Science Energy What Is Wind Power? The Pros and Cons of This Energy Source Wind power generates clean, renewable energy By Larry West Larry West Writer University of Washington Larry West is an award-winning environmental journalist and writer. He won the Edward J. Meeman Award for Environmental Reporting. Learn about our editorial process Updated March 20, 2018 Share Twitter Pinterest Email Great Art Productions/Photolibrary/Getty Images Energy Renewable Energy Fossil Fuels In the context of electricity generation, wind power is the use of air movement to rotate turbine elements in order to create an electrical current. Is Wind Power the Answer? When Bob Dylan first sang "Blowin’ in the Wind" in the early 1960s, he probably wasn’t talking about wind power as the answer to the world’s ever-increasing need for electricity and sources of clean, renewable energy. But that is what wind has come to represent for millions of people, who see wind power as a better way to generate electricity than plants fueled by coal, hydro (water) or nuclear power. Wind Power Starts with the Sun Wind power is actually a form of solar power because wind is caused by heat from the sun. Solar radiation heats every part of the Earth’s surface, but not evenly or at the same speed. Different surfaces—sand, water, stone and various types of soil—absorb, retain, reflect and release heat at different rates, and the Earth generally gets warmer during daylight hours and cooler at night. As a result, the air above the Earth’s surface also warms and cools at different rates. Hot air rises, reducing the atmospheric pressure near the Earth’s surface, which draws in cooler air to replace it. That movement of air is what we call wind. Wind Power Is Versatile When air moves, causing wind, it has kinetic energy—the energy created whenever mass is in motion. With the right technology, the wind’s kinetic energy can be captured and converted to other forms of energy such as electricity or mechanical power. That’s wind power. Just as the earliest windmills in Persia, China, and Europe used wind power to pump water or grind grain, today’s utility-connected wind turbines and multi-turbine wind farms use wind power to generate clean, renewable energy to power homes and businesses. Wind Power Is Clean and Renewable Wind power should be considered an important component of any long-term energy strategy because wind power generation uses a natural and virtually inexhaustible source of power—the wind—to produce electricity. That is a stark contrast to traditional power plants that rely on fossil fuels. And wind power generation is clean; it doesn’t cause air, soil or water pollution. That’s an important difference between wind power and some other renewable energy sources, such as nuclear power, which produces a vast amount of hard-to-manage waste. Wind Power Sometimes Conflicts with Other Priorities One obstacle to increasing worldwide use of wind power is that wind farms must be located on large tracts of land or along coastlines to capture the greatest wind movement. Devoting those areas to wind power generation sometimes conflicts with other land uses, such as agriculture, urban development, or waterfront views from expensive homes in prime locations. Of more concern from an environmental perspective is the effects of wind farms on wildlife, in particular on bird and bat populations. Most of the environmental problems associated with wind turbines are tied to where they are installed. Unacceptable numbers of bird collisions occur when the turbines are positioned along the path of migratory birds (or baths). Unfortunately, lake shores, coastal locations, and mountain ridges are both natural migration funnels AND areas with lots of wind. Careful siting of this equipment is crucial, preferably away from migratory routes or established flight paths. Wind Power Can Be Fickle Wind speeds vary greatly between months, days, even hours, and they cannot always be predicted accurately. This variability presents numerous challenge for handling wind power, especially since wind energy is difficult to store. The Future Growth of Wind Power As the need for clean, renewable energy increases and the world more urgently seeks alternatives to finite supplies of oil, coal and natural gas, priorities will change. And as the cost of wind power continues to decline, due to technology improvements and better generation techniques, wind power will become increasingly feasible as a major source of electricity and mechanical power.