How Does Wind Energy Work? From Source Till Energy Generation

How Does Wind Energy Work? From Source Till Energy Generation

By
Grace Smoot

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Wind energy is one of our foremost strategies for decarbonizing our planet and ensuring its sustainability for future generations. Because wind energy has such a large electricity generation and climate mitigation potential, we had to ask: How does wind energy work?

Wind energy works by harnessing the power of the wind, which turns propeller-like blades around a rotor that then spins a generator to create electricity. Transmission lines then transport the electricity to consumers.

Keep reading to find out what wind energy is, how it works, how effective and efficient it is, how safe or dangerous it is, the pros and cons associated with it, and how it can be classified.

The Big Picture of Wind Energy Generation

Global population growth has increased our electricity generation from 66 terawatt-hours (TWh) in 1900 to over 29,000 TWh in 2022. The more people there are, the more electricity we need to generate to meet their needs.

Electricity generation: electricity generated from fossil fuels, nuclear power plants, hydropower plants (excluding pumped storage), geothermal systems, solar panels, biofuels, wind, etc.”

Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development

Most of our electricity generation has traditionally come from the combustion of fossil fuels (e.g., coal, oil, natural gas). But as the current climate crisis continues to worsen, the focus has shifted towards increasing renewable energy capacity. One of our most advanced and widespread renewable energy technologies is wind energy. 

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

It wasn’t until the 2000s that concern over the growing climate crisis increased interest in renewable energy and more specifically in 2010 when there was a push to increase wind energy capacity worldwide.

Related: Are you interested in learning more about wind energy? Check it out in this article here: “Wind Energy Explained: All You Need to Know
Energy GenerationSummary
Step 1: The Origin of WindWind is caused by the uneven heating of the Earth’s surface, irregularities of the earth’s surface, and the earth’s rotation.
Step 2: Wind Energy Technologies The two main types of wind energy are onshore and offshore wind energy. Both types take the energy from wind and convert it to electricity, just in a different environment.
Step 3: How Wind Energy Really WorksWind turbines generate electricity by harnessing wind with the aerodynamic force of rotor blades, which turn in response to air pressure differences on the sides of the blades. In simpler words, the power in the wind turns propeller-like blades around a rotor that then spins a generator to create electricity.
Step 4: How Wind Energy Gets to the GridThe electricity generated from wind is either stored for later use or is transported to a substation where it is transmitted to consumers via transmission lines.

Step 1: The Origin of Wind

Wind is a form of solar energy that is caused by the uneven heating of the Earth’s surface, irregularities of the Earth’s surface, and the Earth’s rotation. 

  • Wind during the day is created when the air above the land heats up faster than the air above water. As the warm air expands and rises, heavier and cooler air fills its place, creating wind. 
  • At night, the winds are reversed because the air above land cools faster than the air above water. 

Wind patterns and speeds vary greatly across the world and can be modified by bodies of water, vegetation, and differences in terrain.

Step 2: Wind Energy Technologies

Harnessing wind energy falls into two main categories:

  1. Onshore wind energy: Wind turbines are located on land. Construction, transportation, maintenance costs, and infrastructure needed to transmit electricity from onshore turbines to consumers are low. 
  1. Offshore wind energy: Wind turbines are located in the ocean or freshwater. Construction, transportation, maintenance costs, and infrastructure needed to transmit electricity from offshore turbines to consumers are high. 

Both types take the energy from wind and convert it to electricity, just in a different environment. Onshore wind is the main mechanism used today to harness wind energy.

Step 3: How Wind Energy Really Works

Wind turbines generate electricity by using the aerodynamic force of rotor blades, which operate in the same manner as airplane wings or helicopter blades.

  • Wind flows across the blades, causing air pressure on one side of the blade to decrease
  • The difference in air pressure creates both lift and drag
  • Because the force of the lift is greater than the force of the drag, the rotor spins
  • The rotor is connected to a generator, which spins in return, generating electricity

Step 4: How Wind Energy Gets to The Grid

The electricity generated from wind is either stored for later use or is transported to a substation where it is transmitted to consumers via transmission lines. Transformers receive the electricity and either increase or decrease the voltage as needed before it can be delivered to consumers. 

How Effective and Efficient Is Wind Energy

In terms of effectiveness, wind turbines are effective at converting wind into electricity. In addition, wind energy has a low carbon footprint, protects air quality, and promotes energy security and independence. However, it can also be intermittent and come with high upfront costs. 

In terms of efficiency, wind turbines are efficient at converting wind into electricity. In addition, wind energy is a renewable and sustainable energy source, increases the efficiency of the power grid, and generates few waste products.

Wind energy is effective because:

However, two of the main drawbacks associated with wind energy are intermittency and high upfront costs.

Wind energy is efficient because:

Related: Are you interested in learning more about how effective and efficient wind energy is? Check out the full article here: “How Effective and Efficient Is Wind Energy?

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.

What Are The 6 Pros and 5 Cons of Wind Energy

Wind energy is a renewable and sustainable energy source, has a low carbon footprint, protects air quality, is efficient, generates few waste products, and promotes energy independence and security.

However, wind energy is also an intermittent energy source, faces high upfront and maintenance costs, can cause noise and visual pollution, and can negatively impact wildlife.

Related: Are you interested in learning more about the pros and cons of wind energy? Check out the full article here: “Wind Energy: All 6 Pros and 5 Cons Explained

What Are the 6 Pros of Wind Energy

Wind energy is a renewable and sustainable energy source, has a low carbon footprint, protects air quality, is efficient, generates few waste products, and promotes energy independence and security.

6 Pros of Wind EnergyQuick Facts
#1: Wind energy is a renewable energy sourceWind energy is classified as a renewable energy source because it is a form of solar energy, which itself is renewable. It is also sustainable because it emits minimal greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) and does not negatively affect the environment, provided that proper siting and disposal methods are followed.
#2: Wind energy has a low carbon footprintOn 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. 
#3: Wind energy protects air qualityRather than combusting toxic materials like coal does, wind power plants harness the energy of the wind to generate electricity. Wind turbines produce minimal greenhouse gasses and emit no sulfur dioxide or nitrogen oxides, thereby helping to protect air quality.
#4: Wind energy is efficientToday’s wind turbines have an average commercial energy conversion rate of 25-45%, depending on a variety of environmental factors. In addition, wind energy is an efficient use of space. Although wind farms require large amounts of land, the turbines themselves do not take up large amounts of land. 
#5: Wind energy generates few waste productsWind energy generates minimal CO2 and few other waste products upon operation, and components of wind turbines can be recycled.
#6: Wind energy promotes energy independence and energy security Wind energy can help us transition away from fossil fuels and towards an energy-independent future.

What Are the 5 Cons of Wind Energy

Wind energy is an intermittent energy source, faces high upfront and maintenance costs, can cause noise and visual pollution, and can negatively impact wildlife.

5 Cons of Wind EnergyQuick Facts
#1: Wind energy is an intermittent energy sourceWind energy production is heavily influenced by location, time of year, and weather patterns, making it unpredictable at times. Wind patterns and speeds vary greatly across the world and can be modified by bodies of water, vegetation, and differences in terrain. 
#2: Wind energy has high upfront costsSmaller-scale wind turbines under 100 kilowatts can cost $3,000-$8,000 per kilowatt hour of installed capacity. Commercial, utility-scale wind turbines cost between $1.3 million to $2.2 million per megawatt (MW) of installed capacity. 
#3: Wind energy can be expensive to maintainRoutine maintenance costs roughly 1-2 cents per kilowatt-hour of electricity produced and includes insurance, land rent, and repair/replacement of spare parts. This works out to $42,000 – $48,000 per year for an average US utility-scale wind farm.
#4: Wind energy can cause noise and visual pollutionBoth the mechanical operation and wind vortex created by rotating wind turbine blades generate some levels of noise pollution. In addition, wind turbines typically must be constructed high up to capture enough wind, which can obstruct scenic views including mountain ranges, oceans, and lakes
#5: Wind energy can negatively impact wildlifeDuring wind energy site construction, the increased presence of people, traffic, and noises can disrupt grouse and other ground-nesting birds. In addition, spinning turbine blades can prove to be a hazard for birds and bats

How Clean, Green, Sustainable, Renewable, and Environmentally Friendly Is Wind Energy

Wind energy is one of our fastest-growing and most popular renewable energy technologies with a low carbon emissions profile. It can play an important role in the global energy transformation and help the transition away from fossil fuels.

What’s 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

Here’s How Clean Wind Energy Is

Overall, wind energy is considered to be clean energy. 

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

Collins Dictionary

Wind energy produces virtually no greenhouse gasses or any other kind of environmental pollution upon its operation.

How clean is the 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. 
How clean is the 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. 
How clean is the 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. 
Related: Are you interested in learning more about how clean wind energy is? Check it out in this article here: “How Clean Is Wind Energy? A Life-Cycle Assessment

Here’s How Green Wind Energy Is

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

Here’s How Sustainable Wind Energy Is

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

Here’s How Renewable Wind Energy Is

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

Here’s How Environmentally Friendly Wind Energy Is

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

Final Thoughts

One of our most advanced and widespread renewable energy technologies is wind energy, the conversion of wind into electrical energy. Wind energy is generally considered safe for humans, animals, the environment, and our infrastructure, and it is an effective and efficient way of generating energy that is cleaner than traditional fossil fuels.

Wind 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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