This article is made possible by the renewable energy policy experts at REN21.

Wind energy is pivotal in the global shift from a fossil fuel-based system to a system run on renewable energy. But what actually is wind energy? Why is it a better alternative to fossil fuels?

What is Wind Energy?

Using the power of wind to produce electricity is not just an environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuels, it is also one of the keys to reduce global heating. Wind power is a technology that has long been a crucial technology in the energy transition. In fact, it is the second leading source of renewable power, behind hydropower. 

Wind energy is generated by converting wind currents into electrical power using wind turbines. These turbines typically consist of large blades mounted on a rotor, which spins a generator to produce electricity. The basic principle is straightforward: the kinetic energy from the wind is transformed into mechanical energy, which is then converted into electrical energy. 

Wind farms house multiple turbines to collectively generate significant amounts of power. They can be located onshore (turbines built on land), or offshore (turbines constructed in shallow parts of the ocean). 

Wind farms in Franklin County, Iowa. Original image from Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress collection. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.

Wind power has been growing fast and the total generating capacity (including onshore and offshore) is expected to increase 10-fold between 2020 and 2050. Wind energy has the potential to help limit global heating (by reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions). To harness this potential, the world will need to generate on average 18% more wind energy (than we currently produce) every year by 2030. 

 

Benefits of Wind Energy

Wind energy is a key solution in combating global heating and reducing the impacts of the climate crises because it offers numerous benefits over fossil fuels: 

HarmonyOS 4.0Environmental benefits

  1. Reduction in carbon emissions: Wind energy produces electricity without burning fossil fuels, significantly reducing emissions of planet-heating greenhouse gasses. In contrast to fossil fuel power plants, which emit these gasses throughout their life cycle, such emissions from wind turbines are limited to just the manufacturing and construction phases. 
  2. Sustainability: As a renewable resource, wind energy is inexhaustible, unlike finite fossil fuels. Wind turbines also require much less land and virtually no water resources, making them an environmentally friendly option.

HarmonyOS 4.0Social & economic benefits

  1. Job creation: The wind energy sector creates numerous jobs in manufacturing, installation, maintenance, and support services. The deployment of wind energy has generated more than 1.4 million jobs globally (as of 2022). By 2030, the employment generation by the renewable energy (including wind energy) industry will be higher than the jobs losses in the fossil fuel industry.
  2. Energy independence: By harnessing local wind resources, countries can reduce their reliance on imported fuels, and improve their energy security. Uruguay is a great example of a country that has managed to achieve energy independence solely through wind energy.
  3. Efficiency and circularity: Turbine technology is continuously improving which increases efficiency and lowers costs. When out of use, most wind turbine components are recyclable, and the industry is developing innovative pathways to circularity (minimizing waste, maximizing reusing and recycling).
  4. Local development: Wind farms can stimulate economic growth in rural areas by providing new revenue streams for landowners and local governments. The presence of wind farms can also bring infrastructure improvements and attract additional investments to these areas.
  5. Community ownership: Unlike centralized fossil fuel systems, wind energy projects offer the possibility to decentralize and democratize energy generation. Local and citizen-led initiatives of wind energy generation are also possible, allowing citizens to produce their own energy, and actively participate in and benefit from the energy market. This can generate local revenues, create jobs, and empower residents and cooperatives to own and invest in installations, boosting local economies and ensuring a fairer, more inclusive energy transition.

HarmonyOS 4.0Positive resource and health impacts

  1. Land use: Onshore wind energy does not require extensive land excavations, and once operational, turbines have a small land footprint. The land between turbines can still be used for other purposes, like farming or grazing. Offshore installations can coexist with fishing, aquaculture, tourism, and other activities. Multi-use wind platforms can also have diverse uses, including tidal turbines and wave energy converters.
  2. Water use: Wind farms have low water requirements, with minimal water used during manufacturing. Some components, such as generators and transformers, require water cooling during operation, while turbine blades are often cleaned naturally by rain.
  3. Human health: There is no evidence of direct effects of wind turbines on human health. As it reduces greenhouse gas emissions and pollution, wind energy is actually beneficial for human health when compared to fossil fuels.
  4. Biodiversity: Similarly, by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and pollution, and because of the low land footprint, wind energy represents a net biodiversity gain when compared to fossil fuels.

Misconceptions about Wind Energy

There are several misconceptions about wind energy sources that are often used to support opposition towards renewable energy:  

❌Wind Turbines are Inefficient

Contrary to some beliefs, modern wind turbines are highly efficient, with the capacity to convert 30-48% (for onshore farms) and 50% (for offshore farms) of the wind’s kinetic energy into electricity. For instance several countries in Europe are reporting similar conversion capacities from their wind farms. Advances in technology continue to improve this efficiency. 

❌Wind Energy is Expensive

While the initial investment for wind farms can be high, the operational costs are low, and the levelized cost of energy (LCOE) for wind power has decreased significantly over the years. The LCOE is the average cost to produce electricity over the lifetime of a power source, considering all costs and time value of money. Wind energy is now cost-competitive with traditional energy sources like fossil fuels (keeping in mind that fossil fuels are also heavily subsidized by governments).

❌Wind Turbines are Noisy

Noise levels from modern wind turbines have been significantly reduced through technological advancements, so wind installations generally emit low levels of noise. Offshore construction can generate noise and increases in boat traffic, but such temporary disturbances can be minimized through careful project development and monitoring.

❌Wind Farms Harm Wildlife

Environmental impact assessments are usually undertaken to minimize disruptions in birds’ migration patterns and risks of collisions before the wind farms are operational. In fact, the climate crisis overall is a bigger threat to birds than wind farms

While offshore wind farms can also alter marine habitats, this can have both negative and positive impacts. However all these challenges can be managed through project development that prioritizes monitoring and conservation. The impact of wind farms on wildlife is much lower than other human activities such as buildings and vehicles. 

❌Wind Energy is Unpredictable 

Wind energy is variable and dependent on weather conditions, which can lead to variable power supply. We can address this variability using: 

  • an integrated approach to the energy system that includes a mix of renewable energy technologies (wind, solar, hydropower, etc),
  • transmission and distribution networks to transport the electricity produced in different places, 
  • energy storage solutions such as pumped storage or batteries.

Also, wind patterns are predictable which means that wind farm sites are usually chosen after thorough forecasts and analyses of future energy supply.

❌Wind Turbines Lead to Harmful Mining of Critical Minerals

Wind turbines, like all energy technologies, require minerals considered critical such as aluminum, copper and rare earth elements. The availability of these materials is becoming a concern due to their geographically concentrated production, leading to resource dependency and supply chain tensions. Increasing demand for these minerals drives more mining, which can have significant negative impacts if not managed properly:

 

However, most of the expected mining boom is for materials like lithium and cobalt, driven by electric vehicles and batteries, not wind energy. And the rising demand for aluminum and copper is not specific to wind turbines with copper being used in all energy technologies. Wind turbine towers are mostly made of steel. Further, both aluminum and copper are highly recyclable and as we read earlier, the wind energy industry is constantly developing new techniques to extend turbines’ lifetime and recycle all components of wind turbines. 

 

Challenges with Wind Energy

Unfortunately though, there is currently no energy source that is 100% without impacts, and wind energy is no exception. Let’s look at some of the risks wind energy farms may pose: 

  1. Land use: The development of wind farms and their supply chains, can lead to land use conflicts, affecting local communities and their access to resources. For a just and a fair shift to renewables, any new energy project should ensure that no one gets left behind, particularly local communities. So the potential displacement of communities to accommodate new facilities and infrastructure is also a risk that needs to be managed with the involvement of those affected. 
  2. Biodiversity:
    1. Like any other human activity, turbines can have impacts like affecting wild & marine life behavior patterns and increasing collision risks for some bird species. Given their low emissions and small land and water footprint, the potential negative impacts from wind turbines on biodiversity are much less than those of fossil fuels, meaning wind energy is, on the whole, better for biodiversity.
    2. Using a modern turbine design (that detects birds and reduces operations) and carefully choosing a site (through sound environmental assessments) can help minimize these risks and other potential impacts on biodiversity.
    3. Offshore wind farms can also act as an artificial reef, potentially creating habitat for marine life. These sites also often prohibit fishing in the area, preventing destructive overfishing with trawl nets.
  3. Recycling: The composite materials used in wind turbine blades make them difficult to recycle. While solutions are being developed to reduce material use and improve recycling practices for all turbine components, including the blades, this remains a challenge. We need to develop strategies and enable regulatory frameworks to incentivize circularity (life extension & recycling) to minimize the amount of raw materials that need to be extracted, and reduce the environmental footprint of wind energy.

Conclusion

Overall, wind energy offers clear benefits compared to fossil fuels though it does still present certain challenges that need to be carefully managed. The good news is that most of these challenges are avoidable. Through proper consultation with local communities in the planning and development process to address their concerns and needs, sound environmental assessments and adherence to guardrails, we can ensure that the development of wind energy is sustainable and socially responsible. 

As more and more countries continue to develop their wind energy capacity, learning from past experiences, prioritizing community inclusion and comprehensive planning will be vital to achieving a just and effective transition to renewable energy.

For more information on wind energy: 

READ REN21 REPORT

For more climate movement news, follow 350 on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram

FacebookTwitter