Wind Energy Pros And Cons (The Carbon Footprint Of Turbines)

By Natalia Mello | Updated on September 16, 2021

Although many people did not recognize the benefits of wind energy until recently, using this clean and abundant source is not a new phenomenon.

Humans have been using windmills and sailboats for millennia, and the first megawatt wind turbine was built in 1941.1 Since then, many technological and political developments have favored a boom in the wind power industry.2

As wind farms conquer the world, we have reasons to celebrate. Wind is a renewable source of energy, which reduces our dependency on fossil fuels and presents us with environmental and socioeconomic advantages.

Nonetheless, as wind turbines twirl, they also generate negative impacts, including threats to wildlife. Moreover, their carbon footprint is still significant, as their construction sends to the air considerable amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2).

Knowing more about these pros and cons of wind power can help us build a stronger foundation for advocating for improvements, and the widespread use of this clean energy source.

An 8 Billion Trees graphic showing facts about harnessing wind energy.

Wind Energy 101

Before diving deep into how wind power works and the pros and cons of this technology, let’s first recall what wind is and how it works.

Wind is “the movement of air from an area of high pressure to an area of low pressure.”3  Air under high pressure moves to areas of low pressure. That’s a consequence of differences in temperature, which exist because the sun heats the surface of the Earth unequally.

Since the sun will continue to heat our planet for the next 7 to 8 billion years, wind will remain an abundant resource for a long time.4 To harness the energy from this clean and renewable source, we currently mostly utilize wind turbines.

The four main components of a wind turbine are a steel tower (supported by concrete), a nacelle, a generator, and the blades.5 As the wind blows, the blades harness kinetic energy and start to rotate, transforming this form of energy into mechanical power. A generator then transforms this mechanical power into electricity.

In a wind farm, several wind turbines are interconnected and connected to the power grid. Wind farms can be installed both onshore (land) and offshore (bodies of water). The electricity produced in offshore wind farms travels through undersea cables to reach the power grid. Usually, offshore turbines are taller, and have much bigger blades than those that are placed onshore.

An onshore wind turbine can, on average, provide electricity to power 1,500 European households. A standard offshore turbine, in contrast, can power 3,212 European homes. If we installed a small turbine in our backyards, we would have enough energy to actually power our own houses.1

The Pros of Wind Energy

There are many environmental and socioeconomic advantages to harnessing the energy of the wind, both onshore and offshore. Let’s dive into them.

Environmental Advantages of Wind Energy

  • It’s clean

Unlike fossil fuels, harnessing energy from the wind does not generate noxious gases like nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide, nor particulate matter – all of which pollute the environment and harm human and non-human health. When we use wind power, we are not contributing to issues like smog and acid rain.

In addition, the carbon footprint of wind power is lower than that of fossil fuels, since the operation of wind turbines does not emit carbon. On average, considering its whole lifecycle, a wind turbine emits 26 grams of CO2-equivalent per kilowatt-hour. For comparison, coal emits up to 1,689 grams of CO2-equivalent per kilowatt-hour.6

Because the materials wind turbines are made of are very energy-intensive, building them emits a considerable amount of carbon. The carbon footprint of manufacturing one wind turbine is equal to 1,701 tons of CO2-equivalent, which is not negligible.7

More greenhouse gases (GHG) are emitted in the manufacture, transportation, installation, and maintenance of turbines. Within 9 months of operation, however, wind turbines offset the GHG emissions they generate.8

  • It saves water and keeps it clean

Producing electricity from wind requires 500 and 600 times less water than from coal and nuclear power, respectively.9

Also, because wind turbines do not generate particulate matter, they do not contribute to the contamination of bodies of water.

  • It saves resources

Wind power does not imply mining for resources, nor the use of any type of fuel, and usually does not involve deforestation, as clearing land to build them only adds to the cost.

Wind turbines sitting on the top of hills against a deep blue sky, near Sequoia National Park.

  • Modern turbines are very efficient in harvesting energy

Due to technological advancements, turbines are being designed in ways that allow for greater electricity production while running more safely and requiring less maintenance (which in turn reduce their already small carbon footprint).

Socioeconomic Advantages of Wind Energy

  •  It reduces the dependence on fossil fuels

Besides diminishing our overall carbon footprint, reducing our dependence on fossil fuels is very important, as these are non-renewable resources. Resource scarcity triggers serious socioeconomic effects, which can range from spike in prices to war outbreaks.

  •  It’s cheap

Because of the many technological advancements aiming to improve wind power generation, since 1980 prices have fallen by over 80 percent.9

Currently, onshore wind generation costs 1 to 2 cents per kilowatt-hour – so that’s one of the cheapest ways to generate electricity – and wind farms sell electricity at a fixed price for a long period (over 20 years).2

  • It generates jobs

More than 100,00 workers are part of the wind power sector in the United States.2  By 2050, more than 600,000 jobs can be created to comply with the growing demands for wind energy.10

  • It can power the entire world

Although some countries have a greater wind supply than others, harvesting energy from the wind can be accomplished in most places of the world. The global potential of wind power generation is above 400 terawatts;8offshore wind farms alone could produce 11 times more power than humanity currently demands.11

  • Wind turbines do not compete with food production

Normally, rural areas are the most suitable for the sitting of onshore wind turbines. For that reason, many of those are installed in existing farmlands, but they only occupy a small portion of the land and do not disrupt the local operations. Because those who own the wind power plant pay farmers to use their land, the latter receive extra income to invest in their production activities.2

The Cons of Wind Energy

Despite the many advantages explained above, harvesting energy from the wind – much like with all other energy sources – also has some disadvantages, such as:

  • Carbon footprint

As stated above, the manufacturing of wind turbines generates large quantities of carbon, from the acquisition of materials to make it, to the machinery required to install one. Other processes, like transportation and maintenance, also contribute to climate change.

  • Upfront costs

The installation of wind farms – especially offshore – requires a substantial initial investment. Moreover, wind farms are usually implemented in areas that are far from the urban centers that require electricity, so expanding the infrastructure to generate wind power is costly. Nonetheless, advancements to reduce these costs are already underway.12

  •  Noise Pollution

Although wind turbines do not contribute to air pollution, they generate noise. The noise comes from both the twirling of the blades and the humming sound the generator makes. These are unfamiliar and somewhat disturbing sounds to those living in rural areas. Fortunately, the latest turbine designs allow for noise reduction.8

  • Visual Pollution

While some of us are happy to see wind turbines as they remind us of solid steps being taken to fight global warming, not all people find them pleasing to the eyes. Many people, especially rural inhabitants, see wind farms as a symbol of industrial encroachment in the rural and natural landscapes.

  • Biological and wildlife impacts

Depending on the characteristics of the local environment, wind turbines and farms can harm animals and plants. If wind farms are built in previously forested areas, loss of habitats and biodiversity decrease are chief concerns.

Another widely known problem of turbines is the killing of birds and bats when they fly into rotating blades. As for bird collisions, these have diminished since more turbines whose blades rotate 15 times per minute have been installed. When it comes to bats, research is still underway to uncover which developments can lead to diminished impacts on these animals.2

Offshore farms impact marine species in both the construction and operation phases. The turbines alter the habitat, and underwater noise – which is specially high during the building of the farm – highly disturbs and disrupts the animals.13

Galapagos penguins swim around and lounge on rocks in the ocean.

  • Unpredictability and variability

Although wind is an abundant resource, it can blow at many different speeds and this makes it difficult to predict how much energy wind turbines can harvest. Sometimes, the speed at which the wind is blowing is not enough to ensure electricity production. Because of these limitations, suppliers and consumers need an energy reserve and cannot rely entirely on the wind to power their operations.8

  • Radar interference

Although radar interference issues are rare, it can still occur. However, the correct siting of wind turbines allied with technological advances can help avoid radar interference in the future.8

Balancing the Pros and Cons of Wind Energy

The wind, such as other renewable energy sources, is a great ally in the fight against the many environmental and socioeconomic problems and threats we are currently facing.

Besides emitting less GHG than fossil fuels, wind energy:

  • does not cause air or water pollution
  • is cost-effective
  • creates jobs
  • does not deplete natural resources
  • supports energy independence
  • is available throughout the world
  • will remain abundant as long as our sun exists.

Although many challenges in the wind power sector are still to be overcome, especially when it comes to their manufacturing carbon footprint, constant technological advancements have been lessening the negative impacts of onshore and offshore wind farms.

As the world grows united in the fight against climate change, more and more research, as well as industrial and political developments, can favor the upsurge of wind turbines that tread even more lightly in our planet.

Also, as individuals, we can help to mitigate the carbon footprints of the building, transporting, installation (if that results in deforestation), and maintenance of wind energy by supporting tree planting and purchasing forestry carbon offsets.


References

1Staff, G. (2008, October 17). Timeline: The history of wind power. Retrieved August 19, 2021, from http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2008/oct/17/wind-power-renewable-energy

2United States Environmental Protection Agency. (n.d.). Advantages and Challenges of Wind Energy. Retrieved August 19, 2021, from https://www.energy.gov/eere/wind/advantages-and-challenges-wind-energy

3National Geographic. (n.d.). Wind Power. Retrieved August 19, 2021, from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/wind-power

4Wendel, J. (2019, August 7). Will the Sun Ever Burn Out? Retrieved August 19, 2021, from https://www.space.com/14732-sun-burns-star-death.html

5Todd, F. (2019, June 7). Anatomy of a wind turbine: Analysing the key components involved. Retrieved August 19, 2021, from https://www.nsenergybusiness.com/features/wind-turbine-components/

6Peach, M. (2021, June 30). What’s the carbon footprint of a wind turbine? » Yale Climate Connections. Retrieved August 19, 2021, from http://yaleclimateconnections.org/2021/06/whats-the-carbon-footprint-of-a-wind-turbine/

7Yang, D., & Liu, J. (2015). Carbon footprint of wind turbine by life cycle assessment. Huanjing Kexue Xuebao/Acta Scientiae Circumstantiae, 35((3)), 927–934. https://doi.org/10.13671/j.hjkxxb.2014.0906

8Windustry. (n.d.). Pros and Cons Wind Energy. Retrieved August 18, 2021, from https://www.windustry.org/pros_cons_wind_energy

9Conserve Energy Future. (2021, August 22). 7 Pros and Cons of Wind Energy (Wind Power) – Retrieved August 19, 2021, from https://www.conserve-energy-future.com/pros-and-cons-of-wind-energy.php

10United States Environmental Protection Agency. (n.d.). Wind Vision. Retrieved August 19, 2021, from https://www.energy.gov/eere/wind/wind-vision-0

11Vetter, D. (2019, October 25). Offshore Wind Can Power The World, Say Former Skeptics. Retrieved August 19, 2021, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidrvetter/2019/10/25/offshore-wind-can-power-the-world-say-former-skeptics/

12U.S. Department of Energy. (2017, January 9). Report Shows New Transmission Can Help Wind Energy Supply a Third of U.S. Electricity. Retrieved August 19, 2021, from https://www.energy.gov/eere/articles/report-shows-new-transmission-can-help-wind-energy-supply-third-us-electricity

13European Wind Energy Association. (n.d.). Impacts on marine mammals and sea birds. Retrieved August 19, 2021, from https://www.wind-energy-the-facts.org/impacts-on-marine-mammals-and-sea-birds.html