Wind energy: All you need to know about wind power

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wind energy

As we become more aware of the climate crisis facing us and our environment, the need to find clean and renewable sources of energy rather than depend on the world’s limited natural resources is becoming ever more important. One increasingly popular solution is wind power. In this article, we’ll look at what wind energy is, and the pros and cons for using it.

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What is wind energy?

Wind energy is a green and renewable energy that harnesses energy produced by wind, and, via the use of wind turbines, turns it into electricity to power homes, offices and other buildings around the country. Technically speaking, wind comes from the sun, as a byproduct of differences in temperature. Uneven heating in the atmosphere, on mountain ranges, in valleys, and elsewhere on the planet, causes wind to be produced.

Is wind energy renewable?Yes! Wind power is a renewable source of energy. By turning wind energy into electricity, we can lower the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and tackle global warming.

Types of wind energy

There are two main types of wind energy depending on where it is generated: onshore wind energy and offshore wind energy. Both methods use wind turbines to generate electricity.

What are the types of wind energy?
Onshore wind energy Offshore wind energy
  • You’ve probably seen these while driving in unbuilt, open spaces. Onshore wind power refers to turbines located on land and using wind to generate electricity. They are normally located in areas where there is low conservation or habitat value.
  • They are cheaper to build than offshore turbines, but often seen as an eyesore for anyone who lives nearby. They tend to produce less electricity than turbines at sea.
  • Offshore wind energy refers to the wind turbines located in seas and oceans that also harness the wind to create electricity. They are usually installed in areas where there are high wind speeds.
  • They generate more electricity because they are bigger than onshore turbines. The main drawback is the cost of building and maintaining them, because of their difficult location.

What are wind turbines and how do they work?

Wind turbines look like giant fans and work on a simple principle - wind turns the blades of a turbine around a rotor, which spins a generator, which in turn creates electricity.

When the wind flows across the blade, the air pressure on one side of the blade decreases. This creates two different levels of pressure on either side of the blade, making it rotate and spin. The rotor connects to a generator, either directly or through a shaft and a series of gears (or gearbox). This allows for the spinning to speed up allowing for the creation of electricity.

How much energy does a wind turbine produce?There are many factors involved in how much electricity can be created by each turbine. In general terms, an average onshore wind turbine can produce more than 6 million kWh in a year – enough to supply 1,500 homes with electricity. Because offshore wind turbines are normally bigger, they can create enough electricity to power 3,312 average households.

Source: European Wind Energy Association.

Wind turbines are normally found together to generate the bulk of the electricity for a particular region. Whether they are located at sea or on land, they are known as wind farms. The UK is actually home to the largest wind farm in the world, located just off the coast of Hornsea, Yorkshire.

Advantages and disadvantages of wind energy

Just like all forms of renewable energy, such as solar energy, wind energy has many pros and cons. In this section, we’ll look at both sides of the argument.

wind turbine

The advantages of wind power include:

  • No need to refuel them: While there are likely to be fuel costs in the construction phase, once built, wind turbines run entirely on the power of the wind generated. In other words, it does not need to be refuelled or need any other power to keep working. In the long-term, this makes wind power more cost-efficient than traditional sources of power and even some other sources or renewable energy.
  • Reduce our dependence on fossil fuels: Energy generated from fossil fuels is not only damaging for the environment, but we’ll also run out of the resources one day if we don’t make the changes necessary. We already mark Earth Overshoot Day, the date in the calendar when humanity has used up all the resources that the Earth can renew during the entire year. Turning to wind power provides a solution to that.
  • More efficient with new technology: Wind turbines are already pretty efficient. In the UK, they tend to produce electricity for 70-80% of the year. With advances in technology, wind turbines can become even more efficient, through the design of the blades, for example. This will allow more homes to be powered by electricity sourced from wind power.
  • Job creation: As well as having a key role to play in reversing the problems of climate changes, the wind energy sector is also set to play an important role in terms of job growth in the future. A report by the government in June 2021 showed that employment in offshore wind alone has risen dramatically, with more than 7,200 jobs created in the four-year period between 2015 and 2019.

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However, there are some disadvantages to wind power, including:

  • Visually ugly: While wind farms are generally located away from built-up areas, they are still visible to plenty of people. For those who live near them, they are considered to be an eyesore on the horizon, and are often met with complaints when at the planning stage.
  • No wind, no electricity: If there is no wind, the turbines don't generate any electricity. This is what is known as an intermittent technology. Homes generated by wind power would also need to be connected to the national grid connection for back-up.
  • Expensive to set up: Because of their locations, either on land or sea, wind turbines can be expensive to build. For those homeowners or business owners looking into the option of installing a small or medium wind turbine for their own energy generation, according to the Energy Savings Trust, the initial set-up can cost in the region of £15,000 to £24,000.

Myths about wind power

While it is clear there are some downsides to the wind power sector, as wind energy has become ever more popular in recent years, so to have some myths surrounding it. Wind power experts, Acciona, have addressed some of these myths by publishing answers on their website as to what the reality is. In this section, you can find out more about the myths, as well as what the reality is.

wind farms
  1. Wind turbines are lethal for bats and birds: Actually, more birds and bats are harmed or killed via human-led activities, roads, railways, and even domestic cats than by wind turbines. Before turbines are built, environmental impact studies are carried out - including the impact of wildlife and birds.
  2. Wind turbines are very noisy: While there is some low-level frequency noise, the reality is that the noise heard from 500 m away - homes don’t tend to be built that close to wind turbines anyway - is more or less the same as the noise of a fridge or washing machine. Wind farms are required by law to meet local building regulations - including noise levels
  3. Wind farms take land away for livestock or agriculture: The surface area of a wind turbine is actually very small and is very much compatible with farming activities.

Facts about wind energy in the UK

To end this guide about wind energy, here are some facts about the wind power sector in the UK - once which is set to grow in the coming years.

  • 14% of all electricity in the UK is provided by wind power;
  • There are a total of 1,516 wind farms around the country, and more than 7,000 wind turbines connected to the national grid;
  • The number of offshore wind farms stands at 32 today, with a total of 1,716 turbines;
  • Wind turbines have an average lifespan of between 20 and 25 years.

Source: Business Electricity Prices.

Discover more of our guides on the environment, such as sustainable development and the energy transition in the UK.