Wind Generation – The 23 Pros and Cons [Final Guide]
Producing energy from wind is an appealing idea. It is free and more importantly clean. However, why are we not producing 100% of our energy from wind? This great form of energy has great advantages but also important disadvantages and limitations that explain why we still rely on coal and gas.
Wind generation is the most widespread among the modern source of renewable energy. It is and will be a key player in the future decarbonization of our society.
However, wind generation presents not only pros but also important cons that need to be addressed and shown in the table below.
|Pros of Wind Generation||Cons of Wind Generation|
Support Small Businesses
Cleanest Source of Energy
Noisy (but not much)
The Second Largest Source of Clean Energy
Massive Development in the future
Require Massive Foundations
Air Quality Improvement
Cause Bird Fatalities
Disposal and Recycling is Difficult
Energy Price Drop
Cause Terrestial Animal Problems
Available For Residential Purposes
Yes, there is a lot to discuss when talking about wind generation. Let’s explore the pros and cons in more detail.
Here we are going to delve into the advantages (many) of producing electrical energy from wind.
1 – Free Fuel
This is quite an obvious advantage and nonetheless the most important.
Like any other renewable resource such as solar, wind is a free resource that, to different extent and magnitude, is available in most areas of the planet. However, what is important to keep in mind, if you are thinking of installing a wind turbine on your field, is the amount of wind.
Indeed, having a strong wind during one or two months a year is very likely not enough to justify the investment. Indeed, (as we will discuss later) installing a wind turbine is quite expensive and so, for the investment to make sense, you need to assess if the energy produced (hence money saved) can pay off the investment (on this more later)
2 – Wind Generation is the Cleanest Form of Energy
If someone told you that wind and solar do not produce greenhouses emission was probably lying or they just ignored the life-cycle of the wind turbine.
Now, this is not the moment to go into details (topic for another article). However, what you need to know is that any (yes any) form of green energy pollutes. This is because the mere existence of such a system involves (often) very intensive carbon-emission activities.
If you think for instance of wind turbines, how much carbon has been emitted in producing the energy to extract the metal needed for it. What about producing those several tons of fiberglass blades? What about the dozens of tracks (or helicopter) traveling back and forth miles away to bring the several (gigantic) pieces of the turbine. What about the foundations in concrete? The list goes on and on.
However, as discussed by the very instructive WNA report [PDF] (a good read if you have time) in which 70+ official documents are summarised, wind is the cleanest form of energy production.
Wind “produces” (indirectly of course) on average half of the greenhouse gas emission of solar for the same amount of energy produced and 120 times less than coal. This is because of the cleaner lifecycle of a wind turbine compared to other forms of energy.
I need to be clear now as I do not want to discriminate against solar. First, even if solar emits double the amount of greenhouse gases for energy produced, these are still dozens of times less than normal power plants. Indeed, the double of something very little is still a little number. Second, photovoltaic energy is a fantastic way to produce electricity and (for many) aspects (such as used in small customers) better than wind.
The above numbers are averages and depend on a variety of factors. For example, a wind turbine is going to be less environmentally friendly in an area with little to no wind compared to a solar panel in a very sunny area. This is because, of course, we are making bad use of that resource (the wind turbine) that is producing way less energy that it could potentially do in a better area.
3 – Wind Generation Can Sustain Small Rural Business in Two Ways
Large wind generation units are located in regions with little to no population in the surrounding area. Such areas often belong to private owners (or small companies) that use the land for farming purposes. I am not talking about land where you grow crops, but a land where the livestock (cows, sheep) are left free to roam during the day.
The farmers can economically leverage wind generation in two ways:
- Offer your land to large wind turbine companies
- Build your own wind turbine.
Offer the Land To a Wind Generation Plant
Hence, for a farmer with available land, having one or a few towers can be a game-changer for its business. The farmer does not need to own the towers, but just offer in lease part of his land.
A farmer is generally paid between 2 and 10 thousand dollars a year per wind turbine that is hosted in its land. The farmer receives a yearly payment for the duration of the construction of the wind turbines. Once the wind farm is completed, the payment structure changes and it is fixed either based on the size of the wind farm (so it does not change over the years) or based on the energy produced. Such contracts stay in place for 20-30 years.
The presence of wind turbines does not prevent or reduce the area where the animals can move. Indeed, even a large tower has a relatively small (in section) base.
The animal can freely move around the tower and it is safe. One of the countless examples is the Kanbs Ridge Wind Farm, both an area for ship and cow to roam and a wind farm
It is often reported that cattle gather around wind turbines because they provide shade or shelter from wind. However, this might lead to slightly higher bird mortality (due to excrement that attracts rodents from which birds feed).
Produce Free Energy
Farms are often located in remote areas making it challenging for them to have a reliable source of energy. Indeed, rural areas are “electrically weaker”. Without going into much detail this means that a farm is supplied by one single line (cable to make it easy) often on a pole. Hence, if anything happens to that single cable, the farm stays without electricity. Moreover, given the remote area of a farm, it might take hours for the distribution company operating in the area to get there and fix the problem.
Hence, having an independent source of energy is not only a great idea to save money (by saving on the energy bill) but also a great backup measure.
In this case, of course, on top of the wind farm, the farmer also needs a large battery system to store the energy in case of an emergency.
The pros of this strategy are that, more often than not, the farmer might not have such a large amount of cash to start such a project. However, even without a battery (quite expensive), the farmer can still benefit from their presence. Not for backup purposes but just for an electricity bill reduction.
Whether is convenient or not depends mainly on the location of the area and the quality of the wind (speed, constancy, etc). This needs to be estimated by a professional installer that needs to perform measurements (for weeks or months) in the area and so estimate how much energy (and so energy savings) the farmer can obtain.
4 – Wind Technology Improvement For Large and Small Turbines in 4 Ways
Wind technology has experienced great improvement in the last decade in terms of:
- Efficiencies and Control
- Power Conversion
Large Wind Turbine Technological Advances
In the last 30 years, the size of a single wind turbine has increased 10 times, from 300kW to 3000+ MW. This was possible only due to a massive improvement in the mechanical infrastructure that allows sustaining massive weights and mechanical stress.
Wind turbines are expected to reach more than 20 MW in the forthcoming years with already a record of 14MW already reached by Siemens.
From the efficiency side and great advances are expected in the short future. Mainly on the control of the turbine as discussed by IRENA report [PDF]. Smart technologies are indeed expected to control better the position of the blades (the pitch) maximizing the energy harvested and avoid damages due to high wind speed.
As this was not enough, research is ongoing to improve the production process of the material necessary for the wind turbine blades and infrastructure. Given their size and mechanical stress they undergo it is important to make them lighter, more resistant, and also easy to recycle.
Several studies across the world are ongoing also in an attempt to improve inverter technology. For those of you who do not know an inverter is an important device (present in solar panels, and inverter generators as well) responsible to “clean up” the energy that the wind turbine produces to make it suitable for our uses.
Inverters are then expected to become smaller and lighter to reduce the physical stress on the infrastructure. They are also expected to become more durable through higher resistance to humidity, and designed to have a lower number of components.
This is overall should dramatically increase the inverter lifespan and reduce maintenance cost. Moreover, research institutes are attempting to add intelligence to the inverter so as to be able to detect a fault before it happens by analyzing some technical warning signals.
The combination of improved electronic related technologies, stronger material that will allow longer blades (as able to support higher mechanical stress) will lead to a higher amount of energy produced for wind turbine.
Small Wind Turbine Technological Advances
Despite the larger chunk of the funding, and so research, at the moment is focused on large scale wind turbines, several institutes as the University of Calgary and Newcastle are pivoting their interest towards small scale wind turbines (micro, mini and mid-range turbines, up to 20kW) for domestic applications.
One of their studies indeed highlighted that the last decade has seen improvements on the special aerodynamic of such turbines and improved the blade manufacturing, the use of microprocessor controls, and the increasing use of design certification and type approval. This is normal. Indeed, whatever has been learned for large scale wind turbines it will be deployed (after a delay) in the small scale ones.
Extra Large Wind Turbine: Sea Floating
A special type of wind turbine, those floating on the sea, requires a whole new level of mechanical challenges. These as well are facing limitations and many institutes are in the search for a better solution.
The main issue with off-shore wind generation is the foundations. These can be dozens of meters tall and weigh thousands of tons. Technical development especially for the deepest foundation (the jacket type) is undertaken by many institutes all over teh world. Indeed, being able to safely place the wind farm far from the sea, will allow more constant, stable, and way more efficient use of the wind energy accelerating even further the achievement of our carbon target.
5 – The Second Largest Clean Energy
Wind energy is the second most adopted renewable resource in the world just after hydro. Around 20% of the green world energy is produced by wind, 60% by hydro, and only 10% by PV (the rest are other minor forms of green energy, here for more).
In the USA alone the energy produced by wind grew by 100 times (from 3 to 300 billion kWh) from 1998 to 2018 (source)
How is this possible? You do not see many people with little white wind blades spinning on top of their roof or in their garden.
Well, the reason is quite simple. Every wind turbine can produce the energy of many thousands of single rooftop installations. Hence, they are low in number, but the compensation thanks to their power.
The reason for the large widespread wind generation over solar is a combination of their relatively low environmental impact, the ability to produce massive amounts of energy and have an interesting return of investment due to generous incentives (especially a few years back).
Without such return of investment, the buyer (usually through founding and investors) would never be able to raise the capital needed for such multimillion projects if there was no appealing return on the investment.
When I mention “low environmental impact” I am not referring to the objective damage that a wind turbine causes to the way a landscape looks, neither to the impact on the animal (especially birds and bats) that can be avoided/minimized by choosing appropriate sites and still under study.
6 – The Future Of Wind Generation: Triple in 10 Years
Wind generation, similarly to solar, has experienced an exponential growth mainly in the last decade.
Many institutes around the world believe that this is only the beginning with more and more wind power ready to produce free and clean energy.
IRENA expects the global installed capacity to grow three-fold by 2030 and ten-fold by 2050 compared to 2018. WndEU claims that, in the next 30 years, the offshore wind (those turbines placed into the sea) will increase by more than 20 times (from 20 to 450GW) paving the way for a similar path expected in the USA and the world.
Interesting enough will not be the USA or EU to lead the way, but rather Asian countries (mostly China) especially on the onshore, followed by North America and Europe.
All the figures above come from the necessity to meet our environmental target and reduce our carbon emissions below the acceptable level that can prevent the temperature from rising way too much. Hence, if by any chance we do not stick to those figures, even though it might look extreme at first, it is our climate ultimately to be at risk.
Although the incentive might get less generous, it is also true that the price to produce a tall wind turbine is dropped dramatically as well, with the same material, more energy is produced.
7 – Air Quality Improvement and Money Saved
No doubt that wind generation is reducing our carbon emission by replacing teh same kWh produced by a carbon or oil plant with a carbon-free (if we forget the CO2 used in producing the turbine itself) energy source.
Estimates claim that wind power would contribute to more than 6000 million tonnes of CO2 in 30 years, around 30% of the total emissions are needed to meet the Paris climate requirement (source) and contain the global temperature rise to 1.5 °C compared to pre-industrial levels.
This also means money saved. How? The rapid change in our climate temperature is causing rising costs in the health system (illnesses due to air pollution) and infrastructure damages due to more and more exceptionally distractive events (tsunami, typhoon, etc). It was quantified that until 2050, there is a payoff from 3 to 7 times in terms of money saved in the future (health, climate-related savings) when spent towards wind and other renewable resources (for an estimated 160 trillion in savings).
8 – More Jobs
The exponential growth in the number of wind turbines installed in the country propelled the economic sector in the USA as well as in many other countries around the world. In the USA alone the increase in the wind farm installed created 3600 new jobs in 2019 only (source).
When talking about jobs, I am not referring only to the obvious electrical and mechanical engineer. From the production of the material to a finished tower producing and selling energy the wind sector requires 18+ different job skills shown in the table below.
|Job Type in The Wind Energy||Percentage of Jobs in the USA 2019 (total 100%)|
List of job available in the wind sector and their percentage – Data from the NREL Report
The list above, despite being quite exhaustive, does not take into account a large number of jobs related to installing the wind farm (think about especially that off-shore where a new level of skills and knowledge is required) and those extracting the materials for the blades, etc.
50+ different job skills are likely required in the wind sector only. The number of people employed in the wind sector, worldwide, is expected to rise from the current 1.7 million to 6 million in the next 30 years (source).
However, this will only be feasible in a totally new environment where the policy will promote not only the wind-related industry but also the education system to be ready to produce a rising number of specialist skills that look lacking at the moment.
9 – Electricity Bill Drop by Not Owning It
Wind energy makes your electricity bill cheaper even if you do not own one. How?
The energy produced by a wind turbine, as any other type of energy, is traded in the energy market. If such energy is cheaper than the one obtained by burning carbon, the market will favor wind energy driving down the energy market price. Hence, your bill can go down even if you do not own one wind turbine.
However, not too fast. This process is slow and despite having some effects already, you are not going to stop paying for your bill even if all the world uses the wind. Indeed, when you imagine a wind farm, producing energy from the air (literally), you might be tempted to think that this energy is free, at zero cost. This is not the case.
Indeed, a wind power plant is very capital intensive way to produce energy compared to conventional carbon, gas, or oil power plants. This is because the upfront cost (the capital investment required) is, in relative, way higher.
An average 2MW wind turbine costs around (installation included) around 3 million USD of which 75% is just for the blade and tower only. The installation costs roughly 6% or 160 thousand USD.
Hence, it is pretty clear that, despite being the wind free, the energy produced through it cannot be given at zero cents per kWh. Indeed, this will prevent the wind farm owner to recover the massive capital investment and make any profit out of it.
Can wind generation though be able to reduce energy prices?
Wind generation, as well any other form of energy, can reduce the energy prices only if the price to which it is sold is inferior to those of other sources.
Nowadays the cost of one kWh of wind energy from onshore is similar to the lower end of the fossil fuel cost range. This is because of a reduction in the wind energy price of 35% from 2010 to 2018.
For more on the above numbers have a look at the IRENA report.
Hence, wind generation is reducing the energy prices to which people pay the electricity and this is expected to be even more prominent in the future with more offshore wind generation.
This also made the headline in many newspapers, like the Guardian in the UK a few years back.
A boom in new onshore wind projects could also cut energy bills by £50 a year compared to a high-gas energy mixGuardian UK
However, this is something very recent. Indeed, the wind farm was way more expensive to build, maintain than it is today. The only way wind energy was traded into the market was through government supports. This is normal for any new technology where the production cost, due to its early stage of development, is high.
10 – Wind Turbine and Electricity Bill Savings
I placed this so far in the list of advantages because it is quite obvious and not that relevant, especially for common house owners. For them, photovoltaic is most of the time a better option.
Indeed, you should live in a windy area. More important than the high speed is consistency.
The amount of money that can be saved is then severely affected by the local wind conditions. However, some numbers are provided by energy savings and below reported for simplicity.
A turbine of 6kW (that will cost you up to 30,000 USD) can provide you an income of 3000 USD per year. This means that it will take you around 10 years to pay itself back.
Take into account that the majority of such savings are due to a special government scheme called “feed-in tariff”. Depending on when you will read this article the feed-in tariff can be reduced (it gets reduced year after year as the wind energy gets cheaper or the government runs out of funding).
Before installing a wind turbine, especially if above 1kW (that is kind of large for a single house) have a proper consultation with the company installing it. Ask for the feed-in tariff and to ask for an evaluation beforehand and reliable wind-measurements on your garden or area where you want to install it.
11 – Wind Turbine Price Drop
The capital cost required to build and install a wind farm has fallen considerably in the last two decades; this trend is expected to continue in the next decade as well.
Since 1980 the capital cost of a wind turbine has dropped by 2.5 times (from 3500 to 1500USD per kW). In the next decade, the cost is expected to fall further by 10% (down to 1370 USD per kW). This, combined with higher efficiency, also justifies the drop in the energy price produced by such resources.
To note, in some parts of the world, as in the USA, the price experiences some rise between 2004 to 2009. Such phenomena were attributed to new technologies and materials adopted for the first time around that time. However, such an increase has slowed down and a reduction again is expected in the forthcoming years.
The main reason for driving a price reduction is the use of better and lighter material. Tower and rotor blades combined are responsible for 50% of the capital cost of the whole wind turbine. Hence, even a small improvement in one of them can drive down significantly the cost of the whole system
12 – Available For Single House (but Not Easy)
A wind turbine is quite an uncommon way for a single homeowner to produce its own energy.
You can also find them online on Amazon for instance. Of course, these are quite small in size (below 1kW) but they are starting to get slightly taller. These are usually placed on top of the roof (be careful here to not cause any roof leak, this can be a problem also for solar panels) or in a small hill nearby if you are lucky to have enough space.
To remember that wind turbines for single house owners require the presence of a large, free of obstacles and well-ventilated area. These conditions need to be met at the same time.
Wind turbines as well any renewable resources are born through the great idea to produce energy without emitting (at least directly) any greenhouse gas. Just for this, I cannot be biased. The idea is great.
However, as with everything else in life, there are drawbacks or at least limitations that are important to acknowledge and recognize.
1 – Weather Dependent and Lack of Consistent Energy Production
Similar to any energy source that comes from nature, it is not reliable. If you aim to live out of the grid just with wind, this is not possible (if not with massive wind turbines and batteries).
Wind energy is more unreliable than solar. Indeed, the sun shines every single day. Even in case you have a covered sky, your solar panels will produce something for at least a couple of cups of tea. However, you can spend weeks without any sufficient breeze to move your wind turbine.
By observing the USA wind map, it is clear that if you live on the east and west coast of the USA where the wind speed is an average of 4m/s or below. However, for those of you living in South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas it might be something you want to consider.
However, what about the surroundings?
2 – Surroundings Dependent
You can live in the windiest area on the USA map but there might be no wind in your garden or piece of land. In this case, forget about the wind turbine.
Wind turbine production for a house owner is severely affected by the surrounding areas. It is important to check for any obstacles that can slow down the wind pattern such as houses, trees, nearby tall buildings.
This is not enough. It is important to check for the new building construction and trees that can get very tall in the short future (less than 10 years) nearby the area where you are planning to have your wind turbine.
As a rule of thumb, the blades of a wind turbine need to be 30 feet above everything within 400 distance to guarantee that no obstruction is caused.
3 – Wind Turbine Are Very Visible
As discussed in the previous point a wind turbine needs to stand above nearby obstacles to be an economically viable option for you.
Wind turbines can get several meters tall depending on the size. Indeed, the higher the better. However, if you live in a particularly beautiful or attractive area you might have problems with your neighbor because you might obstruct their view. Your neighbor might also be worried regarding the noise (what about at night time). You need to ask the manufacturer what is the dB produced by the turbine when working (usually this is not a problem).
Also, the installation of a wind turbine, even if it is in your backyard, is not free from regulation. For instance, in the UK where height above 11.1 meters can be an issue without permission. In the USA this can vary greatly and you might need to ask your local building inspector.
In Texas for instance wind turbine in your backyard cannot:
- Produce more than 60dB of noise
- No taller than 100ft in a small land area
- The blade should be at least 20ft from the ground
Imagine paying thousands of dollars for a turbine (foundations, on this more later) to then be forced to upgrade or dismantled because of the council or your neighbor. Hence, always check if you need a building permit.
4 – Wind Turbine Are Expensive
We discussed before that the energy produced by a wind turbine, despite coming from free wind, is not zero free because of the capital investment.
Wind turbines are expensive, especially blades and towers that account (for the large turbine) for half of the total cost. Indeed, with the massive amount of materials, despite not being expensive per se, you need hundreds of tons for it.
A wind turbine of 2MW, installation included, might cost up to $4 million. The price increases roughly linearly for larger sizes. Offshore wind farms are of course more expensive per single MW.
Regarding small scale units for residential application, they are hopefully way more affordable but still relatively expensive for an average family.
According to UK prices, a wind turbine can cost anywhere between 1500 to 70,000 GBP (the equivalent of 2,000 to 94,000 USD) for power from 1.5 to 70kW. A good rule of thumb is 4,500 GBP per kW (for installation above 2.5kW). Hence, a 10kW will be around 45,000 GBP and 17kW will be around 70,000 GBP (around 94,000 USD).
Of course, if you really want to go on a budget but still contributing to the environment you can buy them below $1000 on Amazon such as this one for instance. Of course, these are “toy” turbines that produce their peak, just 400W (or 0.4kW) of power. To put this in proportion, this is around 10 times less of a small-medium size solar panel (3kW) and around a fourth of the power that a kettle requires.
5 – You Might Need Foundations
There is no need to mention that a few hundred tons of wind turbines need serious foundations several meters deep (to dozens for offshore) and tons of concrete and tons of concrete and steel.
Of course, the foundation is also to be prepared by a few days of excavating and leveling the ground.
The same process, at a smaller scale, does apply for residential turbines above 2kW (for a smaller one you can manage on top of your roof).
6 – Wind Turbine Are Noisy (But Not Much)
Wind turbines do make noise. They are essentially big fans working in reverse. Hence, if you have a fan in your home for those hot days, then you know the type of sounds they can produce. That’s not the case of solar photovoltaic panels that, without moving parts, are 100% noise-free (except for the inverter).
However, the question you should ask is how noisy are wind farms?
Wind farms are as noisy as a busy road in a normal city. A wind turbine produces 68dB at around 200 yards and 72dB when a few feet away.
If you do not believe it, check the video below (in the UK) where the journalist measures the noise of different environments and compares it to the one produced by a wind turbine.
However, what about the noise of the small wind turbine that you can place on your roof or backyard. Are they noisy?
Small wind turbines for domestic application placed on top of the roof or on their own support produce a very low level of noise of around 38 dB at 18 yards of distance. Such noise is barely audible at ground level.
7 – Birds Fatalities
This is one of the most well known and discussed drawbacks of wind turbines. Indeed, wind turbines are gigantic mixes of fiberglass, resin, plastic with blades rotating hundreds of times per minute. If a bird of large size passes near it, chances are that it will be killed or severely injured by the blades.
However, as a scientist, it is important to understand how many birds are affected by wind turbines. Indeed, if 1 a year, despite this being a fatality, it is not as serious as 1000 a year.
From the EERE study investigating the interaction of birds with wind turbines, it was found that wind turbines affect only the marginal (in terms of numbers of fatalities compared to their population) of birds.
Indeed, the majority of migratory birds fly well above what a wind blade can normally reach while rotating. The only case in which migratory birds are affected by wind turbines is in the case of very poor and rainy weather as they are affected to fly at lower altitudes.
Songbirds are the most important to focus on as they represent the vast majority (in number) of birds in the USA and they are also a migratory family of species. Songbirds are indeed the most affected by wind turbines, representing around 80% of all bird fatalities in the country followed by eagles and hawks. Such fatalities are concentrated during spring and fall. Nevertheless, the same study claims that wind turbines are very unlikely to affect the songbirds population in the USA.
Some sources claim that up to half a million birds are killed each year while others claim as little as 200+ thousand. Of course, there will be no precise number of such phenomena. Nevertheless, there are certainly hundreds of thousands of bird fatalities per year in the USA due to wind turbines.
Based on the expected uptake of wind turbines in teh future, 1 million bird fatalities per year in the next 2 decades can be possible. Despite this number is still very small compared to the total bird population in the USA (around a couple of billion) it is still a problem that we have the responsibility to solve considering also how much the bird population has been severely affected in the last 2 decades.
One of the most interesting remedies I heard of is to paint black the turbine blades. Indeed, black was demonstrated to reduce up to 70% of the annual bird’s fatality. However, the final and real solution is to avoid the problem altogether by finding areas with no migratory bird traffic.
8 – Disposal and Recycling Wind Turbine is Problematic
Wind turbines have a long life span of around 2 decades. However, given that they are a relatively new technology, only now the disposal problem starts getting serious. Indeed, the very first wind turbines are reaching their end of life and start being dismantled.
Each turbine can be several hundreds of tons of special plastic, fiberglass, steel, and concrete. In the USA around 30,000 wind turbines will be dismantled the next 4 years. This means millions of tons of special material. Indeed, here I am not talking about the plastic bottle that you buy at the supermarket and you drop in the recycle bin. That is a common plastic bottle for which standard recycling treatments are already in place.
Here we are talking about extremely durable and resistant materials built to last decades with little to no maintenance (given the technical challenges in replacing a blade in a wind turbine). Such blades cannot be easily recycled or crushed. The process to efficiently deal with them does not exist yet despite being on study for many years.
The problem is only going to get worse. Indeed, if you remember among the pros, we discussed the exponential growth the wind generation has had in the last decades.
Hence, the blades, towers, and find that we need to deal with will only increase year after year creating millions of tons of difficult to treat material per year. Indeed, if we assume an average small wind turbine of 2MW weighs around 300+ tons, and 8000 wind turbines dismantled per year (conservative estimate) this only leads to 2.4 million tons of material.
At the moment such material might lay for years in open air landfill like the one in Iowa that made the headlines in a few newspapers. However, I do honestly believe that is just a question of time and incentives to promote the required research to close the gap and develop a standardized recycling process that will be able to develop with this issue and, more importantly, being able to reuse a large part of such special material or the next generation of wind turbines.
9 – Terrestrial Animal Problem
Terrestrial animals can be affected as well by the presence of wind turbines. However, this is more an indirect consequence of the large and destructive work needed for the installation of such massive infrastructure.
The construction of a wind farm is complex and involves several steps that last months (or years) and can heavily affect the surrounding environment:
- Prepare the ground for the foundation;
- Use/ build provisional roads to bring the large material to the site (often a remote location with no road existing);
- Place the transformers (these are very large and heavy static machines that always come with wind turbines);
- Place the cables on towers/underground and all the associate protection and control infrastructures
The presence of wind turbines also causes directly or indirectly human presence. Despite not being significant this might pose risk to some animals disturbing them during the breeding seasons or increasing the fatalities due to car accidents (vehicles accessing the site) and even the bade’s moving shadow of the turbine blades.l
Moreover, new roads, built just to access the wind turbines in remote areas, might also indirectly promote hunting and increase significantly the human presence as those areas are now easily reachable.
For more have a look at this interesting study on wolf habitat destruction due to wind turbines. Despite being referred to as one species, a similar conclusion can be inferred for other wild animals.
10 – Maintenance
A wind turbine has definitely higher maintenance costs than a solar panel. A wind turbine has a moving part (the generator rotor for those of you a bit familiar with electricity) and the blades undergo high mechanical stress.
This involves at least three people (two climbing the tower) and one on the ground. This is done periodically to check any crack, lightning damage, and verify that no debris is present in the gearbox (another important piece of equipment within the turbine). These, of course, are just routine maintenance on top of the emergency one in case of any evident damage (sometimes wind turbines get on fire as well). Such costs are not small at all.
The maintenance cost of a wind turbine is estimated to be around 2% per annum of the capital cost of the wind turbine. Such costs are most of the time concentrated in the last 5 years of the wind turbine lifespan.
To place some number, a turbine of 1MW, that costs roughly 1.5 million USD, then a 2% equates to 30,000 USD per year of maintenance. This is a very rough estimate of course, but this is still a significant amount that, considering a 20 years lifespan, amounts to more than half a million (more than half of the wind turbine price).
Regarding small wind turbines for residential application, maintenance costs need to be considered as well. Indeed, wind turbines need to be installed in an elevated area, that might be either your roof or on top of a pole.
Hence, even reaching those areas, might already pose dangers that you must avoid. Also, even when you reach the wind turbine you might not know what to do. Maintenance is inevitable, especially after a few years. This is more frequent if you live in very windy areas.
Some estimates suggest similar figures to those found for large wind turbines. Hence, even for your small 5kW wind turbine, you should put aside an average of 3% of its cost per year. Hence, for every 5,000 USD of your wind turbine prices, you need to put aside around $150/year. This not only covers the cost of the parts but also their shipment and installation.
To save money check wind warranties. How long is the warranty? Remember that the different parts of the wind turbine (generator, pole, foundations, blade, wires, electronics, etc…) have typically different warranty lengths.
11 – Often Locate Far From Where Electricity is Needed
Wind turbines, due to their size and environmental visual impact, are located in remote areas where none uses the energy produced. Indeed, when mentioning the wind turbine cost, hundreds of thousands of dollars are only to cover teh connection costs. These are all the cables to transport the energy produced miles away to the city using them.
This is of course not ideal for several reasons
- Environmental disruptive: laying cable on the ground or overhead lines require further foundations and man transit that will affect an even larger area than the one in which the wind turbine is located.;
- The energy lost: around 2-5% of the energy traveling in a conductor will definitely be lost. This is not much, but considering that a wind turbine can supply energy for thousands of houses, this means the energy of hundreds of houses lost in the heat;
- Expensive and carbon inefficient: laying cable or putting in place towers requires vehicles, petrol, and quite a bit of money.
However, at the time of speaking, there is no solution to this problem as having a wind turbine in the middle of a city is something that is not very well accepted and might pose some risk to the inhabitants (although remote). The only exceptions are those smaller than 20kW that can be placed on the roofs of tall office buildings.
Wind generation is definitely the future of the energy sector. It has a low cost of production and a very low environmental impact among all renewable energy.
However, wind energy is not perfect.
Installing a wind turbine requires a massive capital investment, it is location and weather dependent. At the time of writing, no reliable process for the disposal of the millions of tons of steel, fiberglass, and plastic is in place.
Besides, I do not personally believe it will be life-changing technology at the residential level. It requires high altitude and, even at peak power, the energy produced is not comparable to the one tha can be produced on the top of your rooftop.
However, wind generation will get more relevant on a large (very large) scale. Having 10+MW wind turbines will become more and more common. Wind turbines, able to provide energy to dozens of thousands of houses.