How Clean Is Wind Energy? A Life-Cycle Analysis

How Clean Is Wind Energy? A Life-Cycle Analysis

By
Grace Smoot

Read Time:14 Minutes

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Clean energy is the generation of energy from sources that produce virtually no carbon dioxide (CO2) or greenhouse gas emissions. Wind energy is one of our fastest-growing renewable energy technologies that is often described as being a clean source of energy. So, we had to ask: How clean is wind energy? 

Overall, wind energy is considered to be clean energy. Throughout its life cycle, wind energy produces only a fraction of the pollution and toxic chemicals that fossil fuels generate. Clean energy is the generation of energy from sources that emit little to no carbon or greenhouse gas emissions.

Keep reading to learn how clean wind energy is throughout its life cycle, what its carbon footprint is, what role it plays in combating climate change, and how safe or dangerous it is. 

Here’s How Clean Wind Energy Is

Wind energy is defined as the conversion of moving air into electrical energy through the use of wind turbines. 

Wind: a current of air moving approximately horizontally, especially one strong enough to be felt”

Cambridge Dictionary

Wind energy has become one of our most advanced, widespread, and cleanest renewable energy technologies. Clean energy produces virtually no greenhouse gasses or any other kind of environmental pollution upon its operation.

Clean energy: energy, as electricity or nuclear power, that does not pollute the atmosphere when used, as opposed to coal and oil”

Collins Dictionary

Given the worsening climate crisis, clean energy has to come to represent a larger share of the overall energy market.

Related: Are you interested in learning more about clean energy? Check it out in this article here: “Clean Energy Explained: All You Need to Know

To understand how clean wind energy is, we must assess its life cycle and each stage’s carbon footprint. This life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a method to evaluate the environmental impacts of products and materials. Over the years, companies have strategically used LCA to research and create more sustainable products. So, let’s have a look at the LCA of wind energy!

How clean is wind energy overallOverall, wind energy is considered a clean source of energy. It produces emissions associated with the construction and decommissioning of farms but only produces a fraction of the pollution and toxic chemicals that fossil fuels generate.
Building of wind energyEmissions at this stage vary based on the type and size of the wind farms, with larger farms requiring more materials and resulting in more emissions from construction. Essentially, the smaller the wind farm, the cleaner the building stage is considered. 
Operating and maintaining of wind energyThere are very few CO2 emissions or waste products associated with operating and maintaining wind energy, making this stage very clean. 
Building back of wind energyEmissions at this stage vary based on the type and size of the wind farm, with larger farms requiring more effort to decommission. Essentially, the smaller the wind farm, the cleaner the building back stage is considered. 

How Clean Is Wind Energy Overall

Overall, wind energy is considered a clean source of energy. It produces emissions associated with the construction and decommissioning of wind farms but only produces a fraction of the pollution and toxic chemicals that fossil fuels generate.

How Clean Is the Building of Wind Energy

The building stage of wind energy involves constructing wind turbines and electricity delivery mechanisms. 

Emissions at this stage vary based on the type and size of the wind farm, with larger farms requiring more materials and resulting in more emissions from construction. Essentially, the smaller the wind farm, the cleaner the building stage is considered. 

Wind farms require many components including towers, rotors, nacelles, generators, and turbine foundations, as well as transmission lines, transformers, and substations, all of which come with their own carbon footprint and resulting greenhouse gas emissions. 

How Clean Is the Operating and Maintaining of Wind Energy

The operating and maintaining stage of wind energy includes the process by which wind farms capture wind and convert it into electricity. 

There are very few CO2 emissions or waste products associated with operating and maintaining wind energy, making this phase very clean

Wind energy produces a fraction of the pollution and toxic chemicals that fossil fuels produce, making the operating phase very environmentally friendly. Rather than combusting toxic materials, wind energy facilities harness the energy of the sun to generate electricity. In terms of emissions, onshore wind energy generates 11 and offshore wind energy generates 12 grams of CO2 equivalent per kWh of electricity produced and zero sulfur dioxide or nitrogen oxide emissions. 

Emissions at this stage are associated with the operation of the mechanical equipment (e.g., receivers, engines, turbines, generators, substations, transformers) at the power plants.

How Clean Is the Building Back of Wind Energy

Building back wind energy involves utilizing construction equipment to decommission wind turbines and restoring the land to its original form. 

Emissions at this stage vary based on the type and size of the wind farm, with larger farms requiring more effort to decommission. Essentially, the smaller the wind farm, the cleaner the building back stage is considered. 

Emissions at this final stage occur when utilizing construction equipment to decommission the wind turbines, demolish buildings, and construct new buildings in the old power plant’s place. 

How Clean Is Wind Energy in Comparison to Other Types of Energy

Wind energy is one of our cleanest forms of energy (fossil fuels and renewable energy included). In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, wind energy emits only 4 tons of CO2 equivalent per gigawatt hour of electricity over the life cycle of the power plant. Only nuclear and solar energy produce fewer emissions.

Illustration of What are the safest and cleanest sources of energy from Our World in Data
Our World in Data: What are the safest and cleanest sources of energy?

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Wind Energy

The carbon footprint is one of the ways we measure the effects of human-induced global climate change. It primarily focuses on the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with consumption and includes other emissions such as methane (CH4), nitrous oxide, and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).

Carbon footprint: the amount of greenhouse gasses and specifically carbon dioxide emitted by something (such as a person’s activities or a product’s manufacture and transport) during a given period”

Merriam Webster

Although wind energy emits zero to no GHG emissions upon operation, there are emissions associated with other stages of its life cycle including manufacturing, transportation, installation, maintenance, decommissioning, and dismantlement of materials.

On a life-cycle basis, onshore wind energy emits 11 and offshore wind energy emits 12 grams of CO2 equivalent per kWh of electricity produced, the joint-lowest out of all fuel types. 

Have a look at the illustration below to see the average life-cycle CO2 equivalent emissions of different energy sources and how they compare to wind energy.

Illustration of the Average life-cycle CO2 equivalent emissions from World Nuclear Association
World Nuclear Association: Average life-cycle CO2 equivalent emissions

What Role Does Wind Energy Play in Combating Climate Change

Climate change is arguably the most severe, long-term, global impact of fossil fuel combustion. Every year, approximately 37 billion tons of CO2 are emitted from burning fossil fuels. The carbon found in fossil fuels reacts with oxygen in the air to produce CO2. This warms the earth by acting as a heating blanket, and a warmer earth comes with a host of negative side effects. 

Using wind energy instead of fossil fuel energy helps mitigate the following negative effects of climate change:

  • Melting of sea ice: Since 1979, arctic sea ice has declined by 30%. Sea ice plays a major role in regulating the earth’s climate by reflecting sunlight into space and providing habitat for animal species. If all of the glaciers on Earth melted, sea levels would rise by approximately 70 feet, effectively flooding out every coastal city on the planet. 
  • Changing precipitation patterns: Extreme weather events (e.g., hurricanes, floods, droughts) are becoming more common and more intense. Storm-affected areas will experience increased precipitation and flooding whereas areas located further from storm tracks will experience decreased precipitation and droughts.
  • Ocean acidification: The ocean absorbs 30% of the CO2 released into the atmosphere, which decreases the pH (increases the acidity) of the ocean. In the past 200 years, the pH of oceans has decreased by 0.1 pH units, which translates to a 30% increase in acidity. Aquatic life unable to adjust to this rapid acidification will die off. A prime example of this is coral bleaching, where coral expels the algae (zooxanthellae) living in their tissues as a result of changes in temperature, light, or nutrients. 

The more we reduce CO2 emissions, the more we slow the rate of temperature rise, sea-level rise, ice melting, and ocean acidification. When these rates are slowed, the earth’s biodiversity does not have to struggle to adapt to temperature and pH changes. People will not be displaced due to the flooding of coastal areas. And icebergs will continue to provide climate regulation. 

To help keep global temperature rise below 1.5C, as outlined in the Paris Agreement, we must shift at least 80% of our electricity generation to low-carbon sources. Over 120 countries have already stated their net-zero carbon emissions ambitions for 2050 or 2060. But only 12 countries have thus far proposed or enacted any legislation, indicating that there is more work to be done.

How Sustainable Is Wind Energy

Overall, wind energy is considered to be sustainable energy.

Sustainable: The ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level | Avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance”

Oxford Dictionary

Wind energy meets the needs of our current generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

How sustainable is the building of wind energyWind farm construction has become more sustainable in recent years with advancements in wind turbine efficiency.
How sustainable is the operating and maintaining of wind energyThis stage is sustainable because wind is a form of solar energy, and the sun won’t run out of fuel for another 5 billion years. This means we can continue to use wind energy for many years to come. 
How sustainable is the building back of wind energyWind turbines are built to last 30 years, and some of their components can be recycled and repurposed at the end of their life cycle.
Related: Are you interested in learning more about how sustainable wind energy is? Check it out in this article here: “How Sustainable Is Wind Energy? A Life-Cycle Assessment

How Renewable Is Wind Energy

Overall, wind energy is considered to be renewable energy.

Renewable Energy: energy that is produced using the sun, wind, etc., or from crops, rather than using fuels such as oil or coal | types of energy that can be replaced naturally such as energy produced from wind or water”

Cambridge Dictionary

Wind energy is flow-limited, naturally replenishing, virtually inexhaustible, and limited in the amount of energy available in a set amount of time. 

How renewable is the building of wind energyThis initial stage of wind energy is not considered to be renewable because it involves constructing and not repurposing or re-using.
How renewable is the operating and maintaining of wind energyThis stage is renewable because we harness only a fraction of the amount of energy the sun gives off, and it naturally replenishes itself over time. 
How renewable is the building back of wind energyWind turbines are built to last 30 years, and some of their components can be recycled and repurposed at the end of their life cycle.
Related: Are you interested in learning more about how renewable wind energy is? Check it out in this article here: “How Renewable Is Wind Energy? A Life-Cycle Assessment

How Green Is Wind Energy

Overall, wind energy is considered to be green energy.

Green Energy: energy that can be produced in a way that protects the natural environment, for example by using wind, water, or the sun”

Cambridge Dictionary

Wind energy has a low to zero-emissions profile and carbon footprint reductions that provide the highest environmental benefits.

How green is the building of wind energyThe building stage of wind energy has a low carbon footprint when compared to fossil fuels, and wind can have a minimal impact on the land if proper siting measures are followed.
How green is the operating and maintaining of wind energyWind energy emits minimal greenhouse gasses and has a minimal effect on the environment, provided that proper siting of wind farms occurs.
How green is the building back of wind energyRecycling end-of-life wind turbines can help reduce their environmental impact.
Related: Are you interested in learning more about how green wind energy is? Check it out in this article here: “How Green Is Wind Energy? A Life-Cycle Assessment

How Environmentally Friendly Is Wind Energy

Overall, wind energy is considered to be environmentally friendly.

Environmentally friendly: (of products) not harming the environment.”

Cambridge Dictionary

Wind energy does just as the word implies, it has a minimal, negative impact on the environment. 

How environmentally friendly is the building of wind energyThe building of wind energy can be environmentally friendly so long as clearing the land for construction does not disturb natural habitats and degrade the land.
How environmentally friendly is the operating and maintaining of wind energyWind energy emits minimal greenhouse gas emissions and has a minimal effect on the environment, provided that proper siting of wind farms occurs.
How environmentally friendly is the building back of wind energyWind turbines are not considered to be toxic to the environment. Recycling end-of-life wind turbines can help reduce their environmental impact.
Related: Are you interested in learning more about how environmentally friendly wind energy is? Check it out in this article here: “How Environmentally Friendly Is Wind Energy? A Life-Cycle Assessment

How Safe or Dangerous Is Wind Energy

Overall, wind energy is not considered to be dangerous. Holistically and throughout its life cycle, wind is safe and beneficial for human and animal health, the environment, and the energy grid. It is also significantly safer than fossil fuels and other types of renewable energy.

Related: Are you interested in learning more about how safe or dangerous wind energy is? Check it out in these articles here: 

Here’s How Safe Wind Energy Is

Overall, wind energy is a safe form of energy regarding human and animal health, the environment, the energy grid, and throughout all stages of its life cycle.

How Safe Is Wind Energy at a Holistic LevelHuman and Animal Health: Wind energy is safe for human and animal health and can be made safer with proper siting, monitoring, and maintenance of wind farms. 
Environment: Wind energy emits minimal greenhouse gas emissions and has a minimal effect on the environment.
Energy Grid and Infrastructure: Wind energy is a safe and beneficial addition to our power grid. It promotes the decentralization of our energy supply, which increases power grid efficiency by reducing peak time usage and decreasing the likelihood of power outages. 
Human and Animal Health: Wind energy is safe for human and animal health and can be made safer with proper siting, monitoring, and maintenance of wind farms. 
Environment: Wind energy emits minimal greenhouse gas emissions and has a minimal effect on the environment.
Energy Grid and Infrastructure: Wind energy is a safe and beneficial addition to our power grid. It promotes the decentralization of our energy supply, which increases power grid efficiency by reducing peak time usage and decreasing the likelihood of power outages. 
How Safe Is Wind Energy Across Its Life-CycleBuilding: Safe work practices and proper training of wind professionals can mitigate any risks associated with constructing wind farms.
Operating and Maintaining: Wind energy is considered safe to operate and maintain because it does not harm human health or the environment when producing energy. 
Building Back: This final stage is considered to be safe overall, with the most common workplace hazards (lifting, trips and falls, electricity, and ladders) able to be mitigated by safe work practices. 
How Safe Is Wind Energy In Comparison to Other Types of EnergyWind energy is one of our safest forms of energy and has one of the lowest death rates from accidents and air pollution per unit of electricity generation.

Here’s How Dangerous Wind Energy Is

Overall, wind energy is considered minimally dangerous in terms of human and animal health, the environment, the energy grid, and through all stages of its life cycle. 

How Dangerous Is Wind Energy at a Holistic LevelHuman and Animal Health: Wind energy is not dangerous to humans and is minimally dangerous to animals, with the main concerns being habitat loss and fragmentation of natural habitats.
Environment: Wind energy is minimally dangerous to the environment, with land degradation being the main concern. 
Energy Grid and Infrastructure: Wind energy is not considered to be dangerous to our energy grid or supporting infrastructure
How Dangerous Is Wind Energy Across Its Life-CycleBuilding: Building wind farms can expose workers to arc flashes (arc flash burn and blast hazards), electric shock, falls, and thermal burns.
Operating and Maintaining: Wind energy has minimal dangers associated with this stage, with burns and electric shock being the most common.
Building Back: The most common workplace hazards of this stage include those resulting from lifting, trips and falls, electricity, and ladders.
How Dangerous Is Wind Energy In Comparison to Other Types of EnergyWind energy is significantly less dangerous than fossil fuels and other types of renewable energy. In fact, wind is one of the, if not the, safest forms of energy with a death rate of only 0.04 deaths per terawatt-hour of electricity produced.

Final Thoughts

Overall, wind energy is considered a clean source of energy. It produces greenhouse gas emissions associated with the construction and decommissioning of wind farms but also produces only a fraction of the pollution and toxic chemicals that fossil fuels produce. There are very few CO2 emissions or waste products associated with operating and maintaining wind energy, making it very clean.

Clean energy is poised to see continued growth in the future as we look to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate global warming. As we look towards a future powered by renewables, wind energy is predicted to continue increasing in capacity because it benefits both our atmosphere and Earth’s biota. 

Stay impactful,

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