Humans have been using wind energy for thousands of years to sail boats, and hundreds of years to power machinery. People have been harnessing wind for generating electricity for over 100 years. Despite this history, wind is used to supply less than 5% of the electricity used in the US today. Despite the lack of fuel costs, there are many wind energy pros and cons that electrical generation plants have to take into consideration. As consumers and citizens, we owe it to ourselves to learn all there is to know about wind energy pros and cons.
Wind Energy Pros and Cons
Low Operating Costs
Wind energy has no fuel costs, so once a generator is operating, the only cost is maintenance. The wind turbine technology is improving rapidly, and is expected to continue to improve, to cut maintenance costs per kilowatt even further in the future.
Wind Energy Causes Minimal Pollution
The only air and water pollution caused by wind turbines is in their manufacture; once running, they don’t create any. While the pollution caused by creating a wind farm cannot be ignored, the same issue exists for every other form of electrical generation that we have available.
Wind Energy Doesn’t Use Water
Unlike most other methods of generating energy, wind energy does not need water for cooling. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, electric generation used over 200,000 million gallons per day in 2005.
This is very close to half of the water used for all purposes, and it must be cooled before it can be released back into the environment.
Wind Is Endlessly Renewable
Wind is caused by the sun heating the earth, so wind energy can be considered one way to harvest solar energy. While the planet is inhabitable at all, there will be wind that we can use as an energy source.
Wind Energy Costs are Relatively Stable, and Going Down
The cost for building and maintaining wind turbines has decreased 80% since 1980, and is expected to continue to go down as the technology improves. Once a wind turbine is installed, it’s not difficult to estimate the average costs over its expected useful life. Given that there are no electricity costs involved, the price of wind energy doesn’t fluctuate. In contrast, the price of fossil fuels have varied widely over the last 20 years.
Wind Energy Is Not Reliable
Wind turbines only operate effectively within a range of wind speed. If it is too calm or the wind speed is too high, they don’t produce electricity. Because wind energy cannot be relied on, other methods of generation that can meet peak demand must be available.
Storing some of the energy from wind generation for use when the demand is higher than production is possible, but astonishingly expensive. The most cost-effective method that we have so far is gravity; pumping water uphill with extra electricity, and using hydroelectric generation when it flows back down. This isn’t even close to being 100%
efficient, and the amount of water that would need to be stored at both the uphill and downhill ends of such a system to supply electricity for one calm day for one wind farm’s output would be many times the volume of the Empire State Building. Storing the energy as heat or in chemical-based batteries is even more expensive.
Wind Energy Causes Noise and Light Pollution
The rotating blades aren’t quiet, and neighbors of wind farms have complained bitterly about the noise pollution. The audible sound is admittedly accompanied by air vibration too low-pitched to be heard by most people. However, the health effects of low-frequency noise are not well-studied, and controversy claims are made on both sides of the question. This is one of the most disputed points in wind energy pros and cons.
Less controversial is the issue of light pollution. During daylight hours, the rotating blades can cause flashing from reflected sunlight or by casting moving shadows. Both can cause a strobe light effect, which can cause dizziness, tinnitus, anxiety, or seizures in people who are sensitive to it. The places being so affected will change throughout the day, as the sun moves across the sky.
Throughout the night, tall structures must be lit, and these lights can become an annoyance to people nearby, particularly star-gazers. They can also attract night-flying birds.
Wind Energy Damages Wildlife
It is well-known that wind turbines can kill unwary birds and bats. There is also concern that it may interfere with other wildlife, because of the noise that they generate. Some farmers near or within wind farms report that their livestock show a marked increase in health problems since the turbines were installed, though the claim is not well-studied.
If it is true, whatever is affecting the livestock can reasonably be supposed to reduce habitat for local wildlife as well.
Wind Turbines Are Expensive to Install
While wind turbines are inexpensive to run, they are more expensive than most other types of electric generation to install. Beyond the cost of the turbines themselves, an
industrial wind turbine is usually over 300 feet high, and the total weight can range from over 150 tons to over 300 tons. A foundation to support that weight safely can easily require over 1,000 tons of concrete and steel.
These costs are the primary reason that wind energy is not yet less expensive than other methods.
Wind Turbines Are Unsightly
This is certainly a matter of personal taste, and that varies. However, people who treasure their view do have some basis for complaint if that view has wind turbines added to it.
Wind energy cannot alone supply all of our growing demand for electricity, but one cannot ignore the advantages, either. A good understanding of wind energy pros and cons can help us find situations where it is the best choice.
With a good understanding of wind energy pros and cons, you can get involved yourself, whether it’s a smaller generator for your home’s use, or adding your voice to the debate over wind energy pros and cons.