Human civilizations have harnessed the power of the wind since the beginning of documented time. Although there have been cycles where the popularity of this renewable resources has risen or fallen, the use of windmills in past centuries to turbines today has made it possible to build a modern lifestyle while working to improve the health of our planet.
Persians were using wind power to pump water and grind grain as early as the 9th century BC. The popularity of the windmill would spread to Europe, and then to the colonies, helping farmers to drain marshes and lakes to create arable land.
John Burnham and Daniel Halladay were the first in the United States to focus on wind energy, starting the U.S. Wind Engine Company to create the windmills that are an iconic part of the American west. By the 1890s, most farmers or ranchers were using this technology to pump water and even generate electricity. Even turbines that generated wind power were installed in the U.S. by the 1940s, with one on Grandpa’s Knob in Vermont generating 1.25MW of energy to the local network.
As we look for ways to ween ourselves off of fossil fuels, coming back to the power of the wind could make sense. There are several key pros and cons of wind power to consider before doing so, which are outlined below.
List of the Key Pros of Wind Power
1. Wind power is a cost-effective way to generate energy.
One of the lowest-priced resources for energy that we have on our planet today is a land-based, utility-scale wind power farm. With our current manufacturing techniques and shipping efficiencies, most installations come in at six cents per kilowatt hour. Some projects cost as little as two cents, depending on what the financing terms are for the development and the quality of the wind resource that’s available.
Because the electricity we generate from a wind farm sells at a fixed price over a longer time, is free of fuel costs, and reduces the expenses of power generation in other ways as well, we have much more price certainty when looking at the benefits of wind power when compared to the traditional energy resources that we use each day.
2. The development of wind power creates plenty of jobs.
The wind power sector of the U.S. economy is one of the fastest-growing segments of any industry for the past decade. There were over 100,000 jobs added in 2016 alone, with the potential to support more than 600,000 jobs through the production, shipping, installation, and maintenance of turbines. These workers all earn competitive wages in their communities, providing indirect benefits throughout the country as well.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics in the U.S. reports that the median salary for wind turbine technicians was above $54,000 per year, with the top 10% earning more than $80,000 per year. Manufacturing and shipping services earn a salary at or above these figures as well.
3. Wind power is a clean fuel source once it is installed.
We do not have the same problems with wind power as we do with fossil fuels with the release of greenhouse gases that could potentially harm the environment. Although there is an initial expense in emissions that we must pay to manufacturing the turbines, there is no fuel expense to worry about after the blades start spinning. Because of the geography of the United States, there are vast areas where wind can become a tremendous resource for a minimal investment.
Wind power does not emit particulate matter into the atmosphere when the turbines are operational. There are no emissions that could trigger acid rain or smog, nor are there any sulfur dioxide or nitrogen oxide releases that occur. This benefit is why wind power is one of the most exciting technologies that’s available right now.
4. It is a sustainable technology that we can use almost anywhere.
Did you know that wind power is really a form of solar energy? When our sun begins to heat the atmosphere of our planet, then it also creates warmth along the irregularities of the surface and hits the planet as it rotates. That process creates atmospheric instabilities which work to generate wind. As long as the sun continues to shine, we will have enough energy that can be sent across power grids around the world. All we need to do is install turbines in high-wind locations to maximize the benefits of this sustainable resource.
5. Wind power provides for a domestic energy resource.
One of the most significant expenses for countries in the world today is the import of energy resources. Although most of this cost gets directed toward crude oil and hydrocarbons, there are natural gas, nuclear power, and other viable items that trade hands between governments. When a nation begins to develop wind power that it can use domestically, then it is saving money with this investment because there are fewer import costs to pay.
Since 2006, the United States has increased its cumulative wind power capacity by almost 30% per year. That investment has worked to make this renewable resource have the largest renewable generation capacity of its type in the country, beating out solar, geothermal, and even hydropower.
6. It adds fuel to industrial growth and international competitiveness.
The investments into wind power for the United States generate a total of approximately $20 billion per year for the domestic economy. When you combine the vast resources that are available to Americans with a highly-skilled labor force that can produce rapidly and with excellent quality, the U.S. could become a global leader in the clean energy economy in less than a decade.
The American dream is to create a life for the next generation which is better than what the previous one could make for itself. Wind power could be the force that takes us toward this outcome.
7. Wind power creates fewer obstacles to land use than other energy resources.
If you were to approach a farmer about the installation of a nuclear power plant on his property, then you’d probably get a chuckle and a refusal unless a fair offer of compensation was given. Wind power takes a different approach. Since the turbines take up minimal space with their installation, it is possible to install an entire farm on usable croplands to take advantage of this sustainable resource.
Farmers and ranchers can move their livestock around this equipment and receive rental payments for the use of their property at the same time. That means there is some additional income available for the agricultural workers while everyone else benefits from the stable pricing that comes with this energy resource.
8. We have plenty of room to expand our capacity.
In 2015, wind power was generating enough energy to supply us with 2.5% of the global need. Estimates from then expected the total capacity to double by 2020, which the industry is on pace to achieve. What we do know is that the wind currently could provide us with 20 times more power than what our current consumption levels are already. When you combine this benefit with a similar one from solar, where enough sunlight hits our planet each day to generate enough power for a year, it is feasible that we could stop using fossil fuels for electricity generation in the near future.
9. It is an affordable energy resource for most consumers.
The cost of wind power in the United States has decreased by more than 80% over the past 40 years. When looking at the cost of this resource at a kilowatt-per-hour rate, only natural gas is cheaper than wind for our current power generation needs. Even when you combine all costs at their maximum and assume that the electricity comes from an off-shore facility, we’re only spending about $0.15 per kwh for this option.
10. Wind energy can qualify for net metering.
Property owners can install wind power on real estate that they own as a way to supplement electricity that comes from a grid. When net metering is permitted by local utility providers, then the excessive energy that this installation provides can send more power to others, creating a credit that can reduce or eliminate the cost of using power. It can even be a way to supplement personal income if there is enough power being generated by this investment.
Net metering is not available in every community or utility, so make sure that you review what options are available locally before making this investment to maximize the potential advantages here.
List of the Key Cons of Wind Power
1. The spinning turbines can harm local wildlife with their movement.
Most of the wind power turbines that are installed today feature spinning blades, usually 2-3 of them, that sometimes operate at high speeds even during low wind conditions. Birds fly into the blades as the move, sometimes creating a severe impact on the local habitat. Better farm siting and new technologies that guard against wildlife injury are reducing the impact of this problem, but it is also not entirely gone.
The American Bird Conservancy estimates that hundreds of thousands of birds and bats die every year because of accidental collisions with turbine blades. Even the force of wind pressure created by the spinning action can cause fatal trauma to some creatures. Although electrical lines kill up to 57 million birds each year, continued steps are necessary to stop this issue.
2. Wind power may not be the most profitable use of some land.
The land which tends to be the most suitable for wind energy also tends to be useful for other resources other than the generation of electricity. Although turbines take up a much smaller footprint than a power plant or other traditional technologies, they do occupy space where farmers or ranchers could generate more income with their regular activities over rental income.
When you add in the issues with access that are necessary for maintenance technicians to work on the turbines, there are security concerns for farmers to address as well. That means the area dedicate to wind power is usually cordoned off to prevent other problems.
3. There are noise issues to consider with wind turbines.
Although most turbines do not generate a significant amount of noise as their blades spin, a farm of them can multiply the sound they create by hundreds of times. This equipment creates two types of sounds: a mechanical hum from the generator and the noise of the turbine blade cutting through the air. The average installation generates about 40 decibels of noise when standing at a distance of more than 400 meters.
Because of this disadvantage, the developers of wind farms must go through a permitting process to determine what specific setbacks are necessary to comply with the sound issues. Since there are no international or American standards for turbine setbacks, communities are developing their own – and that creates a patchwork of unpredictability for energy developers.
4. Wind power creates an aesthetic change to the landscape.
Some people enjoy the sight of wind turbines because it is evidence of an effort to reduce the impact of fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions. There are others who view these tall structures as an eyesore to the landscape because they tower over fields, mountains, or even the ocean with an off-shore installation. Some turbines can be more than 400 feet tall.
Some wind farms have found themselves fighting off lawsuits because of this disadvantage, with claims that the turbines create a nuisance because they prevent someone from having an unencumbered view of nature. Courts in Texas, West Virginia, and New Jersey have allowed claims to proceed to trial.
5. It can be challenging to find excellent wind power sites.
Most of the wind power sites that provide consistent movement are found in remote locations. Some can be over 100 miles away from the city where the energy requirements are needed. That means the project managers must include transmission lines that can bring electricity from the farm to the city as part of the construction effort. This disadvantage can significantly increase the cost of this renewable resource.
This issue is especially problematic for off-shore locations where transmission is necessary to reach the standard grid. The U.S. Department of Energy suggests that adding transmission capacity could reduce the cost of wind energy expansion by up to 35%, but this savings might not happen until 2050.
6. Wind power requires fossil fuels during the manufacturing and transportation processes.
Although wind power does not generate fossil fuel emissions or particulates when operating, it is inaccurate to say that it is a pollution-free energy resource. The industrial processes which create the turbines and blades all use hydrocarbons that produce a carbon dioxide release as part of the manufacturing cycle. We are also using diesel vehicles to transport the components of each turbine to its installation location, which adds even more pollution to the atmosphere.
Most wind power turbines can create a net savings after 5-10 years after their installation, with newer models reaching that point in 3 years or less sometimes. Since we have seen a 30% push in growth in the past decade; however, there is even more greenhouse gas emissions to worry about right now than there would be otherwise.
7. It must compete with conventional energy generation sources using a cost basis.
Wind power must still compete with nuclear, natural gas, hydropower, and other forms of traditional energy generation. Depending on the amount of power that a site can manage, it may not be possible for a farm to be competitive in its local environment. The cost of this resource has dropped dramatically over the past decade and this trend has been ongoing since 2006, but it does require a greater initial investment when compared to generators which generate energy through the use of fossil fuels.
8. The lifespan of a wind turbine is about 50% of traditional electricity generation products.
The average turbine which is produced and installed in the United States comes with a rated lifespan of about 120,000 hours. That means each one will continue to produce electricity for about 20 years before requiring a complete replacement. When you compare the lifespan of a coal-fired power plant or a nuclear facility, then this technology requires a replacement twice as often.
That means the overall expenses must double when comparing it to coal, nuclear, or hydropower energy. With the operational costs of a 10 MW turbine at $300,000 annually plus additional manufacturing costs, it can be challenging to stay competitive on cost with this technology.
9. Wind power can still be expensive to install.
If you want to install a 10 MW turbine to start generating power in the United States, then the total cost could be over $20 million. Most wind farms face an installation cost of more than $2 million per megawatt of new capacity when considering the manufacturing and installation costs of the equipment. Then there are the expenses of connection to the infrastructure, which could double the expense of the turbine.
That’s why traditional forms of electricity production are still considered a primary option in some communities. When the budget is tight and power is needed, then wind becomes a secondary solution.
Verdict on the Key Pros and Cons of Wind Power
Wind power is a timeless resource which human civilizations have celebrated for thousands of years. Even before we knew how a breeze would form, our ingenuity was working overtime to find ways to make it useful. From great sailing vessels to the first windmills that helped to drain marshes, the value of this power is something we often take for granted.
Modern turbines give us an opportunity to replace traditional forms of power generation, such as coal, with a cleaner option. Even energy-based states like Texas are finding that the efficiencies of wind power are better than fossil fuels, leading to a dramatic increase in the number of wind farms that are available to produce electricity.
The key pros and cons of wind power show us that having access to a renewable resource is useful for future generations because it can reduce the risks that come when burning particulates and carbon-producing agents. Although it is far from perfect, there is no denying the many benefits that arrive when we are willing to install more turbines.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.