Wind Energy Pros, Cons, and Outlook

Wind energy is 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 the No. 1 source of U.S. renewable energy. In 2020, it surpassed hydropower as a source of electricity. In late 2020, the U.S. had 111.8 gigawatts of installed wind capacity.

The industry has lots of room for growth. In 2020, wind only generated 8.6% of U.S. electric power.

U.S. Wind Energy Facts

In 2020, wind power generated 332 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh), more than the hydropower's 289 billion KWh generated and solar's 88.4 billion kWh. Wind power is almost half of the 753 billion KWh generated by all renewable energy sources.

Wind and other renewable energy sources have a long way to go to catch up to conventional sources of U.S. energy: natural gas at 1,510 billion kWh, nuclear at 792 billion kWh, and coal at 764 billion kWh.

In 2019, 41 states had utility-scale wind energy projects. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the five states that have installed the most wind power are:

  1. Texas: 30.9 GW
  2. Iowa: 10.8 GW
  3. Oklahoma: 8.2 GW
  4. Kansas: 6.5 GW
  5. California: 5.9 GW

Combined, they provide 56% of the total third-quarter 2020 installed wind capacity of 111.8 gigawatts.

Wind power is the largest source of electricity in Iowa and Kansas.

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.

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

Each turbine has a wind speed anemometer attached to a controller. The turbine starts up when wind speeds are between 8 and 16 miles per hour. It shuts off when the speed exceeds 55 mph to avoid damage.

Pros and Cons

Pros
  • Cost-effective

  • Little or no waste

  • No emissions

  • Few negative health impacts

  • Economic development and jobs

  • Reliability

  • Low water usage

  • Pricing stability

Cons
  • Weather-dependent

  • Construction costs

  • Time to construct

  • Maintenance expense

  • Aesthetic concerns

Pros Explained

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

Wind power is an important source of renewable energy because 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 over time. The cost of fuel is zero because it doesn't have to be mined or shipped. 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, coal-fired electricity generation fell to a 42-year low in 2019.

Here is the comparative cost for each source per megawatt-hour (mWh):

  • 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.

Wind energy 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 2019, trade group American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) estimated that U.S. wind energy avoided 198 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 by avoiding power plant emissions and greenhouse gases. That helps those with respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses avoid hospitalization.

The wind industry creates economic development and jobs in manufacturing, installation, and operations. In 2019, it employed 114,800 workers. Wind turbine technician is the fastest-growing U.S. career. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expects it will grow 61% between 2019 and 2029, with median pay of $52,910 a year. By 2050, the industry could support more than 600,000 jobs in manufacturing, installation, and support.

Wind power is particularly helpful to the economies in rural areas.

It is locally owned and the proceeds are plowed back into the area. Wind power also supports farming and local agriculture.

Wind-powered electricity is usually sold in 20-year contracts, creating pricing stability. That's a major advantage over fossil fuel energy sources, whose prices change daily because they are sold on the commodities market.

Cons Explained

Wind energy has four disadvantages. They center on the cost and timing of development, cost of maintenance and transmission, and obstruction of views.

The construction of wind turbines is more expensive than natural gas. In 2017, it cost around $1,611 cents per KW of generating capacity installed. That's more than the $837 per KW for natural gas. To take advantage of economies of scale, the facility needs at least 13 turbines to generate at least 20 MW. That makes the initial investment of a wind farm at least $40 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.

Pro or Con?

Four areas are commonly brought up as the disadvantages of wind power. Closer analysis reveals facts don't back them up.

Many critics complain that turbines are noisy. 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.

Other critics point out that turbines kill up to 328,000 birds each year in the U.S. Although that's a lot, it's nowhere near the 64 million deaths from power lines, the up to 1 billion deaths from buildings, and the 4 billion killed by house cats. The most vulnerable are raptors, night-migrating songbirds, and grassland birds.

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.

Critics also point out that wind power is dependent on the weather. Utilities must use other energy sources if there isn't enough wind or if a strong storm creates too much wind. Engineers have designed enough overlap in the nation's power grid to deal with such variability.

Outlook

By 2030, wind could supply 20% of U.S. electricity, according to the AWEA. One reason is that costs fell by 70% between 2009 and 2019. New turbines are taller, allowing them to access stronger winds. Improved domestic manufacturing has also driven costs down.

The U.S. has a potential wind capacity of 10,640-gigawatts. It had only installed 111.8 gigawatts as of the third quarter of 2020. The top 10 states with the most potential are:

Top 10 U.S. States for Potential Wind Power Capacity (in GW)
State Installed Potential
Texas 30.9 1,300
Montana 4.0 679
New Mexico 1.9 653
Kansas 6.5 506
Arizona 0.2 475
Wyoming 1.8 472
Nevada 0.1 468
Nebraska 2.4 465
South Dakota 1.8 418
California 5.9 303

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 National Renewable Energy Lab said the U.S. has a capacity for 4,200 gigawatts of offshore wind power.

Wind power could supply an even greater percentage if Congress would add a carbon tax to increase the price of fossil fuels.  Such a tax would raise the cost of greenhouse-gas emitting fuels to offset the cost to society of climate change. Congress could also eliminate oil company subsidies to create a level playing field.

Installation of wind facilities was facilitated by the U.S. production tax credit (PTC) which expired at the end of 2019. President Joe Biden has promised to expand U.S. wind production as part of a plan to achieve carbon-free electricity production by 2035. Biden also pledged to eliminate oil subsidies.

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.

  • Wind is a growing source of power for the U.S.
  • 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.