For most of us, the wind is a part of everyday life. We enjoy cool breezes during summer and curse at bitter winds during winter. We fly kites on breezy days and take shelter from dangerous storms like tornadoes and hurricanes. We understand how the wind’s power can be both helpful and harmful.
But in recent years, that power has become far more than just part of the weather. Today, we can draw on it to produce electricity for homes, farms, and businesses all around the world.
Let’s start with the basics: Why does wind exist in the first place? The wind depends on the sun—specifically, on the way it heats the earth’s surface.
The surface of the planet is a patchwork of different types of land and water. These different materials absorb heat from the sun at different rates. For instance, land heats faster than water during the day and cools off faster at night.
As the land heats up in the sun, the air above it expands and rises. The cooler and heavier air over water flows in to take its place. This creates a rush of air—wind—flowing from water surfaces to land. At night, this flow reverses as the air over land cools and sinks while the warmer air over water rises.
For thousands of years, humans have harnessed the wind as a power source. They used wind power to sail ships and drive windmills to pump water and grind grain. Beginning in the late 1800s, humans learned to power electric generators with wind turbines. But until recently, wind produced only a tiny fraction of the nation’s power.
But as the Energy Information Administration (EIA) shows, wind power has grown dramatically over the last 30 years. In 1990, the U.S. got 3 billion kilowatts from wind—only 0.1% of its electricity. By 2020, that number had risen to 338 billion kilowatts. Wind now accounts for more than 8% of the nation’s power, making it our largest source of renewable energy.
As a kid, did you ever have one of those little pinwheels with blades that turned in the breeze? Wind turbines do much the same thing, but on a much, much larger scale.
A typical wind turbine has three long blades mounted at the top of a tall pole. As the wind flows over these blades, it lifts them, causing the axle they’re on to rotate. This spinning shaft turns an electric generator, which produces electricity.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, an average wind turbine can produce 402,000 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per month. That’s enough to power more than 406 typical U.S. homes. Large clusters of wind turbines, known as wind farms, can power whole towns.
However, you can’t put a wind farm just anywhere. It has to go in a spot where the wind blows regularly at speeds of at least 13 miles per hour. The best sites for wind turbines are on hilltops, on open plains, in mountain gaps, and over water. In general, higher elevations are better for capturing the wind. That’s why the biggest wind turbines sit on towers up to 900 feet tall.
Wind turbines don’t have to be huge. In recent years, several companies have come up with new designs for smaller turbines that are easier to install.
For example, a Spanish company called Vortex has developed new bladeless models just 3 meters high (about 10 feet). Instead of having a spinning rotor, the entire vertical structure vibrates in the wind to generate power. And a UK-based company called Alpha311 is working on small vertical turbines that could fit on existing streetlights. These turbines don’t even require wind; they can generate electricity just from the air displaced by passing cars.
These innovative turbines can work in areas where a full-scale wind farm wouldn’t fit. Like solar panels on a house, they can provide small-scale, on-site power for individual buildings or building clusters.
Yes, wind power is 100% renewable. As long as the sun keeps shining and the wind keeps blowing, wind energy will never run out. No matter how much of it we use, we can’t use it up.
Wind energy has many advantages including being cleaner and greener than most power sources. In particular, it’s a lot cleaner than fossil fuels: coal, oil, and natural gas. Burning fossil fuels produces greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. It also releases other pollutants, such as particulates that harm human health and gases that contribute to acid rain. A spinning wind turbine requires no fuel and produces no pollution.
But that doesn’t mean wind power has no environmental costs. To capture wind energy, you first need to build, install, and service the turbines. All that uses natural resources and energy, causing greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution. And most of the materials turbines are made from can’t be recycled at the end of their life.
Wind turbines also cause some problems as they operate. They can kill birds and bats that fly into the blades. The noise they produce can be disruptive, and some people think their appearance spoils the landscape. And in rare cases, they can leak lubricating fluid or catch fire.
Scientists are working on ways to reduce these problems. For instance, they’re studying ways to deter birds and bats from flying near wind turbines. They’re also working on new plastic turbine blades that are recyclable and require less energy to produce. And some engineers are reusing existing turbine blades to make pedestrian bridges. Advances like these can allow us to gain the benefits of clean wind power without the downsides.
Wind power has great potential as an energy source for several reasons:
Wind power has tremendous potential. It’s already one of the fastest-growing energy sources in the world. And the DOE estimates that by 2050, it could supply as much as 35% of U.S. electricity.
But to get to this point, there are challenges wind energy must overcome. The best locations for wind farms aren’t always close to the areas where power is most needed. Getting the electricity from remote wind farms to cities requires new transmission lines, which add greatly to the cost. This makes it harder for wind energy to compete with other cheap power sources, such as natural gas.
Wind power is definitely a key part of the clean energy future. What’s unclear is how big a role it will play compared to other renewable energy sources like solar, hydroelectric, and geothermal energy. The answer may depend on how quickly science can overcome wind energy’s challenges to make it even cheaper, cleaner, and more efficient.