Wind Energy & Our Environment
Read all of Wind Energy 101: Part One: Harvesting Electricity from the Wind, Part Two: Wind Energy & Our Economy, Part Three: Wind Energy & The Environment, Part Four: Answering Wind Energy Critics, & Part Five: Wind Energy Myths & Facts.
It's hard to overstate the benefits to the environment of renewable energy. The big picture: when we use wind (and solar), we don't have to burn fossil fuels like coal to generate electricity. Wind and solar take the place of more-polluting energy sources.
Every year, power plants that burn fossil fuels pump billions of tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the air. CO2 is a "greenhouse gas", which means that it traps heat in the atmosphere that otherwise would radiate out into space. CO2 pollution warms the surface areas of the planet, causing extreme weather events and disrupting the climatic conditions that people depend upon for food, fresh water, healthy forest ecosystems and other essentials of life.
Trapping of heat in ocean water, combined with melting of land-based polar ice caps, raises sea levels, which damages private property, supplies of drinking water and other human and natural infrastructure. At the same time, ocean acidification caused by CO2 pollution degrades coral reefs and shellfish.
When a wind turbine spins and generates electricity, it does not emit greenhouse gases. Since wind power takes the place of carbon-emitting sources like coal or natural gas, it helps us avoid millions of tons of climate-changing pollution every year. In fact, even now the wind energy installed in the U.S. replaces the equivalent of all the greenhouse gases emitted by 28 million cars every year!
The fabrication and transportation of the parts of a wind turbine does emit some CO2, but the average wind farm "pays back" those greenhouse emissions within 5-8 months and then continues operating emissions-free for many years thereafter.
Burning fossil fuels releases gases into the atmosphere, including chemicals like sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitric oxides (NOX), that contribute to air pollution. In 2016, according to the Harvard School of Public Health, wind energy created $7.4 billion in public health savings by cutting pollutants that create smog and trigger asthma attacks and other lung diseases. For that reason, the American Lung Association supports renewables like wind and solar!
Wind turbines coexist with agriculture, with turbines taking up only one or two percent of land in a farm, leaving the rest for crops and cattle. In fact, wind farms help farmers stay on the land, since lease payments are a drought-proof “cash crop”!
Wind turbines also coexist with wildlife, despite what you may have heard. Birds and bats sometimes collide into turbines on occasion, as they do with many other human-made structures such as radio towers and tall buildings. Relative to other causes of bird mortality, wind turbines are a relatively minor contributor (see chart below). Wind farm developers recognize, however, that regardless of relative mortality levels, careful attention to wildlife conservation is needed when siting and operating wind farms. Developers work closely with the US Fish & Wildlife Service and with state wildlife managers on minimizing the effects of wind farms on birds and bats, including developing and deploying new deterrent technologies.
In evaluating the impact of wind farms on wildlife, it is important to recognize that all energy production has an impact, and that renewable energy has a far lesser impact on wildlife than competing fossil fuel technologies. Mining coal and drilling for natural gas damage terrestrial and fresh water wildlife habitats. And, as noted above, burning these fossil fuels is disrupting the climate, harming wildlife and ecosystems. By offering an alternative to fossil fuels, wind and solar help protect wildlife for the long term. That’s why leading wildlife groups like the Audubon Society and the National Wildlife Federation support responsibly sited wind power.
Wind turbines use the power of moving air to spin a generator, whereas fossil and nuclear energy heat water to produce steam, either through combustion of coal or gas or through nuclear reactions. Between water released as steam and water used for cooling, these plants annually consume billions of gallons of water from rivers or ground water. During the recent drought in California, wind energy helped the state save 2.5 billion gallons of water in 2014 alone.
What Happens When a Turbine Reaches the End of Its Life?
Wind turbines are recyclable! At the end of a typical turbine's 20-year life, it will be scrapped, and the value of the parts and scrap metal are usually worth more than it costs to remove them. And since turbines are placed in good areas for wind energy production, they're usually replaced with newer versions.