Wind Energy Pros, Cons, and Outlook

Wind energy is fast becoming America’s top renewable energy source.

Two business people look over models of wind turbines.
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 Jose Luis Pelaez Inc / Getty Images

Wind energy is a technology that creates electricity from moving air. It is quickly becoming the number one source of U.S. renewable energy. In 2020, it will surpass hydroelectricity. In the first quarter of 2019, wind power reached a capacity of 97 gigawatts generated by 56,600 turbines across 41 states. This will increase to 107 gigawatts by the end of 2019, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The industry has lots of room for growth. In 2018, wind only generated 6.6% of U.S. electric power.

U.S. Wind Energy Facts

In 2016, wind energy created 102,500 jobs according to a report by the American Wind Energy Association.

In 2019, 41 states had utility-scale wind energy projects. The five states with the most electricity generation from wind in 2017 were Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Kansas, and California.

According to the AWEA, the top five states with the most wind capacity in 2019 were:

  1. Texas: 24.9 GW
  2. Iowa: 8.9 GW
  3. Oklahoma: 8.1 GW
  4. California: 5.8 GW
  5. Kansas: 5.7 GW

Combined, they provide 55% of the total installed wind capacity of 97.2 gigawatts.

Approximately 2% of the solar energy striking the Earth’s surface is converted to kinetic energy in wind.

These states benefit from areas of strong wind. According to the EIA, good places for wind turbines are where the annual average wind speed is at least 9 miles per hour for small wind turbines and 13 miles per hour for utility-scale turbines.

On land, favorable sites include the tops of smooth, rounded hills. Other good locations include open plains and mountain gaps that funnel wind.

The best locations for wind power are along the coasts or offshore, thanks to sea breezes. But there are many challenges. Coastal areas are highly developed so residents don’t want wind farms blocking their views. Offshore wind farms are also expensive to build. These installations are very susceptible to damage from hurricanes. Despite the risks, the first U.S. offshore wind farm was built near Rhode Island in 2016.

How Wind Energy Works

Wind energy works by harnessing moving air to create electricity. The wind turns the propeller-like blades on the turbine. These turn a rotor that turns a shaft at about 30 to 60 rotations per minute. A gearbox speeds up the rotation fast enough to drive the generator. The generator creates 60-cycle AC electricity.

Is Wind a Kind of Solar Energy?

About 2% of the energy from the sun that strikes the Earth's surface is converted into kinetic energy -- as wind.

Each turbine has a wind speed anemometer attached to a controller. The turbine starts up when wind speeds are between eight and 16 miles per hour. It shuts off when the speed exceeds 55 mph to avoid damage.

Pros

  • Cost effective

  • Little or no waste

  • No emissions

  • Few negative health impacts

  • Economic development and jobs

  • Reliability

  • Low water usage

Cons

  • Weather dependent

  • Construction costs

  • Time to construct

  • Maintenance expense

  • Aesthetic concerns

  • Noise

  • Negative impacts on wildlife

Pros

There are seven advantages to wind energy. They center around its reliability, low cost, lack of waste, low water use, role in fighting global warming, health benefits, and job creation.

Wind is an important source of renewable energy since it doesn't depend on a finite source of fuel. That supports national security by eliminating the need to protect the fuel source. It also diversifies the nation's power sources.

It is cost effective. First, the cost of fuel is zero since it doesn't have to be mined or shipped. The electricity is usually sold in 20-year contracts. That removes the pricing instability, a major advantage over fossil fuel energy sources. Their prices change daily since these are sold on the commodities market.

The cost of developing and operating a new wind power plant is more cost effective than any other energy source. According to energy firm Lazard, new wind generation is now cheaper than operating existing coal or nuclear plants. As a result, utilities closed 27 coal plants in 2017.

Here is the comparative cost for each source per megawatt hour:

  • Wind: $45
  • Utility-scale solar: $50
  • Natural gas: $60
  • Coal: $108
  • Nuclear: $148

Note: This is based on Lazard’s 2017 estimate of levelized cost of energy. The levelized cost is the lifetime cost of constructing and operating the plant divided by its total energy production.

It has no waste. This makes it superior to nuclear power that has radioactive waste. It also makes it superior to coal or natural gas that create pollution when they are mined and air pollution when they are burned.

It also requires less water. Nuclear power requires 600 times more water and coal needs 500 times more water than wind. That makes wind power especially useful for drought-prone areas like the Southwest.

Wind energy doesn’t add greenhouse gases that add to global warming. In 2018, AWEA estimated that U.S. wind energy avoided 201 million metric tons of CO2. That makes it superior to fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas, and coal. For that reason, it’s a powerful tool to prevent further climate change.

It has fewer negative health impacts than fossil fuel power. Between 2007 and 2015, U.S. wind energy saved $108 billion by avoiding power plant emissions. That helped those with respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses avoid hospitalization. It also prevented 12,200 premature deaths.

The wind industry creates economic development and jobs in manufacturing, installation, and operations. In 2016, it employed 100,000 workers. Wind turbine technician is one of the fastest-growing U.S. careers. By 2050, the industry could support more than 600,000 jobs.

Wind energy is particularly helpful to the economies in rural areas. It is locally owned and the proceeds are plowed back into the area. For example, Minnesota found that each 100 MW of wind development generated $1 million per year in property tax revenue. It also paid landowners $250,000 per year in direct lease payments. Wind power supports farming and local agriculture.

Cons

Wind energy has seven disadvantages. They center around weather, cost and timing of development, cost of maintenance, obstruction of views, noise, and effects on wildlife.

The power is dependent on the weather. Utilities must use other sources of energy if there isn't enough wind—or if a strong storm creates too much wind. Energy storage based on improved batteries or other technologies can help solve this problem.

Construction of wind turbines is expensive. In 2017, it cost around $1.6 million per megawatt of generating capacity installed. To take advantage of economies of scale, the facility needs at least 13 turbines to generate at least 20 MW. That makes the minimum cost of a wind farm at least $32 million.

Construction also takes a long time. First, the site must be evaluated for wind speed, direction, temperature, air pressure, turbulence, humidity. Developers build several local meteorological towers, radars, and lasers to study the potential sites for a year.

Turbines are often placed in remote areas. This makes them more expensive to maintain and to transport the power. The cost of transmission lines can be prohibitive.

Wind turbines are large. They obstruct views and can cast shadows for nearby residents. Many communities oppose them for that reason.

Turbines are noisy (but less so than cars). Most homes are at least 300 meters from a wind farm. At that distance, the turbine is 43 decibels. That's about the same sound level as a refrigerator and a little less than an air conditioner. The difference is that it runs constantly. Here is a video recording with a meter reading. It shows wind farms are less noisy than city traffic streets or an airplane overhead.

The turbines kill up to 328,000 birds each year. Although that's a lot, it's nowhere near the 130 million deaths from power lines, the 300 million deaths from buildings, and the billions killed by house cats. The most vulnerable are raptors, night-migrating songbirds, and grassland birds. Bats can be pulled into the turbines. As a result, wind farms must be sited away from migratory corridors and bat colonies.

There are some reports that wind farms reduce insect populations. However, research shows that windmill sites had the same number of insects as other grasslands.

Outlook

Wind power is growing. In 2019, production capacity will increase to 114 gigawatts, according to the EIA. This growth is in spite of the ending of the federal government wind tax credit. The credit will expire at the end of 2020. Falling costs could make up for the tax credit expiration. Of course, if Congress extends the credit again, that would greatly boost wind power construction.

By 2050, wind could supply 35% of U.S. electricity according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Key to this success is the consolidation of transmission lines. Wind could supply an even greater percentage if the government adds a carbon tax to increase the price of fossil fuels.

The United States has 10.6-gigawatt potential on-shore wind capacity. The top 10 states are:

Top 10 U.S. States for On-Shore Wind Power Potential Capacity
Texas 1,300 GW
Montana 679 GW
New Mexico 653 GW
Kansas 506 GW
Arizona 475 GW
Wyoming 472 GW
Nevada 468 GW
Nebraska 465 GW
South Dakota 418 GW
California 303 GW

Offshore wind power is just starting to take off. By 2026, MAKE Consulting forecasts a total offshore capacity of 5.3 gigawatts. This includes Massachusetts and Rhode Island additions of 1.6 gigawatts of offshore wind power by 2027. The states of New York, Maryland, and Virginia are announcing projects as well.

The National Renewable Energy Lab said the United States has a capacity for 4,200 gigawatts of offshore wind power.

What You Can Do

On a national level, tell your U.S. Representatives and Senators that you'll be voting on the climate change issue in the next election. Tell them you support carbon emissions trading and carbon taxes. These policies fairly assign the true costs of fossil fuel power.

If you live in a state with good potential, ask your utility to install wind power. Many give you the option to choose power generated by wind or other renewable sources.

If you have enough land, you can develop or host a wind farm on your property. AWEA suggests following these 10 steps to see if your property is a good candidate. They include determining how far your site is from transmission lines and talking to local zoning boards.

The Bottom Line

Wind is a growing source of power for the United States. In 2019, it will become the number one source of renewable energy. Five states provide half of this energy, but the potential is much greater. By 2050, wind could provide 35% of U.S. electricity generation.

Wind power is a critical weapon in the fight against global warming. You can make sure your elected officials to adopt laws that favor wind development. Many utilities also allow you to select wind or other forms of renewable energy. If you have the land, you can also look into leasing it to a wind farm developer.