How Safe Is Wind Energy? A Holistic Life-Cycle Analysis

How Safe Is Wind Energy? A Holistic Life-Cycle Analysis

By
Grace Smoot

Read Time:15 Minutes

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Wind energy is a renewable and sustainable energy source that is important in reducing global GHG emissions and mitigating climate change. Over the years, it has come to make up an ever-growing part of our energy mix. So, we had to ask, How safe is wind energy really?

Overall, wind energy is considered to be safe. Holistically and throughout its life cycle, wind is safe and beneficial for human and animal health, the environment, and the energy grid. It is significantly safer than fossil fuels and other types of renewable energy.

Keep reading to find out how safe wind energy is overall, holistically, and in terms of its life cycle. Then, we’ll describe wind energy’s pros and cons, look at how effective it is, and determine how it can help mitigate climate change.

The Big Picture of the Safety of 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

Harnessing wind power 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.

Safety: the condition of being protected from or unlikely to cause danger, risk, or injury”

Oxford Dictionary
Related: Are you interested in learning more about the big picture of wind energy? Check it out in this article here: “How Does Wind Energy Work? From Source Til Energy Generation
How Safe Is Wind Energy OverallOverall, 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. 
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 that has one of the lowest death rates from accidents and air pollution per unit of electricity generation.

Here’s How Safe Wind Energy Is Holistically and Across Its Life-Cycles

One way to combat the current global climate crisis threatening Earth’s environmental, economic, and social health is to transition away from traditional fossil fuels and toward renewable energy sources, such as wind energy. 

Just as with any energy source, it is important to understand how safe wind energy is before we implement it on a commercial scale. This involves analyzing all aspects of wind energy. 

For this reason, we have split our analysis into the following categories:

  • Overall safety
  • Holistic safety
  • Life-cycle safety
  • Comparative safety

How Safe Is Wind Energy Overall

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. Wind energy has a low carbon footprint and can be a beneficial addition to our power grid that can promote decentralization and reduce air pollution.

How Safe Is Wind Energy at a Holistic Level

Experts believe that wind and solar energy projects are on track to contribute more than one-third of the world’s electricity by 2030. Because wind energy is poised to become the world’s foremost energy generation source, it is important to understand how safe it is at a holistic level. 

Holistic: relating to the whole of something or to the total system instead of just to its parts”

Cambridge Dictionary

To understand how safe wind energy is holistically, we must take into account how it affects us, the environment, and our technology.

How Safe Is Wind Energy When It Comes to Human and Animal Health

Overall, wind energy is considered safe for both human and animal health. 

The three main safety concerns in regards to human health are:

Overall, wind turbines are safe for human health thanks to engineering advancements and the use of sensors. 

Another common concern associated with wind energy is the potential for negative interactions with wildlife. During 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. However, studies found relatively low hazard rates at most modern wind energy developments.

Negative wildlife interactions can be mitigated by:

  • Monitoring the site for animal presence
  • Stopping or slowing turbine blades when animals are present or expected to be present
  • Deploying deterrent technologies to discourage wildlife from approaching spinning turbine blades 

In some cases, construction can be halted altogether if wildlife is present. For example, if an offshore site is being constructed in a whale migration corridor, work can be postponed during migration season so as not to disrupt the whales.

Ways to further increase the safety of wind turbines include performing environmental assessments before construction to determine the potential negative impacts of wind farms and implementing regular monitoring and maintenance protocols. 

Overall, wind energy is safe for human and animal health and can be made safer with proper siting, monitoring, and maintenance of wind farms. 

How Safe Is Wind Energy When It Comes to the Environment

Wind energy emits minimal greenhouse gas emissions and has a minimal effect on the environment, provided that proper siting of wind farms and disposal of wind turbines occurs.

Wind energy produces a fraction of the pollution and toxic chemicals that fossil fuels produce, helping to protect air quality. Rather than combusting toxic materials, wind energy harnesses the energy of wind to generate electricity. In terms of emissions, wind energy generates between 11 (onshore) or 12 (offshore) grams of CO2 equivalent per kWh of electricity produced and zero sulfur dioxide or nitrogen oxide emissions. 

Wind farms require large amounts of land, and clearing this land for construction can disturb natural habitats and degrade the land if proper measures are not followed. But for all of the land required, turbines are an efficient use of that land. Because turbines must be spaced far apart from one another, the land in between them can be left in its natural state or can be used for other purposes such as agriculture. 

Recycling end-of-life wind turbines can also reduce their impact on the environment. The technology to recycle wind turbines does exist, but the practice is not currently in widespread use. Just in 2022, Carbon Rivers, a US-based company, commercialized a process to reclaim glass fibers from decommissioned wind turbine blades. Because turbine blades are typically 50% glass or carbon fiber composite by weight, recycling them can significantly reduce their environmental impact.

How Safe Is Wind Energy When It Comes to the Energy Grid and Infrastructure

Wind energy is not only safe, but it is also a beneficial addition to our energy grid and supporting infrastructure. Wind energy promotes the decentralization of our energy supply, which increases power grid efficiency by reducing peak time usage and decreasing the likelihood of power outages. 

Renewable energy, including wind energy, draws energy from various geographic locations, so the grid can distribute power from multiple plants.

Although the addition of large amounts of renewable energy to the grid at one time may seem like it would have a destabilizing effect, renewable energy becomes more predictable as it is added to the grid. This is thanks to the law of large numbers

Law of large numbers: as the number of identically distributed, randomly generated variables increases, their sample mean (average) approaches their theoretical mean.”

Britannica

In terms of renewable energy, the output of every wind turbine that is connected to the power grid Is less volatile and more stable than the output of one individual generator. This decentralization in turn reduces peak time usage and decreases the likelihood of power outages. It also increases the efficiency of power production and power distribution.

How Safe Is Wind Energy Across Its Life-Cycle

To understand how safe wind energy is, we must look at its life cycle and how safe each stage is. This includes assessing the safety of wind energy’s building, operating and maintaining, and building back stages.

How Safe Is Wind Energy in the Building Stage

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

This includes building the many components found in wind farms including towers, rotors, blades, nacelles, generators, and the foundation of the turbines as well as the transmission lines, transformers, and substations required for delivering electricity to consumers.

Safe work practices and proper training of wind professionals can mitigate any risks associated with constructing wind farms. 

How Safe Is Wind Energy in the Operating and Maintaining Stage

The operating and maintaining stage of wind energy includes the process by which wind turbines use aerodynamic force from rotor blades to turn kinetic energy into electricity.

Wind energy is considered safe to operate and maintain because it does not harm human health or the environment when producing energy. 

Wind energy operates in the following manner

  • Wind flows across a turbine blade, creating a difference in air pressure across the two sides of the blade
  • The blade spins in response, thereby spinning the rotor
  • Spinning the rotor powers a generator which creates electricity

Wind turbines are installed by professional installers and come equipped with an automatic shut-off system in the event of physical or mechanical damage. They will also shut off automatically when wind speeds exceed a certain amount to prevent damage to the rotor. This leads to minimal risks associated with the operation and maintenance of wind energy.

How Safe Is Wind Energy in the Building Back Stage

The building back stage of wind energy involves:

  1. Shutting down the wind turbines and other mechanical equipment
  2. Removing the turbines and associated structures from the site
  3. Restoring the land or roof to its original state 

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 Energy

Wind energy is one of the safest forms of energy (fossil fuels and renewable energy included). Wind energy has a death rate of 0.04 deaths per terawatt-hour of electricity produced. This includes deaths resulting from accidents and air pollution.

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?

To put it into perspective:

  • A town powered entirely by wind energy with a population of 150,000 that uses one terawatt-hour of electricity per year would experience only 1 death from wind energy every 25 years
  • If that same town was powered entirely by coal, roughly 1,250 people would die prematurely in the same amount of time, mostly from air pollution – that’s about 25 people every year.
Illustration of Death rates per unit of electricity generation from Our World in Data
Our World in Data: Death rates per unit of electricity generation

In short, wind energy is one of our safest forms of energy because it boasts one of the lowest death rates per unit of electricity generation from accidents and air pollution.

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 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 Can Wind Energy Help Mitigate Climate Change

Climate change is a severe, long-term consequence of fossil fuel combustion. If left untreated, atmospheric CO2 can remain there for tens of thousands of years and exacerbate the negative effects of climate change. Wind energy emits less CO2 upon operation than fossil fuels and can therefore reduce our total emissions. 

How is Climate Change Defined

Climate change is arguably the most severe, long-term global impact of CO2. Every year, we emit approximately 37 billion tons of CO2. The carbon found in fossil fuels reacts with oxygen in the air to produce CO2

Climate change: changes in the earth’s weather, including changes in temperature, wind patterns, and rainfall, especially the increase in the temperature of the earth’s atmosphere that is caused by the increase of particular gasses, especially carbon dioxide.

Oxford Dictionary

When carbon enters the atmosphere, it absorbs sunlight and wind radiation, trapping the heat and acting as an insulator for the planet.

Since the Industrial Revolution, Earth’s temperature has risen a little more than 1 degree Celsius (°C), or 2 degrees Fahrenheit (°F). Between 1880-1980 the global temperature rose by 0.07°C every 10 years. This rate has more than doubled since 1981, with a current global annual temperature rise of 0.18°C, or 0.32°F, for every 10 years

How Does Wind Energy Specifically Help Mitigate Climate Change

The global average concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere today registers at over 400 parts per million, the highest ever recorded. Wind energy can help lower this concentration because it can replace some of the burning of fossil fuels (e.g., coal, oil, natural gas) with a cleaner form of renewable energy.

Throughout its life cycle, wind energy produces 0.02% of the CO2 emissions per unit of electricity than coal produces. And after 3 to 6 months of operation, a wind turbine has effectively offset all emissions from its construction, which means it can operate virtually carbon-free for the rest of its lifetime.

Increasing wind energy usage can reduce CO2 emissions, and the more we reduce CO2 emissions, the more we combat the negative effects associated with climate change including 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. 

Final Thoughts

At a holistic level, wind energy is considered to be a safe form of energy in terms of human and animal health, the environment, and the energy grid and supporting infrastructure. It has a low carbon footprint and can be a beneficial addition to our power grid that can promote decentralization and reduce air pollution.

Wind energy is also considered to be safe during its entire life cycle (building, operating and maintaining, and building back stages). Common hazards, including those associated with construction and electricity, can be mitigated by proper training and safe work practices.

Forging a sustainable planet for future generations will require us to increase renewable energy usage, and wind energy is a great place to start. 

Stay impactful,

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