Wind Power: Pros and Cons of Wind Turbines

The Pros

Wind power has grown to be economically competitive with other forms of power. Although it costs more to generate 1 kilowatt of electricity by wind power than it does with coal- or oil-fired generators, the gap is closing. If 20 percent of a family's electricity were to come from wind power, the electric bill would be less than $2 higher per month. The cost of generating wind power has decreased 85 percent since 1980.

The U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) "Wind Powering America" initiative has set a goal of producing five percent of the nation's electricity from wind by 2020. DOE projects meant to achieve this goal will provide $60 billion in capital investment to rural America, $1.2 billion in new income to farmers and rural landowners, and 80,000 new jobs during the next 20 years.

Wind power can be an alternative crop for farmers and ranchers. Many farmers and ranchers are leasing their land to produce electricity. A farmer can be paid $2,000 to $5,000 in royalties per wind turbine, and the farmer can continue to use the land for traditional farming.

Wind turbines add to the local tax base. In Lamar, Colorado, wind-power generation added $32 million to the county tax base, providing money for schools and other local needs.

Wind turbines do not consume water, making them ideal for dry or drought-stricken areas. In contrast, conventional and nuclear power plants consume large amounts of water for cooling and other purposes. According to the California Energy Commission, the number of gallons of water consumed per kilowatt-hour by nuclear power plants is 0.62; by coal plants, 0.49; and by oil, 0.43. In contrast, windpower turbines consume 0.001 gallons of water per kilowatt-hour.

Wind power is homegrown, unlike oil. Not buying these fuels from abroad increases national security and improves the nation's balance of payments. Because wind is free, consumers are not at the mercy of frequently increasing fuel prices.

Wind power in inexhaustible and renewable, in contrast to fossil fuels, and it is clean. Wind power does not contribute to acid rain, smog, global warming, or mercury contamination. It does not release dangerous particles into the air.

Wind energy is safe. Although the risk exists for industrial accidents in the construction of a wind turbine, the same can be said about the construction of any facility. The risk that the public will be harmed by a wind-power facility is nearly zero. With nuclear power the risk of catastrophe is ever present, and with fossil fuel plants, the danger from fire and explosions is high. There has been only one case of a person's being killed by a wind turbine: A skydiver sailed off course and fell into the rotating blades of a turbine.

Wind power has many uses. Small turbines can power schools, businesses, campuses, homes, farms, and ranches. They can be used in remote locations for telecommunications, ice making, and water pumping, eliminating the need for remote communities to run smoky and noisy diesel-powered generators. Turbines could benefit native communities in small, poorer nations.

Wind power provides jobs. Every megawatt of wind power provides about 4.8 job-years of employment. Wind power also provides exports. It is estimated that by the mid-2010s, 75,000 megawatts of new wind power will be installed worldwide at a cost of $75 billion. Countries with the industrial capacity to build wind turbines, could capture a share of that growing market, providing employment for thousands of people.

Wind power does not have the hidden costs of other energy sources. Hidden costs are those that society has to pay but that are not reflected in the price of the resource. Such costs include transportation and storage with their risk of causing polluting accidents, air and water pollution, and the health effects of pollution.

The Cons

Wind turbines can be noisy. Engineers are working on ways to quiet the noise. The best method has been to reduce the thickness of the trailing edges of blades. Noise also has been reduced by placing turbines in an upwind rather than a downwind position. The wind hits the blades first, then the tower, rather than the other way around, eliminating the thumping sound that downwind designs make as the blade passes the wind shadow cast by the tower.

Wind turbine blades can cause shadow flicker as the blades rotate in the path of the sun's rays. The flickering of light and dark can be a minor annoyance for local residents when the sun is low in the sky. Most turbines are set back far enough away from homes and businesses so that shadow flicker is not a concern.

Wind farms require a fair amount of land, about 24 hectares (60 acres) per megawatt. However, the turbines themselves plus service roads occupy only about 1 hectare (3 acres) of the 24 hectares. Land is difficult to find near cities. One solution to this problem is to place wind turbines in shallow waters offshore where possible.

Wind turbines are visible, contributing to visual or horizon pollution. Placing some wind turbines offshore can help lessen this problem. Some people consider wind turbines sleek and attractive, embodying a forward-looking concern for the environment. Wind turbines are no more visible than ski resorts, water towers, and junkyards.

Wind is intermittent, meaning that wind power has to be supplemented by other forms of power. Wind-power generation poses additional challenges for power-grid managers, who have to ensure that enough power is available to meet peak demand at all times, even when the wind is not blowing.

Not all areas are suitable for wind-power generation. Wind towers and rotors can interfere with radar, posing a potential hazard for air travelers. They can also interfere with television and radio transmission, particularly if they are in the line of sight between the signal source and the receiver. Finally, wind turbines can be a hazard to birds, which sometimes fly into the rotors.

Some environmentalists are concerned about soil erosion, particularly in desert regions, where a thin, fragile layer of topsoil would be disturbed in the construction of turbines, and in the eastern United States, where turbines would be built on mountain ridgelines. Good engineering practices could lessen these effects.

Another potential problem is the effects of wind farms on bird life. Although birds and bats sometimes fly into wind-turbine blades and are killed, this problem is site specific and has been exaggerated. In a study in California researchers concluded that in a total of ten thousand bird deaths, 5,500 birds were killed by flying into buildings and windows and that motor vehicles caused seven hundred deaths. Cats caused one thousand bird deaths. Wind turbines, in contrast, accounted for less than one in ten thousand bird deaths.

Environmentalists are also concerned that wind farms with their service roads and transmission lines may break up the habitat of birds and other wildlife.

Wind Power: Pros and Cons of Wind Turbines copyright 2011