Wind Energy and the Environment

Wind is clean, renewable, and free.

Wind Turbines with a Rainbow in the Background

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

Author: Linda Poppenheimer

Linda researches and writes about environmental topics to share information, spark conversation, and convince people to take action to keep earth habitable for all. She believes our individual actions do matter—it all adds up.

2 thoughts on “Wind Energy and the Environment”

  1. Outstanding overview of the wind energy program. The 60 second video was well done and easy to follow (I did need to view it more than once). The close up of the blades for the turbines being constructed was a surprise. I, of course, have only seen the giant turbines from a distance and had no concept of the immensity of the individual blades. Also enjoyed the sheep farm with several turbines in the distance, does change the view but for a grand purpose. In contrast we have covered our planet with billions of miles of freeways to carry billions of gas burning vehicles.
    Wish there was a way to show this blog in schools.

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