The ever-intensifying drive to discover clean, renewable energy technologies has in recent years led to wind power developments beyond the lab and the drawing room and into the real world.
Here we’ll explore the advantages and disadvantages of wind power.
Wind farms now produce 3.2% of the energy used in the US, 9% in Germany, 17% in Portugal and an astounding 26% in Denmark.
Far from an experimental technology, wind power has begun to prove itself as a real solution to our ever-growing energy needs. Wind farms the world over are right now powering homes and businesses in many countries, and its proliferation seems assured.
However, that’s not to say that wind power is a perfect solution. As with all means of energy production there are advantages and disadvantages of wind power that need to be considered, not only by the people who design and build our energy production facilities but also by we who use them.
Wind Energy as Green as Can Be
There are no forms of energy that are truly ‘green’. While solar, wind and hydroelectric power produce no emissions once the facilities are in place, the production and installation of those facilities come with their own set of costs.
However, the environmental cost of building and operating wind turbines is a fraction of the cost of any other traditional means of power generation. While coal- and oil-fired power stations continue to pump out emissions throughout their lifetimes, once wind turbines have been installed their ongoing carbon footprint drops to zero.
In fact, a modern wind turbine will reach its ‘break even’ point just 8 months after installation. This means that a turbine will produce enough clean power in 8 months to counteract the carbon footprint of its construction.
Cost advantages of wind power
An even more compelling case for wind power is that, once the turbines have been built and installed, a wind farm will produce energy at essentially zero cost as long as it is properly maintained. No fuels need to be mined, transported and burned, with minimal costs for staffing and maintenance.
Beyond these costs, a turbine will generate energy that becomes cheaper and cheaper with each Watt produced.
Wind Power Can Go Anywhere
While some locations will offer greater efficiency than others (based on local wind patterns), one of the major advantages of wind turbines is that they can be installed anywhere wind currents are present.
We could fill deserts, the countryside and even oceans with countless turbines to take advantage of the 250 terrawatts of potential global wind energy – many times the global demand.
Wind power isn’t limited to sprawling wind farms, either. All of us can install turbines in our own homes to supplement our energy needs (or even become completely self-sufficient). At a relatively low cost we could increase wind power production to many times its current capacity.
A Threat to Wildlife
In the early days of wind power there was great concern about the effect wind farms would have on wildlife, especially birds. Birds made a habit of colliding with the blades of the turbines, and many even built their nests in the structures themselves.
While bird strike is still a problem for wind farms, it’s not nearly as severe as it was in the past. Modern turbines operate at a higher efficiency than the earlier models, providing the same power while the blades spin at a much lower RPM. Towers have also been redesigned to prevent birds from nesting, with smooth surfaces replacing the old girders.
This concern, then, is more of a design challenge than an intractable problem. With the right design, the effect on local wildlife can be kept to a minimum. Furthermore, it’s worth remembering that most other forms of energy production have a much greater impact on wildlife, and even power lines are much more dangerous for bird life than wind farms.
Predicting Power from Wind Turbines
One of the major problems with wind power is the unpredictable nature of the raw material: wind. While traditional power stations can control their production at will, wind turbines depend on the local air currents to keep producing energy. When the air is still the blades don’t turn, and power production drops to zero.
To solve this problem we must locate our wind farms in areas with strong, dependable air currents that rarely fluctuate. Offshore locations usually provide strong winds, as do hilltops and other exposed areas. As long as we never reach the point at which we depend entirely on a constant air flow to maintain our power requirements this needn’t be a serious problem.
Wind Farms Are an Eyesore
One of the most bizarre complaints (considering the benefit they bring) is that wind turbines are unattractive and spoil the landscape.
This is an understandable complaint, but it seems odd to complain about a wind farm when we have for many years erected endless pylons and power lines across even our most beautiful landscapes.
This is a problem that should resolve itself on its own. In time people will become accustomed to the sight of wind turbines, and they will be ignored just as we ignore power lines. The only alternative, it seems, would be to locate our wind farms far from human habitation, which would cause more problems than it solves.
While wind power isn’t an ideal solution to our energy needs, the pros far, far outweigh the cons. An endless supply of clean, renewable energy that can be produced cheaply and easily is the Holy Grail of energy production. Wind power can provide it, so long as we can learn to accept the few small disadvantages that come with such an abundant supply of power.