The Controversial Beauty of Wind Energy

Wind turbines in Italy. Image by David Mark from Pixabay.

Most people favor the ideal of wind energy. It offers cheap, renewable power with no greenhouse gas emissions or other deadly wastes. Compared over the course of a year to a power plant fired by fossil fuels, a one-megawatt wind turbine keeps 1,500 tons of carbon dioxide, 6.5 tons of sulfur dioxide, and 60 pounds of mercury out of the environment. They’re more efficient, too, especially compared to coal plants: Wind farms produce up to 39 times more power than they consume against 11 times for coal.

But while the concept of wind power entices, the reality turns some people off. The spinning blades kill birds. When they’re operating, wind turbines are loud from even hundreds of feet away. And wind can be finicky, sometimes leaving expensive wind turbines silent and useless.

The arguments go the other way, too. Wind turbines kill birds, yes; but a recent study suggests that while turbines kill tens of thousands of birds yearly, nuclear plants account for hundreds of thousands of bird deaths and those plants fired by fossil fuels kill millions. According to other estimates, cats kill 100 times more birds annually than do wind turbines (2.4 billion vs. 234,000). Regarding noise, supporters point out that wind farms typically inhabit secluded areas away from settlements, like mountain tops, prairies, deserts, and offshore.

A big negative in the eye of some beholders is the visual impact of the huge machines against the skyline, or the constant rotation of the blades and their flicker of shadow across the landscape. No doubt people who live within sight of wind farms share strong opinions one way or the other on the issue of aesthetics. In vast, open spaces like the American West, with clearer air and larger turbines, “within sight” can stretch to 25 miles. Interestingly, research shows that people who link wind farms to cleaner, safer air find them more appealing visually.

As for my opinion on the aesthetics of wind power, I unashamedly find the machines beautiful, like sleek, vintage aircraft. Even the old Dutch windmills seem to me as majestic sailing ships standing in port. How about you? I’ve included some of my favorite public domain images to help you decide.

Windmills in Kinderdijk, Netherlands. Photo by Ellen26 from Pixabay. The history of the windmill stretches back to 9th Century Persia. The first European windmills emerged in the 12th century in the lands on either side of the English Channel and Straits of Dover. The oldest windmill still standing in the Netherlands dates to the mid 15th Century. The Dutch traditionally harnessed the power of windmills to pound, shred, hack, and mix raw materials into products for trade.

Dutch windmills set against the golds and pinks of sunrise. Image by Pexels from Pixabay. The earliest European windmills were “post” mills, with their main structures balanced on a central post and able to turn into the wind. “Tower” windmills, with tops that rotated rather than the entire structure, emerged in the 13th Century. Later came “smock” windmills built of wood, so named because they resembled farmers’ long shirts. The two photos above depict the smock type.

Tower windmills in Santorini, Greece. Image by Fabrizio Ponchia from Pixabay.

The first automatically controlled wind turbine generator, which powered the first home in Cleveland, Ohio, to have electricity, was built by American inventor Charles F. Brush in 1887. Photo from Wiki Commons. It was not the first wind turbine generator, however. Scottish engineer James Blyth built that machine just months earlier.

Photo of a wind farm in the United Kingdom by RawFilm on Unsplash. The first megawatt (MW)-capacity wind turbine appeared in Vermont in 1941. Large wind turbines today are 8 MW, with a 12 MW turbine in the works.

Image of a wind turbine in France by Gonz DDL on Unsplash.

The Rampion Offshore Wind Farm, United Kingdom. Photo by Nicholas Doherty on Unsplash. Offshore wind is faster, steadier, and more consistent in direction than onshore wind. Turbines in the gusty seas bounding northern Europe and the UK currently dominate the world’s offshore wind power generation.

The Block Island Offshore Wind Farm, Rhode Island, the only wind farm off the coast of the United States. Photo from the American Wind Energy Association.

Wind turbines above Kodiak, Alaska. Together with a hydroelectric plant, they power all the Island’s 6,000 residents and businesses. Twenty years ago, diesel fuel generated 60% of the power. Image by Dennis Schroeder on flickr.

Texas prairies sprout two of the largest wind farms in the United States. The Roscoe Wind Project in Sweetwater, Texas, includes 627 wind turbines. Photo by Matthew T. Rader on Unsplash. The biggest wind farm in the United States is the Alta Wind Energy Center in California’s Mojave Desert. The largest in the world is China’s Gansu Wind Farm.
Alta Wind Energy Center in California. Photo by Cameron Venti on Unsplash.

Inside a wind turbine. Schematic courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy.

Constructing the tower. Image by Hans Linde from Pixabay.

Crafting the giant blades. Photo courtesy of the American Wind Energy Association.

Lifting the big blades into place at Goodnoe Hills Wind Farm in Washington state. Photo courtesy of the American Wind Energy Association.

Technicians dangle from the nacelle housing the turbine generator, 30 stories off the ground. Photo by Science in HD on Unsplash.

A type of vertical-axis wind turbine, an alternate type of machine that can operate without facing the wind. The other wind turbines included in this post are horizontal-axis, where the propeller and shafts lie horizontal to the ground. Currently, they’re not as reliable or powerful as horizontal types. Photo courtesy U.S. National Archives.
Modern Dutch windmills surrounded by tulip farms. Photo by redcharlie on Unsplash.

Works Cited

“Charles F. Brush.” Wikipedia.

“Advantages and Disadvantages of Wind Energy.” Clean Energy Ideas. 18 Oct 2019.

Environmental Impacts of Wind-Energy Projects, pp 140-179. The National Academies Press. 2007.

“How Do Wind Turbines Work?” Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. U.S. Department of Energy.

“Levelized Cost of Energy and Levelized Cost of Storage 2018.” Lazard. 8 Nov 2018.

Matthijs and Jakoba. “How Kodiak Island Became 100% Renewable Powered.” Wheels on Wind. 30 Aug 2018.

Sovacool, Benjamin K. “The Avian Benefits of Wind Energy: A 2009 Update.” Renewable Energy, pp. 19-24, Jan 2013.

Steffen, Andrea D. The Largest Wind Farm in the World is Now Under Construction.” Intelligent Living. 18 Feb 2020.

Sullivan, Robert G. et al. “Wind Turbine Visibility and Visual Impact Threshold Distances in Western Landscapes.” Argonne National Laboratory (IL).

“Threats to Birds: Migratory Bird Mortality.” U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. 14 Sep 2018.

“Types of Wind Turbines.” Wind Explained. U.S. Energy Information Administration. 4 Dec 2019.

“What is Wind Energy?” American Wind Energy Association.

“Wind Energy and the Environment.” Wind Explained. U.S. Energy Information Administration. 4 Dec 2019.

“Wind Energy by the Numbers.” Pennsylvania Wind Working Group.

“Wind Turbine.” Wikipedia.

“Wind Turbine Design.” Wikipedia.

Woods, Bob. “US has only one offshore wind energy farm, but a $70 billion market is on the way.” CNBC. 13 Dec 2019.

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