The use of wind energy has increased more than 25% per year, making it the largest source of renewable power in the United States. On average, the biggest wind turbines could generate enough energy to power about 600 homes according to National Geographic. Wind turbines can create electricity from the slightest breeze, providing energy as long as the sun shines and the moon rises at night. When the sun shines on the Earth’s surface, some of the rays are reflected back into the air. As the air warms, it expands becoming less dense as it rises and flows with cooler, denser air nearby. This movement of air is what we know as wind—and we can turn it into energy. Wind spins the blades of a turbine around a rotor, which spins a generator, which generates energy.
When you are considering switching to wind energy, what are the pros and cons you should look at?
- Wind power is cost-effective
- Wind creates jobs
- Wind power is renewable and clean
- Wind farms are an efficient use of land
- Wind can have a higher upfront investment cost
- Some people believe that wind turbines cause noise and visual pollution
- Wind farms can impact local wildlife
- Wind farm locations may be too remote and require additional transmission infrastructure.
Let’s look at the pros first.
1. Wind power is cost-effective
Land-based utility-scale wind is one of the lowest-priced energy sources currently available, according to the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, A single wind turbine can power many homes. Wind farms are made up of utility scale-turbines that exceed 100 kilowatts in output, connecting to the nation’s transmission system and powering thousands of homes.
Wind farms are beneficial because unlike solar, the average person can’t install their own turbines. Instead, you can purchase wind power from an organization in your area that offers wind energy. After the production tax credit, wind energy costs an average of $26 per megawatt hour as of 2020 according to Lazard’s Levelized Cost of Energy. This is competitive with non-renewable energy with coal being $41/MWh and gas at $28/MWh.
Wind farms normally sell energy at a fixed price for a standard period of time—20 years, for example. This means that you wouldn’t have to worry about the price of wind shifting as the seasons change, like the price of natural gas does. Non-renewable energy has price uncertainty, but you will never experience that with wind power. Wind turbines are fueled by wind which is free to use. As wind power becomes more popular, it continues to get cheaper.
2. Wind creates jobs
The wind sector in the U.S. is one of the fastest growing job industries, currently employing over 100,000 workers. There are jobs available in manufacturing, installation, maintenance, support, and consulting. In 2017, the International Renewable Energy Agency reported the renewable energy industry surpassed over 10 million employed across the world—1.15 million being in the wind power industry, with the United States making up about 10,000 of those jobs. According to the Wind Vision Report, the U.S. wind sector has the potential to increase by more than 600,000 jobs by 2050.
3. Wind power is renewable and clean
Wind is provided by the rotation of the Earth and heat from the sun, meaning that, unlike non-renewable forms of energy we will never run out of it. Wind energy also doesn’t pollute the air, unlike the fossil fuels that release harmful particles in the air that have been shown to have negative effects on human health and the environment. As long as the sun continues to shine and the wind blows, we can utilize wind energy to power our lives.
4. Wind farms are an efficient use of land
Wind farms can take up a lot of space because they have to have a certain distance between them, but each turbine only takes a small amount of real estate. When properly distanced, the land between the turbines can continue to be used for other purposes. They can be space-efficient when installed on existing farms, or land in rural areas, and provide added benefit to farmers. The land owners receive payments for the use of their land, while still continuing to use the land as they normally would.
So, what are the cons of wind energy?
1. Wind can have a higher upfront investment cost
Despite wind power continuously dropping in prices as it gains popularity, it still has to compete with the lowest-cost sources of electricity currently being used. The operating cost of wind power has decreased 80% since 1980 and we can expect it to continue to drop. Despite this drop, wind as a renewable energy source must still compete economically with non-renewable energy sources.
Similar to solar energy, there are upfront investments to be made that will take 10-20 years to break even. Just like other sources of renewable energy, there are financial incentives involved to assist you in the cost of wind energy. The Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE) is a tool that allows you to search and learn about incentives programs in your area. There are federal, state, local, and utility incentives available when making the transition to wind energy. It is with these incentives that wind energy can help offset the upfront investment cost and wind is even cost-competitive without tax incentives in many areas of the United States.
2. Some people believe wind turbines cause noise and visual pollution
Most wind turbine farms are in rural areas, where the population is low and spread out. Noise and visual aesthetics can be a problem for those that live in close proximity—some people think they’re too loud and ugly. However, this can be solved by continuing to place wind turbines in rural areas where few, if any, people will be affected, and areas where the landowners agree to have them and are compensated appropriately. The technology is also continuing to advance, decreasing the problems associated with noise pollution and the scientific consensus to date shows that what little noise wind turbines produce do not have an impact on human health.
An important thing to remember is that although there may be noise and visual pollution, wind turbines do not pollute the air with gases and particles like current non-renewable energy forms. For example, coal-fired power plants emit the largest amount of mercury emissions in the U.S.—exposure to mercury in the air has shown to have negative neurological effects in embryos and small children. These emissions can also infiltrate the water cycle, creating acid rain that would harm many ecosystems. Some people believe that windmills are not the most visually appealing to see, but the effects of non-renewable energy are causing the environment to slowly deteriorate. Unlike other forms of non-renewable energy, wind energy is more beneficial to the environment than harmful.
3. Wind farms can impact local wildlife
There is a risk with birds flying into wind turbines and becoming severely injured or killed. Some studies believe that the effects of wind turbines on birds may be over exaggerated, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that turbines can kill anywhere from 140,000 to 500,000 birds a year. This number is estimated through hundreds of studies and radar tracking systems that can sense birds approaching, but not every wind farm has these systems. This radar racking technology also attempts to slow the blades so that birds can get through them. However, there are hundreds of millions of bird deaths each year due to a number of different factors, like cats and building collisions. That said, wind turbines should be cited carefully and may not be appropriate for areas with endangered avian species.
Despite the fact that this is a small number of bird deaths compared to other causes, it is avoidable. A study by Jason Deign shows that higher bird mortality can be avoided by building even larger turbines. Larger turbines not only decrease the avian mortality rate but also increase the wind turbine efficiency. Building larger wind turbines would create more clean energy while also having less of an impact on the wildlife. The NINA research team also conducted a study that found simply painting one blade of the wind turbine black reduced bird deaths by 70%.
4. Wind farm locations may be too remote for cities where electricity is needed without building new transmission infrastructure
Wind farms need strong capacity transmission lines to move their power to urban areas. Good wind farm locations are often in rural areas where the wind is high, but also where there aren’t many people living nearby. Because of this, the only way for energy to reach cities would be through new transmission lines, requiring an extra investment when building the wind farm. However, the Department of Energy reported that the addition of new limited electricity transmission lines could significantly reduce wind energy costs by 35% by the year 2050, while supplying a third of the United States’ electricity.
Unfortunately, unlike with solar energy, you can’t put wind turbines on top of your home. It’s hard for the turbines to perform well when built on structures—with obstructing buildings around, the wind would be too turbulent to spin the blades of the wind turbine. Rather, wind turbines need air that flows laminar (consistent and streamline), so it’s best to keep wind turbines in rural areas without buildings nearby to get in the way. The average capacity from wind turbines mounted on rooftops was found to be less than 1% from a study done in the U.K., while the capacity for wind turbines in commercial wind farms in rural areas ranges from 10%-30%.
While these pros and cons determine your view on wind energy, the fact is that the current energy industry needs more clean, renewable energy sources. We will eventually run out of all non-renewable sources of energy, but we will never run out of wind supply. The pros include cost effectiveness, job creation, efficient use of land, and free clean energy that will never run out.
While the cons include upfront (not operating) cost, perceived noise and visual pollution, wildlife impact, and location issues, all of these cons have solutions, and are nothing in comparison to the advantages of wind energy.
Despite the cons, wind energy is the best and most viable energy source to meet the world’s energy needs. Transitioning to wind energy isn’t a single home process, though, since you cannot install wind turbines on your family home or business—we as the human race must make that transition together to help benefit our planet and ourselves. Wind has already been implemented in several countries across the globe, including in parts of the United States. With larger and continued support, the use of wind energy could become even more widespread, bringing forth clean energy, jobs, and a benefiting environment.