000 each year in direct leasing payments to the landowners who allow the farms to be placed on their property.
10. Wind Energy Is Free Fuel
Unlike other forms of electricity generation where fuel is shipped to a processing plant, wind energy generates electricity at the source of fuel, which is free.
The wind is a native fuel that does not need to be mined or transported, taking two expensive costs out of long-term energy expenses.
11. Wind Energy Has Price Stability
Fossil fuel prices and nuclear power fluctuate vastly from day to day, thanks to the highly variable costs of mining, transportation, and related labor. Wind power can buffer these costs, though, because the price of this type of fuel is fixed. It’s the wind. It’s free.
12. It Helps Promote Cost-Effective Energy Production
In the past 30 years, the cost of wind power production has dropped dramatically from $0.40 per kilowatt-hour in the early 1980s to about $0.02-$0.05 per kilowatt-hour, depending on the wind speed and project size.
13. Wind Energy Production Helps with National Security and Energy Independence
Wind turbines help to diversify the country’s energy portfolio while reducing the dependence on foreign fossil fuel. Any nation invested in wind energy – and other renewable energy resources – will find they rely on trade in such areas less and less, meaning the nations, as a whole, have better national security.
14. Wind Power Conserves and Keeps Water Clean
Turbines do not require the use of nasty chemicals and elements, like mercury, that contaminate the soil and our streams, rivers, and lakes. We also don’t require the use of water resources to create the energy, since the thermal energy from solar power is converted into the wind, which is what solely powers the turbines that create electricity.
15. Reduction of Mining and Transportation Impacts on the Environment
Finally, the production of wind power results in less need for mining and transportation of fuel sources throughout the world. Wind energy requires mining only once – for the construction of the turbine. And transportation only once – for the transport of the turbine to its new location.
Disadvantages of Wind Energy
Of course, with all good things, there are negative aspects and disadvantages. These are some of the most commonly recognized issues with wind energy production.
1. The Initial Cost For Setting Up a Wind Farm is High
Though the cost of building, installation, and maintaining wind turbines has dropped dramatically in the past decade or so, the initial cost for setting up a single wind turbine, let alone an entire wind farm, is rather high compared to the more traditional fossil-fueled generators.
This means that the cost may be too high for folks – or even corporations – who would otherwise prefer to run their buildings on wind power rather than pulling from the grid.
2. Location is Everything with Wind Power
Advertising says, “Location is everything,” and in many respects that is true. But for wind power production, it is absolutely essential to have the right location for the wind turbine or windmill. The wrong location will destroy the efficiency of a turbine completely, likely rendering it totally worthless for producing enough energy to compensate for costs, let alone actually benefit anyone.
Not only must you find locations that are open and cooler, but if those prime sites are any distance from the city that the turbines are intended to power, costs go up again, as transmission lines must be built to connect the wind farm(s) to the city(s).
3. Wind Resource Development Isn’t Always the Most Profitable Use for Land
Sometimes, farmers and ranchers are looking to make some extra money to help feed their families, pay off debt, or for other needs. But sometimes, the land that wind farms could be placed on is more “valuable” as something else – or at least would make more money being used for other things.
Wind farms certainly do pay some profits for those with land, but it’s not always enough to entice landowners to part with those acres.
4. Some People Find Wind Turbines Highly Disruptive
For some, wind turbines are a fascinating sight that may be enjoyed every time they’re seen from the highway. But for those who live locally, turbines may well be considered noise and aesthetic pollution. For many, this isn’t much an issue, as they’d prefer eco-friendlier energy production, but for some, this aesthetic pollution is exceptionally irritating and stressful.
5. Turbines May Cause Harm to Some Local Wildlife
Birds have been known to fly into the moving rotors on the turbines. Other animals may also find the large towers to be irritating or disruptive to their environments. Loss of habitat may occur as well, and some plants and smaller animals can be impacted negatively as well, depending on the sensitivity of the area.
Most of the issues have been resolved with this – or at least greatly reduced through technological advances and properly sited wind plants. Both the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club support wind energy development, despite these potential issues, because they recognize the environmental advantages that outweigh these increasingly rarer disadvantages.
Does Residential Wind Energy Make Sense?
While, yes, wind energy production makes sense on a large scale, powering cities and large businesses, the question for most of us remains: Is residential wind power a logical choice?
In many cases, the answer is simply “no.”
If you live in an urban area where your home is shielded from the wind, a turbine would be a strange and useless choice. If you live in an area where there are height restrictions for structures, which would include turbines, then, again, wind power is illogical.
But, if you live in an area where you can safely install a wind turbine, can financially afford the upfront cost, and can, therefore, produce enough energy to not only “pay” for the turbine by reducing your energy bill, then, yes, a turbine in your residential location is a possibility.
Let’s look at it this way.
A wind turbine will be worth the investment if you have at least an acre or more of land. You do not need to live in a strictly rural area, though it does help, but you will need to verify zoning and height restrictions permit you to install a turbine on within town limits.
And if you are permitted to install one, you may find that your turbine isn’t capable of harnessing enough wind to do much, depending on the terrain.
Too many trees, taller buildings, and similar features will block the wind and prevent you from producing enough energy to be reasonable for personal installation.
On the other hand, if you’ve got some open space, at least an acre in size, and you’re not restricted against installing a turbine, you will see the benefits of the wind power within a reasonable amount of time.