As the world transitions to renewable energy sources to decarbonize the power grid, wind energy is one of the fastest-growing sources of new generation. Wind energy capacity has grown by 14% annually from 2010 to 2020. Now that wind turbines dot many landscapes, many people wonder about the pros and cons of wind power.
Wind power is praised for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, boosting energy security, creating jobs, and producing low-cost power, but it also has some drawbacks. Wind turbines are known to kill birds, can produce noise, and wind turbine blades are difficult to recycle.
What are the advantages of wind turbines?
With such rampant growth in the industry, there are clear advantages to using wind turbines to power the electrical grid.
Let’s explore what is making wind energy so popular across much of the globe.
Advantage: Wind Turbines Use a Clean Fuel Source
Unlike fossil fuel-fired power plants, wind energy turbines do not consume finite fuel resources. As a result, wind energy is an abundant source of clean energy that does not pollute or produce greenhouse gas emissions.
As the world transitions to a low-carbon economy, wind power, solar energy, and other renewable energy sources are critical for mitigating the climate crisis.
Although it is necessary to mine for the materials in wind turbines, they need no ongoing fuel source. By contrast, fossil fuel-fired power plants need a constant supply of fuel to generate steam and produce electricity.
Extracting and burning this fuel produces greenhouse gas emissions, which are harmful for the environment. Also, fossil fuel-fired power plants consume large quantities of water for cooling and producing steam.
Advantage: Renewable Energy is Domestically Sourced
Energy insecurity can impact a country’s governing strategies and policies. Likewise, energy insecurity can cause energy prices to spike due to short supply, disrupting the economy and disproportionately hurting the lower and middle classes.
However, governments can increase their energy security by using a diverse array of fuel sources and increasing domestic energy production.
Many countries have abundant wind energy resources that can boost domestically-sourced energy. This is likely to grow in importance due to vehicle electrification because it will eventually reduce the demand for oil while increasing the demand for electricity.
Because it’s an inexhaustible energy source, wind power promotes long-term energy security while also benefitting the local economy, promoting air quality, and reducing reliance on foreign energy.
Advantage: Renewable Energy Industry Creates High-quality Jobs
Approximately 12 million people globally worked in the renewable energy industry in 2020, with 1.25 million jobs in wind energy. There are numerous jobs in the wind energy industry, including manufacturing, wind farm installation, development, and maintenance. Many of these are high-quality jobs that require skilled labor.
Roughly ⅓ of renewable energy jobs are working with solar photovoltaics and 2.4 million with biofuels. Women hold about ⅓ of the jobs in renewable energy, but the Covid-19 pandemic has caused some gender equality issues.
Jobs in the renewable energy industry are estimated to grow dramatically worldwide in the next few decades. However, climate change policies, renewable energy subsidies, and greenhouse gas emissions reduction pledges could significantly increase industry job growth.
Advantage: Wind Turbines Produces Low-cost Clean Energy
The electricity produced at onshore utility-scale wind farms is some of the most economical. In the United States, it costs $0.01 to $0.02 per kWh after the production tax credit.
And the power from wind energy projects is sold at a fixed price over a long period (often 20 years), and its fuel source is free. This mitigates price uncertainty by offering stable electricity prices, often with 20-year contracts. Many corporations and utility companies are sourcing electricity from wind farms to lock in low energy costs and as a hedge against rising energy costs.
Plus, the cost of producing onshore and offshore wind energy will likely decrease over time due to technological advances. For example, increases in rotor size and hub height are boosting the generating capacity of wind turbines. Also, advances in wind turbine technology and wind farm maintenance are increasing wind energy output.
Advantage: Wind Farms Benefit the Local Economy
Wind power projects generate tax revenue, create jobs, and promote economic development, especially in rural areas with fewer economic opportunities.
Farmers struggle to create a profit in some countries, but wind farm lease income is a reliable revenue stream. Often, wind farm developers sign leases with land owners to site wind turbines on their property.
These contracts often span decades and produce a new revenue stream.
Because wind turbines need space between them, farmers often continue cultivating crops or grazing livestock around wind turbines and access roads, making efficient use of space.
In addition, wind farm construction creates temporary installation jobs and long-term maintenance work.
Advantage: Wind Turbines Contain Readily Recyclable Materials
Utility-scale wind turbines contain largely steel and copper, which are highly recyclable materials. In particular the towers and gearboxes contain a lot of metal and are readily recyclable. In fact, there is a high demand for recycled metal and this reduces the need to mine for raw materials. However, wind turbine blades are problematic from a recycling standpoint (see below).
The design life of wind turbines is 20 to 25 years. As the world’s fleet of wind turbines age, more projects will enter the decommissioning or repowering phase.
When a wind farm is repowered, it involves replacing some or all of the wind turbines with new equipment or optimizing the existing equipment. This can produce less waste than decommissioning a wind farm and building a new wind farm on a different site, especially if developers can reuse some of the wind energy equipment or transmission infrastructure.
What are the disadvantages of wind turbines?
Although wind turbines have numerous economic and environmental benefits, there are some drawbacks.
Sometimes, neighbors don’t want wind turbines installed in their communities due to the visual impact, despite the economic benefits. Also, wind farms need to be constructed in areas with a suitable wind resource and they can negatively impact wildlife.
Disadvantage: Wind Farms Produce Noise & Visual Distractions
Wind turbines do produce a whooshing sound, especially at high wind speeds. Likewise, some local residents have been concerned about the industrial look of wind farms impacting the landscape. Often, wind farms are prominents features because they tend to be located in areas without tall buildings and other large infrastructure.
However, other forms of energy also have a visual impact. Often local residents are concerned about solar farm development because they consider these projects to be unsightly and often the land needs to be cleared. Certainly the visual impacts of coal mining are significant, especially mountain top removal mining. This mining technique involves removing the top 240 meters of a mountain in search of coal deposits. Likewise, oil rigs are unsightly and can degrade views.
In fact, virtually every form of energy production will have a visual impact, but some forms of energy have a more compact footprint so they virtually impact a smaller area. Also, some people like the look of wind turbines, so it opinions on the visual disruption from wind farms is based on personal aesthetic preferences.
Disadvantage: Many Windy Locations are Far From Population Centers
Building wind farms near population centers has numerous advantages. It reduces transmission losses and the required transmission infrastructure to deliver the power, increasing costs. Therefore, it is ideal to locate wind farms near population centers whenever possible.
Unfortunately, some of the locations with the highest wind speeds are not located near population centers. This is especially true for onshore wind energy resources.
In the United States, the Midwest states have some of the best onshore wind energy resources in the country. And Iowa, Oklahoma, and Kansas use the highest percentage of wind energy, totalling 58%, 35%, and 43% of their total power. However, these states have relatively small populations that range between about 3 and 4 million people per state. A lot of the United States population resides in the east, which has just a moderate onshore wind energy resource.
However, offshore wind resources are often located near population centers. In the United States, 80% of the population live near the great lakes or the coast, which correspond with offshore wind resources. As offshore wind energy capacity increases, it will enable wind energy to produce a larger percentage of the total power mix.
Disadvantage: Wind Turbines Can Impact Wildlife
Sadly, wind farms can have a negative impact on wildlife. Constructing wind farms may involve clearing the site of trees to reduce turbulence, impacting wildlife habitat. Plus, mining metal and manufacturing cement for wind farm construction has a negative impact on the environment.
In addition, birds and bats can be killed by wind turbine collisions. For example, roughly 10,000 to 100,000 birds die from strikes with wind turbines each year in the United Kingdom, according to estimates. However, researchers are developing ways to minimize bird fatalities.
For example, a small study in Norway found that painting a turbine blade black could reduce bird collisions 70%. Likewise, conducting wildlife studies prior to wind farm construction can help avoid locating wind farms on major bird migrations routes.
Disadvantage: Renewable Power is Intermittent
The wind isn’t always blowing, and the sun isn’t always shining all the time. Therefore, both wind and solar power are intermittent energy sources. Typically, wind resources have seasonal and even daily variations depending on the local climate. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always correspond with energy demand. For example, there might be a stronger wind energy resource in the winter, yet peak energy demand often happens in the summer due to people cranking up the air conditioning.
The capacity factor of a wind turbine measures how much of the turbines are generating power at their full capacity. The capacity factor of onshore wind farms is between .26 and .52, so wind turbines typically produce large amounts of power only a fraction of the time.
Advances in energy storage can enable wind and solar farms to store electricity for use when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining. Therefore, energy storage is beneficial for energy security and stable electricity grids. The European Union has numerous energy storage initiatives that are a critical strategy toward decarbonizing the power grid.
Disadvantage: Wind Turbine Blades Are Not Readily Recyclable
Although the metal components on a wind turbine, such as the tower and gearbox are readily recyclable, the wind turbine blades are an exception. Unfortunately, turbine blades are made of a fiberglass and composite material that is not readily recyclable into high-value products. When they are recycled, they are often made into low-value products instead of new wind turbine blades.
However, wind energy researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory are working to make wind turbine blades from thermoset resin with the goal of making a product that can be recycled repeatedly. Developing highly recyclable, lightweight wind turbine blades could help make the wind energy industry more sustainable. In the meantime, there are numerous ways to repurpose blades into pedestrian bridges, cellular towers, and fencing.
Disadvantage: Not All Locations Are Ideal for Wind Farms
Although many sites have a good wind resource, others do not, resulting in wind farms with relatively low capacity factors and electricity production. Therefore, wind turbine manufacturers and researchers are developing equipment that can generate clean energy at lower wind speed environments.
However, many offshore locations have high, steady wind speeds and are optimal locations from a wind resource perspective. And, offshore wind farms are growing in popularity, especially in the United Kingdom, Denmark, and China. A combination of falling costs and technology advances are fueling growth in offshore wind development.
In the United States, President Biden plans to add 30 gigawatts of offshore wind power capacity by 2030. Currently, the United States has just two completed offshore wind farms, with a capacity of 42 MW, but the industry is poised for significant growth.
Despite some disadvantages, wind energy certainly has a lot of advantages over other power sources. As concern about the climate crises and water scarcity in somar parts of the globe increases, wind power provides a solution for some of the most challenging issues facing humanity.