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Harnessing the wind: Five things you don’t know about wind energy

Harnessing the wind: Five things you don’t know about wind energy
By Climate Solutions • Issue #1 • View online
This month: Are wind farms noisier than fridges, why turbines keep getting bigger and more…
Hello there and a warm welcome to the Climate Solutions newsletter! I’m Paul and I’ll be your host. Some of you may know me from Twitter. A financial operations director by day and climate communicator by night, I spend a great deal of my time thinking about climate change, reading commentary and interacting with academics and entrepreneurs tackling the issue—and I want to share what I’ve learned.
This monthly newsletter will offer analysis, explainers, insight from experts and a deeper dive into all the issues around climate change. Our first issue is on wind power. We’d love to hear your thoughts and we’re very open to suggestions for future issues.
Without further ado…

Harnessing the wind: Five things you don’t know about wind energy
Since ancient times, wind energy has powered agriculture and trade. In 3400 BC, sailors in ancient Egypt built the world’s first wind-driven boats, enabling faster travel and allowing them to reach previously inaccessible markets. Roughly 1,400 years later, farmers in Babylon harnessed the wind to power water pumps and irrigate their crops. Now, modern power producers are looking at this energy source with fresh interest.
1. Wind energy is the fastest growing energy model globally.
Worth more than $142 billion in 2019, wind power continues to increase its share of the energy pie. With electricity needs growing globally, the demand for turbines has boomed. In particular, China, the US and Europe have seen massive investments in the wind energy sector in recent years.
Wind energy accounted for 4% of global electricity in 2016, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). Its figures show that global installation capacity for wind has more than tripled since 2010, with a total installed capacity of roughly 180GW in 2010 rising to more than 730GW in 2020.
How much is a megawatt? Megawatts are used to measure large-scale power generation, with a typical coal plant putting out roughly 600MW, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. Larger outputs are measured by the gigawatt, equal to a thousand megawatts. For instance, the UCS estimates that in 2012, the total capacity of US power plants totalled 1,100 GW.
If Paris climate agreement goals are to be met, global wind power must rise nine-fold to 6,000 GW by 2050, IRENA predicts.
2. Wind is among the cheapest energy sources.
Wind energy counts among the cheapest renewable energy sources and is competitive with fossil fuel energies such as gas and coal, according to the US Department of Energy. Its costs are also dropping. IRENA estimated that onshore wind costs declined by more than 44% from 2007 to 2019.
3. Modern wind turbines are noisier than fridges—but only just.
Wind turbines produce energy, but they also produce noise. Even so, they are designed to be relatively quiet, with turbines in many areas subject to strict sound restrictions. Turbines are typically placed no closer than 300 meters from houses. A turbine at this distance produces roughly 43 decibels of noise, comparable to that made by an average refrigerator, which operates at roughly 40 decibels.
4. Turbines keep getting bigger.
Turbine size has increased from an average of 2.6MW in 2018 to between 4 and 5MW for those commissioned to be built by 2025. That size increase comes with greater materials costs and higher carbon emissions. But the gains in power generation for larger turbines more than outweigh the environmental costs.
Over the last 30 years, a doubling of turbine size has led to a 14% drop in CO2 equivalent emissions per kilowatt-hour of electricity produced. Larger turbines are able to harness higher, faster moving wind, but they have a bigger footprint on the ground. This has led to increased interest in offshore wind farms, where space is more available and there are fewer regulations governing the height of built structures. For example, the enormous 12 to 14MW Haliade-X offshore turbine built by General Electric is being trialed in the Netherlands and France.
5. The offshore wind boom has revived some coastal UK towns.
A single turbine can produce enough energy to power thousands of homes—but in UK towns suffering from decades of economic decline, wind energy has kept the lights on in more than one sense. The former fishing outposts of Grimsby and Hull have gained hundreds of jobs from the wind sector. To the south, the port at Great Yarmouth has housed the construction base for Scottish Power Renewables’ £2.5 billion East Anglia One wind farm. 
The downsides: Environmental impacts of wind power
A darling of renewable energy advocates, wind is plentiful and cheap, but it does have shortcomings.
Land use and wildlife. Large turbines spaced over large tracts of land need other infrastructure, such as access roads and transmission lines, especially if they are located far from urban centres where much electricity is sent. Turbines must also be carefully planned to limit negative impacts on wildlife such as birds and bats. In the US, turbines cause the death of 140,000 to 380,000 birds every year, according to a 2013 study. But another study estimated that more birds are killed by collisions with power lines than by other large man-made structures, including turbines.
Air flow disturbance. To produce large amounts of power, it makes sense to put numerous turbines in one area. But in high numbers, these can alter the flow of air in the atmosphere, causing a rise in temperature.
Life span. At some point—after roughly 20 years, according to estimates—turbines break down or outlive their usefulness. Whether those spent turbines can be recycled or wind up in the rubbish heap makes a big difference to the environmental footprint of this renewable technology. Currently, few options exist to recycle turbines. Researchers estimate the US will need to dispose of 720,000 tons of blade material over the next two decades.
Paul’s reading list
The takeaway
With energy demand rising across the globe and nations looking to reduce their output of greenhouse gases, wind energy is one viable solution. Increased investment in wind technology means it has gotten cheaper and more efficient. But it is not without downsides. Still, wind is among the more powerful tools to fight climate change and shift away from fossil fuels. 
Coming up in our next newsletter...
Keep an eye out for the legal fight for climate action. We’ll explore the courtroom battles and political clashes behind the push to go carbon neutral.
Until next time,
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