Wind energy is the ability to generate power through the movement of the wind. By having blades rotate as the wind blows, a turbine is spun so that power can be generated. Once installed, it is a power source that does not contribute any future emissions to the greenhouse effect that has many scientists concerned about global warming.
It’s not all good news with wind energy, however, as the local environment does experience certain changes when turbines are built. Aviary life struggles to adapt to the presence of the spinning blades, which can cause high levels of death to local birds and bats. There are several other key points to consider with the current wind energy pros and cons.
What Are the Pros of Wind Energy?
1. It is a renewable source of energy.
Wind power is something that always exists at some level. Fueled by the power of the sun, the wind blows everywhere on our planet to a certain extent. Although this does mean some locations will receive better wind energy than others, we know that every location can build a turbine and benefit from the power it is able to generate.
2. The potential power of the wind is virtually untapped.
It is estimated that there is enough wind energy on our planet today that it can provide 20 times the amount of power our current population needs on a daily basis. This means as we develop new technologies that can handle higher wind speeds, we can replace the power that is currently generated by coal-fired power plants and other less environmentally friendly options.
3. Wind energy has low operational costs compared to fossil fuel energy.
The average wind turbine that is installed in the United States today has a rated operational lifespan of 120,000 hours. This gives the turbine up to 20 years of productive use. Current maintenance costs are estimated to be about 1.5% of the original investment annually. This means a 10 megawatt turbine would have a maintenance cost of $300,000 each year. A majority of this cost is influenced by access.
Coal-fired power plants typically have an ongoing cost that equates to $43 per kilowatt that is produced. This creates an annual maintenance cost of $43,000 per megawatt that is produced, so a 10 megawatt coal-fired power plant would have an estimated maintenance cost of $430,000 per year once brought online.
4. The modern wind turbine is very space efficient.
In the standard wind farm that is installed today, 20 different turbines will be placed over an area that measures about 1 square kilometer in space. Although this amount of space seems excessive, the actual amount of land that is used for the infrastructure of the wind farm is only about 1%. This means the remainder of the land can continue to be used for its original purpose. This includes farming or even the establishment of a natural habitat.
5. Wind energy is a proven technology.
Harnessing the power of the wind is technology that human civilizations have used for over 1,000 years. It is unknown when the first actual windmill was invented, but we do know that the Persians were using windmills as early as the year 500. There is evidence that the Chinese were using windmills by the year 1200. The earliest windmills were often used as a water pump or a tool for grinding grain.
What we consider to be the precursor of the modern wind turbine is called the American Wind Engine. It was invented by Daniel Halladay in 1854.
So there is no need for research or development costs in order to take advantage of what the wind can provide with this resource. Designs for wind turbines go up to 20 megawatts, with the potential of a 75 megawatt turbine being installed in the near future. We know that we can use the wind to create energy that we need. Instead of grinding grain or pumping water, however, we can turn it directly into electricity.
6. The consumer cost of wind energy has been decreasing for 30+ years.
Since 1980, the consumer cost of wind energy has decreased by over 80%. The price of energy is often reported as a cost per kilowatt hour. According to 2012 data from the Department of Energy, onshore wind energy added to natural gas energy is just 8.2 cents per kilowatt hour. This assumes a 30-year lifespan for the wind turbine being used.
Even when other costs are included, the maximum cost for onshore wind is 15.1 cents per kilowatt hour.
Power generation costs are regionally influenced, but this pricing makes wind energy competitive with the high estimates of both coal-fired power plants and nuclear energy. Only natural gas energy is a cheaper source of electricity.
7. Wind energy often qualifies for net metering.
Homeowners and business owners can install a personal wind turbine to supplement their own power consumption. In areas where net metering is allowed by the local utility, the excess energy that wind power can create can result in bill credits for a property owner. The energy goes back into the grid and can be used by others.
Net metering is not allowed in every jurisdiction, so before taking advantage of this benefit, homeowners and business owners will need to check local regulations.
8. It can diversify the economics of a rural community.
Wind energy offers an opportunity for rural communities to add some diversification to their tax base. It can add value to local property taxes and even attract new industries to certain locations. The State of Minnesota estimates that for every 100 megawatts of wind energy development that has occurred in rural areas, about $1 million in tax revenues and $250,000 in direct lease payments has been generated.
9. The costs of wind energy are relatively stable.
Fossil fuels are traded as a commodity, so the final price of the energy they can produce is unpredictable. An example of this is the cost per barrel for crude oil. When pricing is adjusted for inflation, crude oil has seen a low price of $17.60 per barrel in 1998 as an average, while in 2008, the annual average was $102 per barrel.
Wind energy does not have these peaks and valleys in pricing. This is because many of the costs that are involved with wind energy are fixed costs. Once installed, there are no fuel costs that must be considered. The fixed nature of this industry makes it attractive as an investment, even if it may cost more in some years than fossil fuels.
What Are the Cons of Wind Energy?
1. Wind energy can be somewhat expensive to install.
There are three cost points that must be considered when installing a wind turbine. The first is the actual manufacturing and installing costs of the turbine itself. The current manufacturing costs of a wind turbine that is large enough to power a large home, or a 10 kilowatt turbine, are up to $80,000 for a single unit. According to the Department of Energy, a utility-scale wind turbine could cost up to $2.2 million per megawatt of capacity. This would mean a single 10 megawatt turbine would cost $20.2 million.
The second cost point involves land use. Turbines do not take up much space, but the rights to use the land where the wind blows the most consistently may need to be purchased or leased.
The third cost point involves connectivity. Our current power infrastructure is rated to be worth trillions of dollars. Connecting wind energy power to the current network can involve investments that cost billions of dollars if the wind turbines are installed in a rural area.
2. Wind is an intermittent and unpredictable source of energy.
One of the biggest problems that the wind energy industry will always face is the intermittent nature of the wind. There are days when the wind is extremely calm, which means the turbines may not be able to turn at all. This would mean no power would be generated.
Current technologies also prevent wind turbines from spinning when wind speeds are greater than 45-55 miles per hour. This means the turbine does not move even when the wind is blowing, reducing the efficiency of the unit.
This means wind energy must be given some form of storage if it is going to be used as base load energy. Otherwise its intermittent nature makes it more suitable as a supplemental energy source with current technologies.
3. Wind energy creates high levels of noise pollution.
Wind turbines are known to be a threat to local wildlife, especially when considering bats and birds. They also provide their own form of pollution in the form of noise. Homes that are near large wind turbines regularly report high levels of noise from this technology. The spinning blades in the wind create vortex movements, enhancing the natural sounds of the wind so they are louder.
There is also the mechanical sounds of the turbine itself that can be loud and bothersome to those who are close to the equipment.
4. Wind energy changes the visual aesthetics of a landscape.
In order to harness the full power of the wind, a turbine may need to be dozens of meters tall. This height changes the visual aesthetics of the landscape, which can be very bothersome to some people. It may also affect local property values if the turbines interfere with a natural view of some mountains, a lake, or other point of property value.
These changes can also be disruptive to drivers who are not used to encountering wind farms. They become distracted by the view, which draws their attention from the road. According to statistics from the US Government, more than 431,000 people are injured in the United States due to distracted driving every year.
5. Wind energy is not completely free of pollution.
Once a wind turbine has been installed, it requires no fuel in order to generate electricity. This makes it an environmentally friendly solution for the power that we need. To say that wind energy is completely free of pollution, however, would be an inaccurate statement.
The combustion of fossil fuels is required to create the turbine and to transport it to its installation point. Certain maintenance products, such as lubricants, also consume fossil fuels. When considering all of these factors and the lifespan of the average wind turbine, wind energy will begin providing a net benefit to the environment within 8 months of being brought online.
This issue is specific to onshore wind turbines that are installed. Offshore wind turbines are away from any population centers, which removes this disadvantage from consideration.
6. Many of the cost advantages with wind energy rely on subsidies and credits.
There are many financial incentives available for commercial and private installations, giving wind energy the opportunity to grow. It is a new technology, so prices will come down as the efficiencies of it improve. For the average installation to break even, however, it may take between 10-20 years to see anything realistic.
Studies from the United Kingdom have indicated that the average lifespan of a turbine could be as short as 10-15 years. This means some installations may never see a real cost benefit to having wind energy installed. In the future, this potential negative will likely go away, but it is something that must be considered at the moment.
7. Wind energy can be a major threat to wildlife.
Flying creatures are not likely to survive if they happen to make an impact with the rotating blade of a turbine. Adding a turbine to a landscape that is not used to having this obstacle can kill or injure more than 440,000 aviary creatures each year in just the United States.
Although this is definitely a concern, it is often an issue that is not reported with accurate comparisons. Sibley Guides has published an extensive guide on the estimated annual mortality rates of birds in the United States. They estimate that nearly 1 billion birds are killed by windows each year. Another 500 million birds are killed by feral cats annually.
Even high tension wires kill nearly 200 million birds. Automobiles, pesticides, and communications towers are all responsible for more annual avian deaths than wind turbines. So it is true to say that wind energy can be a major threat to wildlife at a local level. When compared to national-level statistics, however, the story can be very different.
8. Wind turbines create a shadow flicker.
As turbines spin, they create shadows that flicker on those who live near the equipment. The amount of flicker that can be created by a single turbine during a single year for a person who lives full-time by a turbine can be as high as 100 minutes. Any exposure to shadow flicker may cause headaches, seizures, and other health issues that are related to the visual changes.
These health conditions may require medical treatment, which adds to the cost of households that are living in or around wind turbines.
These wind energy pros and cons show that there is a lot of potential with this technology. Not only is it renewable, but the initial environmental impacts are negligible and will benefit the planet in a long-term perspective. Assuming that the costs of turbine technologies continues to decrease and any health or local wildlife impacts can be minimized, it is a technology that can potentially free us from the need to rely on the import and combustion of fossil fuels when powering our homes and businesses.