Wind energy is renewable, clean, and one of the most affordable sources of energy we have. And yet, in 2019, only around 2% of global electricity came from wind (Ritchie & Roser, 2020). What are the barriers to adopting more wind energy?
There are two significant drawbacks to powering our planet with fossil fuels: Pollution and its finite nature. We urgently need to switch to alternatives; soon! How long until we run out of fossil fuels? Based on production levels from 2015, we have around 50 years left of oil and gas and a little more than 114 years of using coal if we keep consuming it at current rates (Ritchie & Roser, 2020).
Switching to energy sources that don’t emit pollutants, like wind or solar energy, would also reduce the fine particulate matter in the atmosphere. As a result, this would have a significant impact on cities that especially suffer from bad air quality. Air pollution is responsible for up to 7 million premature deaths per year, according to the WHO (WHO, 2021).
The increasing levels of greenhouse gases cause harm to our health, the environment and the economy. The pollution from non-renewables is significant. The latest IPCC report states: “Climate change and air quality are intimately linked. Many of the human activities that produce long-lived greenhouse gases also emit air pollutants, and many of these air pollutants are also ‘short-lived climate forcers’ that affect the climate.” (IPCC, 2021)
While wind energy accounts for only 11g of CO2 per kilowatt-hour, for the same amount of electricity, natural gas emits 433g of CO2/kWh and coal, even 849g of CO2/kWh! Considering that the average German person uses 6,771kWh of electricity per year (2020), this results in a whopping quantity of CO2 emissions if the electricity stems from coal or gas (Ritchie & Roser, 2020).
The evidence cannot be ignored and provides many convincing reasons to leave fossil energy behind, so why are we still stuck on such a low level of wind-powered electricity?
The drawbacks of wind power
Fluctuation of wind
No matter how high the wind turbine is positioned or how perfect the blade is shaped, wind turbines will only spin in a windy environment. Objectors of wind turbines often mention the fluctuations and unpredictability of wind energy. Once the wind stops blowing, no electricity is being produced. Meteorological conditions and location impact the strength of wind. Thus, the site of a wind turbine is a crucial factor. According to experts, a cold climate offers better wind energy yet a higher risk for ice throw (Froese, 2018). Higher altitudes, e.g. mountains, and remote areas, like large open fields and off-shore, are exposed to stronger winds, hence better suited (US Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, 2021). However, wind patterns are always subject to fluctuation.
Limitation of efficiency rates
The calculated maximum efficiency for a wind turbine is in theory 59,3%, better known as the “Betz limit” (Energy Education, 2018). This limit is caused by the hydraulic wind engine, which can only derive this percentage of the wind’s kinetic energy. Yet, in reality, it’s even less: an average efficiency of 35–45% (Energy Education, 2018). Noteworthy is the world ‘average’. It is the dependency on winds that lowers this efficiency so significantly (Miller, 2014). On windy days the wind turbine exceeds this percentage; on less windy days, it falls short. Currently, a wind farm with an efficiency of 30% is considered efficient (HelpSafeNature, 2021). When there is no wind, other sources of energy have to cover the deficiency. This is making the widespread use of wind power difficult. An alternative energy source needs to be put in place.
On another note, wind turbines work most efficiently with steady wind and minor turbulence. This also implies that wind turbines can’t stand too close to each other so as not to affect each other with turbulence. It requires more land area and puts wind farms in competition with alternative land use.
Noise and aesthetic pollution are further cons of wind energy but a very personal one. Yet, in particular, wind turbines with three blades are considered the most silent versions out there. Nonetheless, while many people are pro-wind energy, they would rather not live close to one. In addition, a windy day’s extra electricity production can’t be stored because we don’t have appropriate storage solutions yet.
To summarise, the overall argument might be that it’s too expensive to have wind turbines that are too unpredictable and inefficient.
Many people are wary of ambitious climate action because they see the project as changing the familiar current world. That’s not it. Addressing climate change means building a new world. - Solomon Goldstein-Rose (Climate author)
The drawbacks slow down the adoption of wind power. But can we really afford this? To achieve net-negative emissions globally by 2050, we need to step away from polluting energy sources. We need to electrify vehicles, heating systems and industrial processes. But all this electrification comes with an increased demand for electricity. There are predictions that we need 12 times today’s energy — all of it clean (Goldstein-Rose, 2021).
Possible solutions for more wind energy
With only 2% of global energy coming from wind, there is a great potential for wind energy! But what needs to happen so that wind farms can provide more of the global electricity supply?
Spreading wind farms across greater areas
When there’s no wind at one place, chances are that there’s wind somewhere else. If wind turbines are spread across a larger geographical area, it’s more likely that one will capture wind, and the shortage in supply will be reduced.
Enhancements of the energy grid infrastructure
Many wind farms note a surplus of wind power at some time. But because of a lack of connectivity, they can’t sell this surplus. Improving the infrastructure of transmission lines would allow trading wind-generated electricity across areas. Currently, even though there are suitable areas for new wind farms, such construction projects are not realized because of the lack of access to the grid.
Smart grid technology
Another approach to improve wind power efficiency is to shape demand using smart grid technology. This technology adjusts the price of electricity in real-time to promote shifting operations of energy-intensive industries to times when there’s a low electricity demand. A moderate demand means a greater availability for electricity which equals a lower price.
Advancements in battery technology
Many inefficiencies of wind power arise due to storage difficulties and surplus losses of already produced energy. Hence, innovation in energy storage for times when the wind stops blowing is another way to use more wind power.
Despite these very real challenges discussed in this article, there is on doubt about the excellent potential for more wind-powered electricity. While we can’t rely on wind as an exclusive energy source, we can combine it with other green electricity sources, e.g. solar-, geothermal-, wave- and biomass-power etc. Renewables are not only clean, but also the cheapest energy sources that we have (Masterson, 2021).