Wind Energy Pros and Cons

Wind turbines against blue sky in Zhoushan, Zhejiang province,China.

Jia Yu / Getty

Wind energy has been around for thousands of years. The Earth's free and abundant winds were — and still are — used to sail ships, grind grain, and pump water. Only recently have humans harnessed this power to make electricity, but it's already a significant and growing part of the mix, powering about 7% of the electric grid in the U.S. and 6% globally, with the capacity for much more.

Wind energy has quite a lot of benefits: It's a relatively straightforward type of renewable energy that once in place, doesn't require a lot of maintenance and doesn't pollute the air or water. Most significantly, in a world where we are all beginning to feel the direct effects of the climate crisis, wind turbines create electricity without greenhouse gas emissions.

However, this clean energy source also poses challenges and has a few disadvantages — the two biggest are its environmental impacts and the inherent variability of wind. There are mitigations for these, but they certainly shouldn't be ignored or downplayed. Economically, wind energy has a significant upfront cost, but so do most forms of energy, with fossil fuel plants requiring significantly more upkeep, which implies higher operational costs.

What Is Wind Energy

Wind is a natural, free, and abundant side effect of Earth's natural processes, and wind energy is any system that captures that energy and converts it to mechanical energy or electricity.

Windmills, an ancient form of wind energy, utilize the wind to grind grain or pump water by turning the wind's kinetic energy into mechanical energy. Wind turbines, like windmills, have blades that harness the wind, but then that energy is turned into electricity that is added to the power grid or stored in a battery.

Advantages of Wind Energy

Wind energy's most significant advantage is that it generates electricity without polluting air or water, and without adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. But it has some other unique environmental and economic benefits as well.

Environmental Benefits

Wind doesn't contribute to climate change. While there are energy costs to manufacturing and transporting the turbines, a study on the life cycle of wind turbines found that their carbon footprint is paid back in CO2 savings in just six months of operation. In 2019, the equivalent of 42 million cars' worth of CO2 was avoided by generating electricity from wind.

View to a power plant and wind turbines on a winter day
carstenbrandt / Getty Images

Renewable source of energy. There's no shortage of wind and it can't be depleted, so the basis for wind energy is a renewable, sustainable supply. That energy doesn't need to be dug from the ground or transported by train or truck — which requires additional energy and emissions and increases the cost of fossil fuel burning plants. And new models of wind turbines are getting more efficient every day.

Zero emissions. Once sited and placed, a wind turbine or wind farm generates no effluent or emissions. Smoke stacks don't need to be scrubbed, and toxic material doesn't need to be processed, carted away, dumped, or buried.

Doesn't need a water source nearby. Water isn't needed to operate a wind turbine, nor is water used for cooling machines or any other purpose, so wind turbines don't need to be sited near waterways or connected to water sources.

Economic Benefits

Low operating costs. Once installed, wind turbines have a low operating cost.

No source costs. Wind is free, so the energy source cost is $0. These cost savings mean that it's cheaper than the most popular form of electricity in the U.S., coal-burning plants. A 2016 financial study found that unsubsidized wind projects cost between $32 and $62 per megawatt-hour. Coal costs are between $57 and $148 per megawatt-hour. Costs are predicted to come down as winds are expected to increase in strength in a climate-changing world, which could mean energy derived from wind would be greater in the coming years.

Wind Turbines and Farm Field in the Midwest USA
Marcia Straub / Getty Images

Rural communities also benefit. Wind energy installations also benefit rural economies because most wind farms are in less populated areas. For example, a small wind farm in Minnesota generates $1 million of tax revenue per year for the county it's located in.

Wind may need fewer subsidies to keep it affordable. All larger energy delivery systems get government subsidies, including coal plants and wind farms. But the fossil fuel industry may get much higher grants and tax breaks than renewable forms, depending on what factors are taken into consideration. Should the artificially low costs of mining on public land count toward subsidies? Environmental and financial analysts disagree on the matter.

Wind turbines don't contribute to air pollution and related health hazards. Coal-fired power plants have been proven to negatively affect people's health, which leads to medical costs. These are not usually considered a "cost" of producing coal-fired electricity. Whether this is an economic effect or a human health one, or both, it's worth considering as a cost or a cost-savings when it comes to wind power.

Wind power is flexible, allowing energy independence. Unlike fossil fuels, which generally need a centralized power plant to create electricity efficiently, wind power is size- and space-flexible. (Even oil-burning household generators are used for emergency outages only — they're inefficient and also pollute your local air.)

One wind turbine over town houses
George Pachantouris / Getty Images

Size and number of wind turbines can vary to suit the location and energy needs. While the thought of wind power may elicit images of wind farms with hundreds of turbines, there are also small and medium-sized turbines working solo, in pairs, or in threes, providing what is known as distributed power to people who need it. In the United States, the Department of Energy reports that there are more than 85,000 of these smaller turbines, which bring in 1,145 megawatts of power.

Scalability. Small turbines can power homes, ranches, farms, or buildings; larger turbines can be used for local electricity generation for industrial or community needs. 

Disadvantages of Wind Energy

Wind power has some significant challenges, the most well-known of which is their ecological impact on birds and bats. The noise generated by turbines has also been cited by opponents as a quality-of-life issue for those living near them.

Reliability

Wind reliability can vary. Though turbines might produce energy 90% of the time, they might not work at 100% capacity — the average is 35% capacity.

Unpredictability. Low or no wind will shut down a wind turbine, as will winds that are too strong (to protect the machinery). During that time, maintaining regular electricity flow will require either stored wind energy from batteries or another power source.

Noise and Visual Pollution

Noise pollution. Wind turbines can be noisy, generating sound that is in the 50-60 decibel range (comparable to moderate rainfall). This can obviously disturb people who live near even smaller turbines, but data is inconclusive about the health impacts of wind turbine noise.

Wildlife. Wind turbine noise might also affect wildlife, especially birds and bats, but also other animals that use vocalizations to communicate.

Aesthetics. Some people think wind turbines are ugly and don't like to see them on the landscape or over the water.

Girl and bicycle beside shadow of modern wind turbine
Mischa Keijser / Getty Images

Shadow flicker. This is a phenomenon that is produced by the spinning blades of a wind turbine paired with a low-on-the-horizon sun. This casts a moving shadow that's perceived as a flicker as the blades move. It can be disorienting and disturbing for those who live near the turbine, though it tends to happen only in specific, time-limited circumstances. Shadow flicker effects can be calculated and mitigated to minimize impact. Smaller turbines don't have as much of an issue with shadow flicker since they are shorter, so this is mostly a concern with larger turbines.

Ecological Effects

Bird collisions. Wind turbines are responsible for high numbers of bird deaths. The most well-known study on bird collision mortality at wind facilities found that in the continental U.S., wind turbines kill between 140,000 and 328,000 birds every year. There are mitigations (building wind farms away from larger populations of these animals, or installing a radar that shuts turbines down when birds or bats are near), but it isn't yet known how effective these adjustments can be. Bladeless turbines might be another solution to this significant issue.

Flock of Barnacle geese flying past a wind farm, East Frisia, Lower Saxony, Germany
gerdtromm / Getty Images

Impact on local ecosystems. A wind farm, like any other large scale industrial development, will have an impact on local ecosystems. While 98% of the land in a wind farm can be used by animals for habitat needs, there are still maintenance roads and other infrastructure, especially power lines, which can negatively affect wildlife in the area.

Potential impact. The suite of ecological effects of wind farms isn't yet known and unexpected consequences may arise. For example, research done in India found fewer predatory birds near wind farms and many more lizards, which disrupted the local balance of predator and prey.

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