Wind energy represents one of the most commonly used types of renewable energy in the world. The United States is targeting to further increase wind’s energy contribution to the electricity supply to 20% by 2030. When compared to other renewable energy sources, wind energy offers a more efficient power source than solar energy and less destructive land use than water energy (damming water to build reservoirs leads to the surrounding ecosystems damage and valley flooding) . While there is a consensus that wind energy is a very promising renewable energy source, that could benefit the environment and reduce our carbon footprint by ions, there is a lot of speculation in regard to which extent will the wind power pros and cons affect the use of wind energy. Here, we will break down the pros and cons of generating renewable energy from wind and analyse their impact on the environmental and economical aspects.
Advantages of wind energy
Wind power is a free, renewable and sustainable source of energy. We will never be depleted of wind, so there are no supply concerns. Moreover, the costs for wind energy generated electricity have been decreasing continuously, gaining more popularity with the general population. In the US, the global weighted-average cost of electricity of new onshore wind farms in 2019 was as low as 0.053 USD per kWh. The technological advances in the wind energy industry and wind turbines design have also made harvesting energy from wind a highly efficient process.
Clean energy source:
Wind energy is air pollution free. It does not produce any harmful particulates, that would contribute to climate change and doesn’t require destructive chemicals. It keeps the air clean and decreases our dependence on fossil fuels.
Preservation of land:
Even though wind farms can be spread over a large geographical area, the actual “footprint” of a wind turbine is relatively small. The space between the wind turbines can still be used for farming or other purposes. The wind turbines can also can be installed on already existing farms or agricultural land in rural areas, with a minimal effect on crop production or on livestock grazing. Wind systems built on farm land could also serve as a source of additional income for the farmers, as the energy suppliers would have to pay the farm owners for use of their land for electricity generation. Compared to very big and bulky solar panels or how damaging building dams for hydropower can be, wind turbines are very space efficient and preserve the land that they are installed on.
Conservation of water:
Wind energy conserves water resources and does not contribute to water contamination. Usually, water use in other renewable energy sources is due to the need for cooling. All thermal power plants, such as fossil, nuclear and concentrating solar power require vast amounts of water for cooling.
No greenhouse gas emissions:
In contrast to using natural gas, oil or coal for power and electricity generation, using wind energy does not produce greenhouse gas emissions during operation. There are GHG emissions associated with the manufacturing, installing and maintenance support of the wind turbines and wind farms, but they are negligible compared to non-renewable energy sources.
Low and stable costs:
Wind farms of individual win turbines can be quite expensive to install, but once up and running, the operating costs are pretty low. Wind is free and the turbines do not require a lot of maintenance. As the fuel transportation to a processing facility can be a huge expense in the long-term, there is a huge economic win when it comes to wind energy, as the fuel – wind – doesn’t require transport. When compared to other energy sources with highly fluctuating costs, such as fossil fuels and nuclear power plants, the energy costs of wind power is fixed and free.
Regeneration of rural economies:
Wind energy can contribute to strengthening and diversifying the economies of rural communities by providing an additional source of income and adding to the tax base.
As all other energy systems, wind energy is subsidized by the government. However, when compared to other forms of energy delivery systems, wind energy receives considerably less subsidiary support. While conventional energy receives US$300 billion in subsidies per year, renewable energy has received less than US$20 billion of tax-payers’ money in the last 30 years.
Wind energy sector creates new short and long term jobs. Those include jobs in wind turbine installation, manufacturing, maintenance and even wind energy consulting. According to a recent report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), more than 10% of the renewable energy new employments in 2017 were in the wind power industry, with around 500,000 of them in China, 150,000 in Germany and 100,000 in the US.
Switching to accessible, homegrown wind energy eliminates the dependence on imported fossil fuels. It also diversifies an energy portfolio of a given community and helps to separate the economy from the rollercoaster of the fossil fuel costs fluctuations.
Disadvantages of wind energy
Wind isn’t the most reliable source of energy, with the wind capacity varying a lot between different seasons and locations. Storms or strong winds can also damage the wind turbines. Fortunately, the variability in the wind blow is routinely monitored and is usually compensated, so there is no power supply changes for the users of wind turbines. But, maintaining a regular electricity flow does require an additional energy storage device, such as a battery.
Threat to wildlife
The blades of wind turbines are very large and rotate at very high speeds, which can be dangerous for some wildlife, for example, birds and bats. Other animals that use vocalizations to communicate could be affected as well. Not only the wildlife that can fly into the turbines is affected though – wildlife at the ground level can also be affected by noise pollution and their natural habitats can be disrupted.
The wind systems involve the transportation of large and heavy equipment for installation. That could result in the temporary disturbance of the area, surrounding the turbine construction. Erosion is another potential environmental problem associated with the construction of wind farms and windmills.
High upfront costs
The manufacturing and installation costs of wind farms and turbines require substantial upfront investments both in commercial and residential applications. When wind energy production is used in rural areas, further investment is needed to provide underground lines to send power to more populated areas.
Shadow flicker is the effect of the low on the horizon sun shining through the rotating blades of a wind turbine, casting a moving shadow. It is called a flicker because of the repetitive nature of the blades casting the shadow. It can be disorienting and disturbing for people who live close to the wind turbines, but its effects can be easily calculated and reduced.
Noise and visual pollution
One of the biggest wind energy cons is the noise and visual pollution. The wind turbines can be quite noisy, generating sounds that are as loud as a rainfall. That’s the main reason why they are usually installed in rural unpopulated areas. No conclusive data exists on the impact of the wind energy noise pollution on health. Newer, more advanced designs of windmills have also shown to reduce the noise and have a much quieter operating appearance. As for the visual pollution, due to the fact that the wind turbines need to be built high enough to capture significant amounts of wind, they often interrupt beautiful landscapes.
People have very different opinions when it comes to how aesthetically pleasing the wind turbines are. Some people admire the technological and environmental benefits and progress they embody, while others find the towering, twirling wind turbines distracting and hideous. While there are ways to make the turbines appear more visually attractive, it really is a matter of personal preferences.
In summary, the pros and cons of wind energy affect many layers of environmental, economical and societal spheres. Wind offers a renewable, limitless and clean supply of energy, which is cheap and also has a positive impact on the economy by creating jobs, revitalizing rural economies and decreasing subsidies. As for the cons, due to intermittent nature of wind, the turbines require an additional energy storage technology. Moreover, wind turbines pose a threat to wildlife, create noise and visual pollution and there are high costs associated with their construction and installation. While there are disadvantages associated with the wind energy that are worth considering, wind remains one of the cleanest and cheapest energy sources available today.
The noise pollution is definitely one of the biggest concerns when it comes to wind energy. The wind turbines can be quite noisy, up to 50-60 decibel, comparable to a rainfall or an air conditioner running. There are adaptive noise reduction techniques that can make the wind turbines less noisy and usually wind farms are built in rural unpopulated areas, where the noise will not be much of an issue.
Wind is not the most reliable energy source and can be quite inconsistent in a given location, let alone the variation of wind blows throughout different seasons and geographical areas. If you see a wind turbine spinning and there is no wind, it is important to remember that they take hours to slow back down after spinning for a while. In order to make sure that the end users don’t experience any disturbances in the electricity or energy supply from the wind farm, there are usually energy storage devices, such as batteries and supercapacitors in place to provide backup energy.
Wind energy is very economical, as the fuel (wind) is free and the operation and maintenance costs are very low. It is an investment though, as the initial installation, construction and transportation costs can round up to quite a hefty fee.