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Wind Power: Pros and Cons

RP Siegel | Wednesday June 27th, 2012 | 49 Comments

There is no perfect energy source. Each and every one has its own advantages and compromises. This series will explore the pros and cons of various energy sources.  Learn about other forms of energy generation here.

When we think of wind power, we generally think of those large, high tech towers with slowly spinning blades that have sprung up in the past decade on hilltops in many areas of the country. But the fact is, wind is one of the oldest sources of power used by man. Our ancient ancestors used the wind to propel boats, grind grain and pump water.

While all of these applications still exist today, wind power is now primarily used to generate electricity at both the large and the small scale. Our discussion today will focus on large utility scale installations. In all cases, it is the kinetic energy, or movement of the air, that provides the mechanical power to perform the various forms of work.

According to a recent report posted by the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), renewables can contribute 80% of American electricity by the year 2050. Much of it will be provided by wind power installations of this type.

Wind power has some obvious advantages: it’s clean and renewable and relatively cheap. While these advantages are largely global in nature (e.g. reduced greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel depletion), the disadvantages are primarily local (e.g. land use, noise and visual pollution). Of course, the main disadvantage of wind power is that the wind does not blow consistently or steadily.

Other issues have been raised, which have often been misconceptions. For example, one criticism is that windmills kill lots of wild birds. This was true of the early windmills, especially in the case of the wind farm located near Altamont Pass in California. Those turbines spun at high speeds and were located near a major avian thoroughfare. Today’s high efficiency turbines spin at lower speeds and use smooth poles to support the turbine instead of the lattice-style structures used earlier – which actually made nice bird nesting grounds.

Today, even the Audubon Society supports wind power, recognizing that global warming causing a far greater threat to the long term viability of bird populations than the occasional collision of a bird with a tower. The number of annual bird fatalities (around 20,000) is tiny when compared to transmission lines or cats.

Another controversy that has been brewing recently is the idea that windmills can cause global warming. This is another misconception.

Based on a study produced at the State University of NY (SUNY) at Albany, the ground around the turbines can warm up at night. This is due to the mixing, by the turbines, of the cool night air at ground level with the warmer air above. While the effect is real, the concern is not, since this phenomenon does not introduce new heat into the planet’s atmosphere, as the carbon dioxide layer does by trapping heat that would otherwise escape into space. Rather, this small, localized effect is simply mixing heat that is already there, with cooler air below it. If you think of it as a pot of soup on a stove, the sun provides the heat, the greenhouse gases form the lid, and the action of the windmills would be like you stirring the soup, albeit with a very small spoon. Life on Earth, as we know it today, evolved at temperatures that were present before the lid was on.

It is true that this mixing of air could impact local weather in the vicinity of the windmills, but experts believe that this effect can be reduced with enhanced turbine blade designs that minimize mixing and by siting the turbines in areas that are naturally more turbulent.

Here then are the wind power pros and cons.

Pros

  • Clean energy, no fuel to drill, frack, mine, transport or burn
  • Renewable and sustainable
  • Costs are relatively low and continue to decrease
  • Abundant domestic supply (16X current electric demand!)
  • The power is essentially free once the infrastructure is paid for.
  • Low life cycle carbon footprint. Breakeven in eight months.
  • Can be used almost anywhere.

 

Cons

  • As mentioned earlier, the wind is inconsistent, unsteady and unpredictable
  • Wind power is not cheap and like many energy sources, rely on government subsidies to remain competitive.
  • Wind farms are generally located in rural areas that might be otherwise picturesque. They are considered by some people to be an eyesore.
  • Some people complain of noise from the turbines.
  • Wildlife impact. Not only birds, but bats have experienced fatalities.
  • Localized impact on night-time temperatures and weather

At the end of 2011, the US had 46,919MW of installed wind capacity. This number is expected to grow rapidly, whether or not production tax credits (PTC) are renewed. There have been a number of recent mergers among wind developers as the industry consolidates.

In summary, wind power, is not a perfect solution, but it is far better than just about anything else we have available at the moment. I would consider it a good long term transitional energy source over the next fifty to a hundred years.

The other good thing about wind: unlike nuclear power, or tar sands oil, which will each leave a long term toxic legacy, when we are finally done with wind, we can simply take down the towers and allow nature to grow back in.

[Image credit: Wayfinder_73: Flickr Creative Commons]

What about other energy sources?

 

RP Siegel, PE, is the President of Rain Mountain LLC. He is also the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


▼▼▼      49 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • http://twitter.com/JesseDugan Jesse Dugan

     Great Post, love the extensive break down; it really puts everything in perspective.

  • Nick

    I had to do a paper on the pros and cons of renewable energy and this was perfect! Great post!

  • Ann_Banisher

    You left a lot out of the con side.
    The life cycle cost of the 20-25 year life span of the wind turbines is enormous. Not just the mining, manufacturing, & transportation of the concrete & steel, but the heavy metals used in the turbines as well. What happens when they are not maintained? Will we see mile after mile of blighted landscapes of unused turbines, standing like a forest of dead trees, like we have here in the Altamont Pass? You would need between between 750K to 1M – 3MW turbines to replace just 2GW of our 27GW supply. How much room does that take up? Picture them lined up along the eastern seaboard, from Maine to Florida-it would take 200 rows of turbines spaced 1/2KM apart.
    The ironic part is, you still wouldn’t be able to get rid of the coal plants. Fossil fuel plants normally run on standby to support the wind
    fluctuations that occur. So, not only do we see only 8 to 10% of a rated
    power output, but this is offset by the fossil fuel consumed an not
    delivered to the grid.

    One final topper, you now have to build a web of transmission lines to
    bring the power from where it is generated to where it is used.

    • RPSiegel

      Your information is outdated and your math is incorrect. To produce 2 GW would require 667 turbines of 3 MW capacity, though the more common 4 MW turbines would reduce that number to 500. Larger, 10 MW machines in the pipeline. The backup “spinning reserve” argument is mostly a myth, with modern control technology, smart grid and the diversity of wind locations, there is much less need for backup power now that wind is becoming integrated into the grid. The coal plants you refer to are now mostly gone, with natural gas taking their place. Of course there are issues with wind power, but you really have to compare it to the alternatives. Right now, it’s one of the best we have, which is why it’s important to get the PTC extended. Wind is already providing 47 GW, which exceeds 3% of our national demand. No one is suggesting that we get 100% of our power from wind. That wouldn’t make sense considering what else is available.

      • Ann_Banisher

        I think you forgot something on your math. Take your 3 MW capacity and multiply by 8-18%(just checked updated gov’t stats) and you’ll find that the 2 GW your 667 turbines are RATED to produce will actually generate 160- 360 MW of useable electricity. The larger turbines will need a bigger footprint, will cause a bigger ‘flicker effect’ but ultimately have the same flaws.
        Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for efficient renewable energy, but the reason we are building so much of it is the money to be made by the developer getting tax free deals on the land, government loans to build, subsidies for the electricity and the utilities get to charge higher electric rates (which mean higher profits). When you look at the CO2 costs to mine the cement & aggregates for the conc bases, manufacture the steel for the towers & rebar, the industrial pollution from the mining & processing of the heavy metals for the turbines, the asphalt or concrete for the miles upon miles of service roadways, destruction of miles of generally pristine landscape, you find this isn’t really green.
        At least retrofit solar on existing homes& business require no major footprint, is easily tied to existing grids where the power is needed, and is reliable during peak loading times.
        The ‘Green’ industry is pushing to tear down our hydro plants, which the government does not count as renewable.

        • RPSiegel

          You’re talking about two different things here: capacity, which is measured in watts, is a unit of power. Energy, on the other hand, is measured in watt-hours. The intermittency of wind power impacts the total energy produced over a period of time, but not the capacity. Just semantics, but most people don’t get this. Yes, wind does not always blow and that reduces the amount of energy that can be harvested from a given installation. So even if you add another factor of 10 for capacity factor, that is still far fewer turbines than you cited in your original comment. For a life cycle analysis (LCA) of wind power that considers all the construction impacts, etc. see this reference. http://www.wind-energy-the-facts.org/en/environment/chapter-1-environmental-benefits/lca-in-wind-energy.html Life cycle carbon emissions are far below conventional sources. Large scale solar installations have a large footprint too, As it says at the top of the page, there are no perfect energy sources.

        • Ann_Banisher

          I have to apologize. I did screw up my decimal point. Should have been 6670 turbines. But the major points still remain. The one cost that is never calculated is the land cost. The amount of land required for wind to be profitable, but is never included in the cost, is huge, (unlike solar, which can be developed on a small scale and placed at the point of use). The destruction of the natural environment is permanent for a 25 year life span and I hate to see us go too far down that road.
          Here in SoCal, we have watched while the local utility fought for 10 years to get the Sunrise powerlink utility line approved, going thru mostly desert to San Diego. I can only imagine the fight to interconnect these wind farms with power lines.
          Talk to a utility about how difficult it is to accommodate the variable nature of wind power. You still need the RELIABLE backup power available to take up the slack, also not calculated in the life cycle cost.
          BTW, here is another life cycle cost analysis.
          http://www.worldenergy.org/documents/congresspapers/482.pdf

        • bairkus

          I think you will find that most of the land leases run in perpetuity, and relinquish control of the land to others. Such was the case with railroad rights of way. When railroads are abandoned and dismantled, the land does NOT revert to original property boundaries.

    • heatherGirl

      This article was obviously written by a liberal, who talks as if goverment subsities come out of thin air……
      Liberals act as if the money for the subsidies offsets cost someone how. It doesn’t. The same people who will be paying for the more expensive wind power are the same people who will also be paying taxes to fund the subsidies!
      This is just smoke and mirrors so you do not look at the total cost when your just looking at the electric bill. Some of that electric bill your paying with your taxes!

      • Akron Steve

        Heather, what about the subsides we pay for oil and coal? What do you think all our military spending in the Persian gulf is for? Are they having a picnic over there? No, they are subsidizing oil. Rise in health care costs for kids with Asthma? That’s a subsidy for coal.

        I have no problem subsidizing wind with a few of my tax dollars given the alternative.

        • Ann_Banisher

          Steve,
          The only reason the dollars seem few is because of minor impact those dollars have.
          Look no further than the DOE for the ‘subsidies’ for the different energy sources. Oil & gas got $2.8B total and < $1B for electric power generation. Wind got $5B & solar got $1B. Fossil fuels account for 78% of energy production, wind and solar about 3%.

          Per MWH of energy production, oil, gas, & coal get a 64 cent subsidy, wind gets $56 and solar gets $775. Oil, coal & gas also generate $10B a year in taxes. How much taxes do wind and solar generate? Bupkis.

          If we would produce our own energy here, we would not need to worry as much about the middle east, we would employ alot more people, and generate a lot more revenue. I'd love to replace coal, but it's not going to be with wind and solar (that might help fill the need for increased power sources, but not replace current sources).

  • Gwenn

    Completing my essay as well! Thanks for the great article; as well as the argumentative incite! Also, thank you for the provided links; It sounds like you did your “homework” as well! I am looking to erect a wind turbine on my farm…this article adds a bit of incite to that as well. Best of luck to you and your endeavor!

    • Martin Kral

      Your farm is the best use of wind trubines, in other words, small local implementations. The same holds true for solar (PV) as well. Utility-scale wind farms are just way to expensive for efficient base load power. LFTR (another article) is a more practical solution for base load power.

  • Gwenn

    P.S. I’d rather have the hum of wind turbines than nuclear waste in our streams!! Check the cancer rate maps in relevance to the locations of nuclear energy facilities! Disgraceful! American Cancer society supplies a map of cancer rates. The NRC supplies a map of nuclear sites. Overlap the two of them and you will see what I mean. At least wind does not add to the high cancer risks!! Ann believe me wind is a much smarter idea than nuclear! I agree we should be turning toward more solar energy as well.

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.k.clarke.3 David K Clarke

    A very good article. You might have said more about how little land is used for wind farms. I happen to live in the Mid North region of the state of South Australia. About a quarter of Australia’s wind power in generated in this region and the amount of lost agricultural land is negligible. The turbines are on top of ridges where the soil is shallow and the slopes are too steep for agriculture; and the sheep use the shade of towers in the summer (there are few trees on most of the ridges).

    In early 2003 South Australia had negligible renewable energy. Now about 26% of our electricity is wind power and 2.5% solar. The proportion of our coal-fired electricity has gone down from about 42% to 25%; with similar reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector.

    I have a Net site on wind power in Australia; see Wind in the Bush.

  • Lewis G R Black

    what are pros and cons of solar energy?

  • http://www.facebook.com/shuvo.ru Shuvo Munjuri

    Everything had Advantages and disadvantages. So wind power has also pros
    and cons. I think it will be great uses in the future. As we know that
    RnD is going on for improving lots in this sector. Most important issue
    in this sector is investment and installation place where need more
    space. But in future all things will be change. With a law cost and more
    energy from wind power will be produce from this. Let’s wait for the
    new innovation in this sector.

    By the way it will be very helpful to produce energy for 3rd world countries because of the lack of their source and eligibility.

    Lets hope the best …

    Ref:http://www.windpowertunes.com/

    • robert ass

      it ws just what i needed

  • the_sciencepro

    i think we shoukld have more of these

  • the_sciencepro

    @@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@Ann_Banisher:disqus i think your rong

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  • http://www.facebook.com/casey.thomson.37 Casey Case-Dawg Cadieux

    this site really helped me with me physics project, great site to look at when trying to find out information about wind power!

  • Abe

    Wind could become a major energy supplier if an efficient storage method of excess power can be found. Peak-time power consumption use requires the conventional method to back-up wind power.

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  • Howard

    The article misses several of the main cons of wind turbines. The headline generator output is based on the the wind speed being the design wind speed, if the wind speed is less then the design speed the turbine will not generate the rated output. However that is worse than it sounds, the relationship between wind speed and power output is a cube law relationship so if the wind speed is half of the design wind speed the output of the generator is not 50% as you may think, it is only 20%, this is all very basic engineering, it is not as they say rocket science. This means that a 30 x 6 MW unit wind turbine farm nominally generating 180MW will now only be generating 36 MW this is a significant problem. From a datasheet for the Siemens 6 MW wind turbine ( which is on the large side for wind turbines) the design speed is about 28 mph. So if you want to get the 180 MW out of your wind farm you need steady constant wind speed of 28 mph 24/7/365. Wherever you live watch your local weather forecast and see how often the wind speed is 28 mph, very rarely where I live. The turbine referred to above also needs a wind speed of at least 6 mph to generate anything. If the wind speed is greater than 28 mph the power output rises as a cube of the wind speed so unless the turbine is shut down there is the danger that the current generated which will increase by the cube law relationship will quickly exceed the design rating, causing possible damage to the generator.

    • duh

      Wow, I think this article was to be a basic article for the layman. You just made hour point invalid to me by trying to prove something that wasnt needed. Who cares. The article did state, wind is inconsistent. So.. you rambled on to show off. Show off for people who only know simple things. And I would say where I do see them all over my mountains, they do not always move but I never see them spinning off the pole either. I bet someone smarter then you already figured all this stuff out.

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  • Adam

    Great post. Wind turbines are a great method of delivering clean energy and have been for centuries. I don’t think its a practical solution for large scale distributed energy needs though, due to maintenance costs and the community who deems wind farms an eye-sore, especially abandoned wind farms that no longer serve a purpose. What seems most logical and efficient though, while retaining good landscape aesthetics, would be the cogeneration of energy using (vastly fewer) turbines to power a central hydrogen electrolysis plant. Initial infrastructure cost would be a lot higher but the cost of maintenance would be a lot lower, so would the cost of the produced energy to the end consumer. After all, it’s just wind (or PV panels) and water.

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