Wind turbines provide us with a way to generate electricity and power when the breezes blow. The air movement occurs because of the differences in temperature that happen on our planet. When the mountains, valleys, and atmosphere all receive different levels of energy from the sun, the imbalances form wind that attempts to achieve homeostasis. Then the turbines have blades that capture this movement to generate the energy we need.
We have used the power from the wind to propel vessels for almost 7,500 years. The Chinese were using turbines to draw water from the ground around the year 200 B.C., while windmills became a useful tool for the grinding of grain in the Middle East. By the time we reached the Middle Ages, this technology was extensively used for food production. It wouldn’t be until the late 19th century before we realized this technology was useful in the creation of power and electricity.
As with all forms of energy creation, there are specific advantages and disadvantages of wind turbines to consider. Some sources of power work better than others in different geographic locations, which is why it is essential to consider these crucial points before finalizing an installation effort.
List of the Advantages of Wind Turbines
1. Wind turbines provide us with one of the cleanest forms of energy available today.
Wind turbines don’t rely on any fossil fuels to power the spinning of their blades. That means the power we create from this resource doesn’t contribute to the issue of climate change during its energy production cycle. The only emissions expense that we must consider with this renewable resource involves the release of carbon and other gases during the manufacturing, transportation, and installation of each unit.
Because wind turbines can produce an almost infinite source of energy we can use after installation, the low emissions profile creates net gains very quickly to reduce our impact on the environment.
2. Turbines don’t require fuel to operate.
Large-scale wind farms don’t rely on combustion to create an energy resource for us to use. That means there is no need for fuel beyond the cost of inspecting each unit to ensure it functions correctly. That means the overall cost of operations is much less when compared to other sources of renewable energy since some of them require ongoing fossil fuel support to operate.
3. Wind turbines won’t disrupt agricultural activities.
The modern wind turbine requires a minimal footprint during its installation. That means an energy supplier can build units almost anywhere that consistent breezes blow, including on existing farmland. Farmers receive money in return for the structures being built on their property through leases or contracts. These funds help to supplement their agricultural revenues while disruptions remain minimal at ground level.
The current rate of wind turbine adoption with the available land space is only 1.5% today, but this advantage could help us to quickly expand the amount of energy we’re producing with this resource.
4. This resource reduces our dependence on fossil fuels.
The energy we generate from fossil fuels could be contributing to the issue of climate change. Those resources are also finite by definition, which means we could run out of them one day. When we have a series of wind turbines installed around the world, then we’ll continue to have a way to generate electricity. As long as the sun keeps shining, there will be temperature differences on our planet that will cause breezes to blow.
Proponents of wind energy also point out that the investments and development of technologies that only operate with fossil fuels is a waste of capital if the resource could be gone in our lifetime.
5. Supplemental technology can help to stop wildlife deaths from wind turbines.
Wind farms can equip radar to their turbines to automatically detect when birds might be in the area. When there is an indication that wildlife is present, then the turbines automatically shut down until the animals leave the area. Although this technology isn’t perfect, a combination of cameras, GPS sensors, and similar technologies make it easy to detect the movement of animals while they are still miles away.
6. Wind turbines offer a low operating cost.
Although the capital cost of a wind turbine is somewhat high when compared to other forms of renewable energy, some of that investment comes back because there are fewer maintenance needs with this technology. Once the blades start spinning, the technology doesn’t require a lot of attention over its 20-year lifetime. There aren’t any fuel costs to consider with this technology either, which reduces the bottom line even further.
That’s why the cost per kilowatt-hour, when labor and environmental costs are also part of the equation, is highly competitive in today’s energy economy.
7. This resource helps to revitalize the world’s rural economies.
Most of today’s rural economies focus on agriculture as a sole source of revenue outside of the indirect support jobs that are available from this work. The addition of wind energy can add to the tax base, providing more income generation tools that can help to develop local infrastructure. When Southwest Minnesota made the installation of wind turbines a priority, they discovered that the installation of every 50 two-megawatt turbines generated about $1 million per year in new tax revenues and $250,000 to landowners.
8. Wind energy receives fewer subsidies than other forms of energy.
Although there are some valid criticisms regarding who receives wind energy subsidies in the United States, the actual figure is quite low when compared to other forms of power generation. The traditional energy resources receive over $300 billion in assistance each year, while wind turbines have been given a total of $20 billion over 30 years of development.
When you add in the cost of health issues related to the pollution caused by fossil fuels, the power generated from a coal-fired power plant is equal to or higher than what the cost of wind energy is measured at a kilowatt-hour rate.
9. Wind turbines offer a higher level of price stability.
The wind might not be an entirely reliable resource to use, but several geographic locations see consistent breezes blowing throughout the year. Installing turbines in these locations to create a utility resource creates a higher level of price stability than is possible with fossil fuels. Crude oil, coal, and other commodities go through the futures-trading process that can create variability in raw material pricing. The wind energy economy doesn’t experience this issue since it doesn’t require additional fuel.
The only variable to consider with wind turbines involves the manufacturing and transportation expense, and those are based on the fossil fuel economy.
10. Manufacturing and installing wind turbines creates numerous job opportunities.
Wind energy projects create short- and long-term jobs that benefit local, state, and national economies. The employment opportunities range from land surveyors to structural engineers. Industry positions include assembly workers, turbine inspectors, meteorologists, and attorneys. When the installation of wind farms gets compared to a coal-fired power plant, about 30% more jobs get created because of the renewables sector.
When wind energy gets compared to nuclear energy, then it generates almost 70% more jobs.
11. Wind turbines encourage local ownership.
A small cluster of wind turbines can provide a significant contribution to the global energy mix that we currently use. Even a single turbine can be a useful addition to a community. This equipment is often operated by small businesses, local utilities, or local landowners. When each community can develop its own electricity-generating infrastructure, then that means fewer imports are necessary to meet the needs of each household.
Local spending generates $1.78 of economic activity for every $1 that remains within a community. If that money goes to the import of energy, then it only generates $1.43 of activity for each $1 invested.
12. It preserves our water resources.
Turbines don’t produce any particulate emissions. That means there isn’t the threat of mercury contamination reaching our streams or lakes. This technology also conserves our water resources, taking 500 times less water than coal and 600 times less than nuclear to create the electricity that we use each day.
13. Wind turbines offer us an incredible amount of potential.
The potential of wind energy when we can fully utilize this resource is massive. There’s 20 times more power available through the use of turbines when the breezes blow than what we currently use right now. Since the largest units provide enough electricity to power 600 homes, it gives us expansion opportunities in many locations without a significant investment being necessary. Prices have decreased by 80% since 1980 in this sector as the efficiency rate continues to rise.
The current estimated potential of wind power stands at 400 terawatts.
List of the Disadvantages of Wind Turbines
1. The movement of wind turbines could be dangerous to some wildlife.
We know that the spinning blades from a wind turbine can pose a threat to some animals. Bats and birds who have migratory paths or habitats in proximity to this technology could get injured or killed with a blade strike. Conservation groups have brought up concerns about this issue by asking if the technology will ever be safe for birds.
Wind turbines kill up to 328,000 birds each year in North America, making it the most dangerous form of renewable energy. With over 50,000 individual turbines operating and laws in place that prevent the death of any bird covered by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, careful placement of new installations must take place to stay in compliance.
2. Wind turbines can be quite noisy.
Most wind turbine installations happen in rural areas where low population levels are to reduce the impact of this disadvantage. Some locations, such as an offshore wind farm, don’t need to worry about this issue. Newer designs are also improving the amount of sound pollution that exists with an installation. The older turbines still produce a bothersome amount of noise that can be problematic to some population centers.
It has become such an issue in some regions that subsidies are being proposed to community organizations and homeowners who leave near these installations. Those who live near turbines often complain of the visual and noise pollution they experience every day.
3. The cost of a wind turbine can be excessive for some utilities.
The price tag on a modern wind turbine that operates on a utility-scale ranges from $1.3 million to $2.2 million for every megawatt of installed capacity. Most of the installations that occur today involve turbines that produce 2 megawatts at an expense of almost $4 million per unit. Since the average operating lifespan of a turbine is approximately 20 years, there could be economic damages to consider with this technology.
The environmental gains are always worth considering, but the financial losses that are possible are something that could be difficult for some communities to manage.
4. Most of the U.S. subsidies for wind turbines go to foreign agencies.
The top five recipients of federal tax credits and federal grants for wind energy are NRG Energy, Southern Company, NextEra Energy, Iberdrola, and Summit Power. Each agency has been the recipient of over $1 billion in taxpayer-funded benefits. The Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University discovered that as of 2010, 84% of the clean energy credits in this space were directed to foreign-owned companies.
Congress has enacted over 80 different policies over the past decade to support wind power. Nine different agencies are responsible for overseeing these investments. That means the cost of bureaucracy is high enough that the average taxpayer could create personal economic benefits more readily in this space.
5. Wind is an unpredictable resource to use for energy generation.
Most forms of renewable energy must manage the disadvantage of intermittency. Wind turbines can only turn when the breezes blow. That means a calm day creates a circumstance where no energy creation can happen. The speed at which the wind blows can also impact the amount of electricity that we can generate at any given time. That means utility suppliers must have access to alternative sources of power or have an energy reserve available to offer a stable base supply of power.
6. The efficiency rate of wind energy is extremely low.
Wind energy installations operate at an efficiency rate that is often below 40%. Some onshore locations are below 30%. The disadvantage here is directly due to the wind speeds at which the turbines can spin. Many of them need the breeze to be at least 5 mph before they will operate. If the wind is blowing too strong, then the turbines stop moving to prevent damage. That means the operational range often stops at 35 mph to 55 mph, letting a lot of this energy go to waste since the blades aren’t spinning.
7. The aesthetics of wind turbines can be bothersome to people.
People have a varied reaction to seeing wind turbines in nature. Some people smile because they see this technology as a vision of economic development or environmental progress. This technology represents an advancement in how we generate electricity.
Others see the presence of wind turbines as a blight on a rural or natural landscape. Although there are some ways to minimize the impact of this issue by painting the blades a neutral color or placing them in a uniform manner, the visual pollution can be detrimental to some communities.
8. Wind turbines can create problems with shadow flickers.
Shadow flicker from a wind turbine occurs when the blades spin and cast shadows. During a windy day, the light-to-dark-to-light combination could be an issue for people who have sensitivities to light. It could also trigger health issues that could end up resulting in a seizure for some. Wind farm designers work to avoid placing turbines in a location where this disadvantage is a significant problem, but light alteration issues can impact some neighborhoods for up to 100 minutes per year.
9. Radar interference can be a problem with some wind turbine facilities.
Although radar interference is rare with a wind turbine, it is still possible. Several installations have functional operations and turbines operating together, but technological improvements and correct siting of each unit near sensitive areas must come into consideration when managing this issue. The amount of echo can increase on windy days, which means some facilities may need to consider an alternative form of energy creation – especially if it is an offshore installation that is causing interference issues.
10. Some wind turbine installations can encourage ground erosion.
It requires a significant amount of heavy equipment to install one wind turbine. That means the local environment gets disturbed for the entire time the construction work takes place. These projects can encourage land erosion to continue in some areas, especially when a high-altitude or off-shore installation is taking place. That’s why it is essential to avoid grading roads during this work and to perform site reclamation activities after the turbine becomes operational.
11. Some wind turbines don’t pay for themselves over time.
Utility installations focus on wind turbines for electricity generation because the commercial-scale technology can produce enough power to break even with five years of operations. Many homeowners focus on solar over wind because the time it takes to become a net electricity producer can be up to 20 years – and that’s the average lifespan of this technology. Solar is also often cheaper as an initial investment, priced in the $20,000 range.
The cost of a new residential wind turbine that can generate enough usable electricity can be up to $70,000.
The United States established financial incentives to use renewable energy in the 1990s as a response to renewed concerns about the environment. Subsidies were put into place to encourage research and development in this sector, offering investment incentives and tax breaks for wind power projects. Those investments led to the U.S. share of electricity generated from wind to rise from 1% in 1990 to almost 7% in 2018.
China is currently making a similar investment in wind energy as a way to move away from coal-fired energy. Those funds have led them to become the largest producer of wind energy in the world today.
When we examine the advantages and disadvantages of wind turbines, it is essential to remember that this resource is a developing technology. It will continue to become more efficient as we develop new ways to harness this resource. With the benefits outweighing the disadvantages in the minds of many, it seems to be an investment that makes sense.
Natalie Regoli, Esq. is the author of this post and the editor-in-chief of our blog. She received her B.A. in Economics from the University of Washington and her Masters in Law from The University of Texas School of Law. In addition to being a seasoned writer, Natalie has almost two decades of experience as a lawyer and banker. If you would like to reach out to contact Natalie, then go here to send her a message.