Wind Energy and the Environment

Wind is clean, renewable, and free.

Did you know that in 2017 wind energy accounted for more of the U.S. electricity supply than solar? I discovered this during Energy Awareness Month this October because I decided to learn about wind power.

After stumbling across Energy Awareness Month a few years ago, I resolved that each October I would tackle an energy project or learn more about an energy-related topic and share what I learned with readers. Some of the topics I have covered include Energy Action Month history, the Clean Air Act, energy savings tips, rooftop solar tax incentives, and a review of the book Reinventing Fire.

This year wind energy is on my mind because the federal government and at least two wind companies are eying the ocean waters off San Luis Obispo County where I live on the California Central Coast.

Just last week, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced it is ramping up efforts to bring more offshore wind farms to federal waters off the United States’ coastlines. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the federal agency that manages the development of U.S. outer continental shelf energy and mineral resources, published some of their plans in the Federal Register.

Reading these announcements and news articles made me realize that I did not know much about wind energy so I set out to educate myself and share what I learned. You may not think that wind energy is pertinent to your community, but it is when you expand your vision to a society powered by clean renewable energy like the wind.

The intent of this post is to provide you with an overview of wind energy including its environmental advantages and disadvantages and to offer you some ideas for actions you can take to support wind energy if you choose to do so.

Wind Energy Basics

Even if you have never seen a modern wind turbine in action, you have probably seen wind filling the sail of a sailboat or turning the blades of a windmill.

All three are harnessing the motion (kinetic energy) of the wind. The wind turbine uses the wind to produce electricity, the sailboat uses it to propel the boat forward and the windmill uses it to pump water.

If you only have 60 seconds, I think the video below gives a good overview of how an offshore wind turbine works. There are more video links in the resources section at the end of the post.

Like solar, wind can supply electricity for homes, businesses, farms, communities, and power plants.

Solar panels on a home rooftop or wind turbines on a family farm are referred to as distributed energy meaning the electricity is consumed close to where it is produced. If distributed sources send their electricity to the electric grid, an entire community can share the power.

Large groups of wind turbines constitute a wind farm and can supply electricity for an industrial complex or to a utility-scale power plant, which then distributes it to their customers via the electric grid.

Most of the wind turbines producing electricity in the U.S. are land-based. A few have been around since the 1980s like the San Gorgonio Pass Wind Farm you see as you drive down Interstate 10 on the way to Palm Springs, CA.

Offshore Wind Farm in Ocean Waters off Block Island, Rhode Island
Offshore Wind Farm in Ocean Waters off Block Island, Rhode Island – Photo AWEA

An offshore wind farm is one that has wind turbines in the ocean or a large lake. The first U.S. offshore wind farm did not come online until just two years ago. Rhode Island made history when the Block Island Wind Farm off the coast of Block Island began sending electricity to the grid in December 2016.

Wind Industry 2017 Highlights

In 2017, wind accounted for 6% of utility-scale electricity produced by renewable energy sources, hydropower was 7%, biomass 2%, solar 1%, and geothermal less than 1%. 1

Wind blowing across the U.S. in 2017 provided more than 10% of the total electricity generation for 14 states, and more than 30% in Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, and South Dakota. Texas had the highest wind electricity generation capacity of any state. 2

2017 Wind Share of Electricity by State Map - Source AWEA
Source AWEA

Unlike coal, natural gas, or petroleum, the wind is a domestic energy source that cannot be exported. The wind industry provides jobs, lease payments for landowners, and property, local, and state tax revenue.

The U.S. wind industry employed 105,500 people in 2017. 2

Workers in a Wind Turbine Manufacturing Plant
Workers in a Wind Turbine Manufacturing Plant – Photo AWEA

Most of the components of wind turbines installed in the United States are made in the U.S. by 500 wind-related manufacturing facilities across 41 states. In 2017, U.S. based General Electric was ranked second in U.S. market share for wind turbine manufacturers. 2, 3

During 2017, over $11 billion was invested in new U.S. wind projects. 2

Next, we will explore some of the environmental advantages and disadvantages associated with producing electricity from wind.

Environmental Advantages of Wind Energy

Burning fossil fuels like coal and natural gas to generate electricity emits a whopping 34% of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming. 4 We could bring that figure to zero by transitioning to clean renewable energy, like the wind.

Wind energy is clean (does not produce emissions) and renewable (replenishes itself).

Wind blowing across Earth’s land and waters is free for everyone. Of course, capturing wind and converting it into electricity is not free but once a wind turbine or wind farm is installed, it operates on free energy for 20 to 25 years.

Wind turbines do not spew greenhouse gases and pollution into the air, which is good for your health and the environment.

Another major benefit of wind energy is that wind turbines do not deplete or pollute groundwater basins, rivers, or lakes that tens of millions of people rely on for drinking water and they do not pollute the ocean.

Wind Turbines on a Sheep Farm in Rio Vista, CA
Wind Turbines on a Sheep Farm in Rio Vista, CA – Photo AWEA

Land use for wind turbines and wind farms has pros and cons.

On the plus side, a wind turbine only occupies a small piece of land so other activities like agriculture, ranching, and recreation can go around them.

On the downside, the best place for wind turbines is in wide-open spaces and on ridge tops, which can be in remote places that do not have roads or transmission lines. Building infrastructure disrupts ecosystems and causes pollution and erosion. In the ocean, installing platforms (on the seabed or floating) and undersea cables can cause similar environmental issues.

Environmental Disadvantages of Wind Energy

A drawback of wind energy is that it fluctuates so it may not produce a continuous supply of electricity all the time.

Americans expect electricity to be instantly available 24/7/365 so wind power needs to be backed up with storage or an additional electricity supply source. Battery storage systems add to the environmental footprint of wind systems. If backup electricity is provided by a power plant that burns fossil fuels, it reduces the environmental benefit of wind.

Mining for rare earth metals and making steel and concrete to build wind turbines and platforms has a negative environmental impact including greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, and high energy use. The thing is that this can be said about anything that uses these materials so it is not unique to wind energy.

Wind turbines can present a hazard to birds, bats, and marine animals.  Careful placement of wind turbines can alleviate this issue.

Noise might be a problem if you live or work very close to a wind turbine or wind farm.  Noise may also affect nearby wildlife both on land and in the ocean.

Some people have an aesthetic concern about seeing a wind turbine or wind farm in their viewshed, a term I first saw while reading an article about our potential local offshore wind farms.

Yes, wind does have some drawbacks, but they are insignificant when you consider the widespread danger and damage associated with every aspect of the fossil fuel industry.

Wind energy capacity has skyrocketed since 2001 and continues to grow.

U.S. Annual and Cumulative Wind Capacity Growth Since 2001 Bar Chart - Source AWEA
U.S. Annual and Cumulative Wind Capacity Growth Since 2001 – Source AWEA

What Can You Do to Support Wind Energy?

You may not have a wind farm project going on where you live, but you can still support wind energy. Here are a few ideas to get your creative juices flowing.

  • Install a residential-scale wind turbine in your yard.
  • Learn more about wind energy and talk about it with your family, neighbors, and coworkers.
  • If you do have a wind project pending in or near your community, get involved by attending town hall meetings and other events that give you an opportunity to learn about the project and to voice your concerns and/or support.
  • Tell your local and state elected representatives that you are in favor of wind energy and ask them what they are doing to support it.
  • Request that your U.S. senator and congressperson author and/or support a bill extending renewable energy tax incentives.

What am I doing? I am going to find out what I can about the two potential projects off our coastline and get involved in some way.

Featured Image at Top: Wind Turbines with a Rainbow in the Background – Photo AWEA

Related Posts

References

  1. Electricity Explained: Electricity in the United States – U.S. Energy Information Administration
  2. 2017 Wind Technologies Market Report – U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy
  3. AWEA U.S. Wind Industry 2017 Annual Market Report – American Wind Energy Association
  4. How much of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions are associated with electricity generation? – U.S. Energy Information Administration

Resources

Native Plants are Good for the Environment

Offer native plants a place in your yard.

Native plants give you beauty, a sense of place, and an environmentally friendly yard that does not need fertilizers, pesticides, or intensive watering.

Unfortunately, it took me many years to gain an appreciation for native plants (which includes trees and grasses). Now, it just makes sense to me that native plants should be our go-to plants, not the thirsty turfgrass lawns brought to the United States by wealthy European landowners or the exotic plants that colonists and immigrants brought with them from their far-flung homelands.

Trying to force plants to live in areas that they are unsuited for is not good for the plants or the environment. Why not reimagine your yard and try native plants? If you give them a chance, native plants will find their way into your heart.

Reimagine Your Yard

When I was a kid growing up in Southern California, my family and I lived in a new subdivision of ranch-style homes near the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. Landscaping varied from house to house but every front yard and most backyards had a swath of lawn, a few trees, and whatever ornamental plants the homeowners fancied (which might have included native plants).

A few streets away, rebels must have been living in the white house with black trim because their yard did not comply with the neighborhood norms. It looked weird, out of place. Small speckled rocks covered the front yard interspersed with groupings of hardy-looking yet attractive plants. Years later, I realized that these rebels had chosen an easy-care drought-resistant yard well suited for the low rainfall and warm climate of Southern California.

Later as an adult still living in Southern California, my spouse and I maintained landscaping that fit in with our neighborhood including two turfgrass lawns, two dozen rosebushes, several hydrangeas, a handful of azaleas, and an array of pots that we rotated with seasonal flowers. Possibly the only native plant on the property was a lovely old oak tree that had taken up residence in a corner of the backyard long before we arrived.

Sprinklers Water Turfgrass Lawn and Sidewalk
Sprinklers Watering a Turfgrass Lawn and the Sidewalk – Photo Credit iStock/marcutti

Moving to the Central California Coast, eleven years ago, during a drought, caused me to reimagine what makes a yard beautiful and stirred my interest in learning about native plants. Instead of green lawns and flowering ornamental shrubs, our yard here is mostly wild and is frequented by mule deer, wild turkeys, and a variety of birds searching for water, food (plants and bugs) and a place to hang out.

I began observing the plants and trees noticing that some seemed to do well even during our dry summers and others died without irrigation. Some plants coexisted with a variety of different plants and some like ice plant and Italian thistle seemed intent on taking over the yard meaning they are invasive. I got an idea into my head that we could restore our land to a happier and more environmentally sound state appropriate for our location.

Mule Deer Bucks Napping in Our Yard
Three Mule Deer Bucks Napping in Our Yard among Native Monterey Pine Trees in June 2013 (see the patch of invasive ice plant in the background).

Armed with a pair of clippers and a shovel, beginning with ice plant and thistle removal, I embarked on an amateur yard restoration project that is still in progress. I knew that to be a good steward of our yard I would need to learn about both native and invasive plants. If you want to, you can read about some of my experiences as a native plant novice in various posts including Wood Chip Mulch Mountain, Weed Whacking – Do it Yourself, Adopt a Native Plant, Arbor Day 2018 – Join Millions of Tree Enthusiasts, and Making Water Conservation a Way of Life – Outdoors.

Pause and take a moment to reimagine your own yard as a place where native plants, bees, butterflies, birds, and other wildlife can thrive and so can you.  If your yard is already full of flourishing native plants, please share your story.

What is a Native Plant?

While I was working on this post, I found myself returning to a question I have often pondered, “What constitutes a native plant?” I wanted to find out and I thought you might want to know, too.

The answers I found on the Internet varied quite a bit and left me wondering, “How am I supposed to plant native plants if no one seems to know what defines a native plant?” I discussed it with my family over dinner. They did not seem to understand why I was having a dilemma or why I felt the need to ask the question. Undaunted, I plucked up my courage and posted my question on the Facebook group page for the California Native Plant Society.

California Native Plant Garden with Bench
California Native Plant Garden with a Bench – Photo Credit Jeff Silva (click the photo to open it on Flickr).

Apparently, I was not the first person to have asked for a native plant definition and it created a small flurry of responses including “Not this again!” and “We are sworn to not be crabby towards newbies, remember?”

I did receive some useful responses but not a definitive answer. Some people suggested that a native plant (at least in the U.S.) is one that was growing here before European colonists brought plants from home and other distant lands. Others said that a native plant is a plant that evolved in a particular area or region over thousands of years. Several people said that a native plant is able to survive on its own without human intervention.

Okay, I accept that science is not black and white. I came away with the general understanding that a native plant is one that has evolved over a long, but indeterminate amount of time, adapting to the climate, terrain, soil, wildlife, and other plants in a particular place and requires little or no care from humans.

Botanists and other plant scientists use historical records, field observations, and scientific testing to determine whether a plant is native to a certain location.

The next section will cover why native plants are good for the environment.

Native Plants and the Environment

Native plants are good at their jobs. With no need for micro-managing bosses, native plants routinely perform their job responsibilities including using water wisely, running on renewable energy, recycling materials, storing carbon, providing food and habitat for others, keeping toxins and diseases out of their workplaces, and reproducing new generations. Each year, they take a vacation, well, actually a staycation going dormant in preparation for the next growing season.

California Yard with Native Plants and Palo Verde Tree
California Yard with Native Plants and Palo Verde Trees – Photo Credit Steve Hartman (click the photo to read the California Native Plant Society blog post).

Moving away during environmental downturns is not an option for native plants. It is in their best interest to adapt to the conditions where they find themselves not relying on humans to apply fertilizers, pesticides, or extra water. This also makes native plants good for the environment.

Synthetic fertilizers are made from fossil fuels that are dangerous to extract, disastrous when spilled or leaked, and emit greenhouse gases when burned. Fertilizers running off from yards and agricultural fields cause dead zones in water bodies where nothing can live so not using them in your own yard reduces this problem.

Pesticides are poisons created from fossil fuels to kill specific living things that humans consider pests, but their use results in collateral damage to humans and nonhumans. By not using pesticides in your yard, you are eliminating a hazard to bees, butterflies, birds, pets, and you and your family.

Using water sparingly protects groundwater basins that provide drinking water for tens of millions of people and irrigation water for hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland. Overdrawing your account at the bank is not a good idea and neither is overdrawing a groundwater basin. A groundwater basin is overdrawn when it cannot be refilled on an annual basis by rainfall, snowmelt, or a combination of both.

California Yard with Native Plant Landscaping
California Yard with Native Plant Landscaping in Bloom – Photo Credit Pete Veilleux (click the photo to read the California Native Plant Society blog post).

Maintaining biodiversity is another beneficial trait of native plants. In the wild, nature encourages a wide variety of plants and animals to live together keeping the overall ecosystem in balance. Of course, sometimes things get out of balance but native plants are better equipped to handle it than non-native plants. Evolving over a long time, native plants have experienced adversity many times and adapted to it so they have a long history of making comebacks, sort of a plant version of “Been there, done that.”

The environmental benefits of native plants motivate me to grow them in my yard. Having fun is why I grow some of my native plants from seeds. We will continue this conversation in the next post.

Featured Image at Top: California State Flower California Poppy– Citation Smith, C. 2010. Plant guide for California poppy (Eschscholzia californica). USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, Plant Materials Center. Lockeford, CA 95237. I found this photo on the California Native Grasslands Association website.

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Resources