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Environmental impacts of wind energy

Last updated 9/27/2019

Wind energy is one of the cleanest sources of electricity today; unlike fossil fuel plants, wind turbines do not emit greenhouse gases or pollutants while generating electricity. However, there are some environmental impacts associated with the construction of large scale wind farms to consider.

Wind energy is a clean source of electricity

clean wind energy

Wind turbines generate clean, emission-free electricity: we don’t need to burn fossil fuels to generate wind energy. While there are some fossil fuels emissions as a result of constructing wind farms and manufacturing turbines, the lifetime emissions from a wind farm are low in comparison to any fossil fuel generation. Additionally, the wind is freely available and inexhaustible in our atmosphere, meaning we will never run out of it.

The environmental impacts of wind power

While wind energy is a clean and renewable source of power, there are negative environmental ramifications associated with the construction and operation of wind turbines. Here are a few of the downsides to consider when generating electricity with wind turbines:

Local wildlife

Perhaps the most widely studied negative consequence of wind power is the threat to local species populations, particularly birds and bats. When the blades of wind turbines rotate at high speeds, the air pressure around the blades shifts and increases the likelihood of birds and bats colliding with the blades. However, the exact impact on local bird and bat life can vary dramatically from one wind farm to the next, and properly siting wind farms can often eliminate most of these concerns.

Additionally, building wind farms can disrupt the natural habitat of several different animal species: constructing wind farms requires human accessibility to potentially otherwise remote areas, which can sometimes mean building new roads or clearing new land. This can result in habitat segmentation and loss for certain local animal populations.

Land use

The amount of land required to install a wind turbine varies depending on the size of the project, where it’s located (flat ground vs. hills vs. ocean), and more. In general, off-shore wind projects require more space than land-based ones, as the turbines and blades tend to be larger.

Importantly, wind turbines and their supporting infrastructure don’t take up much physical land space; however, individual turbines need to have a sufficient amount of space between them, which can add up for large-scale wind farms. 

Fortunately, many wind farms can be built on areas that have previously been cleared. New wind farms can also be set up for dual land-use and can also serve as pasture land for livestock, cropland for farming, or hiking trails.

Making wind power more environmentally-friendly

Wind remains of the most sustainable and environmentally-friendly sources of electricity. However, depending on the project size and circumstances in which they’re built, there can be some environmental downsides. Most of the negative environmental impacts associated with wind turbines can largely be solved through research and technological advancements.

wind turbines in a field

Thorough research that enables proper siting for wind projects can help abate unsustainable land use and habitat destruction on wind farms. Furthermore, wind farms can be strategically built in areas where they are less likely to disrupt the migratory paths of birds and bats.

Technological advancements can also help make wind turbines more friendly to bird and bat populations. Today, there are sensors that can help wind farms anticipate birds and bats flying close by, allowing the turbines to shut down entirely. Additionally, some wind turbines employ ultrasonic speakers that, when operating, discourage bats from flying too close to the blades.

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