Environmental Impacts of Wind Power

Harnessing power from the wind is one of the cleanest and most sustainable ways to generate electricity as it produces no toxic pollution or global warming emissions. Wind is also abundant, inexhaustible, and affordable, which makes it a viable and large-scale alternative to fossil fuels. 

Despite its vast potential, there are a variety of environmental impacts associated with wind power generation that should be recognized and mitigated.

Land Use

The land use impact of wind power facilities varies substantially depending on the site: wind turbines placed in flat areas typically use more land than those located in hilly areas. However, wind turbines do not occupy all of this land; they must be spaced approximately 5 to 10 rotor diameters apart (a rotor diameter is the diameter of the wind turbine blades). Thus, the turbines themselves and the surrounding infrastructure (including roads and transmission lines) occupy a small portion of the total area of a wind facility.

A survey by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory of large wind facilities in the United States found that they use between 30 and 141 acres per megawatt of power output capacity (a typical new utility-scale wind turbine is about 2 megawatts). However, less than 1 acre per megawatt is disturbed permanently and less than 3.5 acres per megawatt are disturbed temporarily during construction [1]. The remainder of the land can be used for a variety of other productive purposes, including livestock grazing, agriculture, highways, and hiking trails [2].  Alternatively, wind facilities can be sited on brownfields (abandoned or underused industrial land) or other commercial and industrial locations, which significantly reduces concerns about land use [3]. 

 Offshore wind facilities, which are currently not in operation in the United States but may become more common, require larger amounts of space because the turbines and blades are bigger than their land-based counterparts. Depending on their location, such offshore installations may compete with a variety of other ocean activities, such as fishing, recreational activities, sand and gravel extraction, oil and gas extraction, navigation, and aquaculture. Employing best practices in planning and siting can help minimize potential land use impacts of offshore and land-based wind projects [4].

Wildlife and Habitat

The impact of wind turbines on wildlife, most notably on birds and bats, has been widely document and studied. A recent National Wind Coordinating Committee (NWCC) review of peer-reviewed research found evidence of bird and bat deaths from collisions with wind turbines and due to changes in air pressure caused by the spinning turbines, as well as from habitat disruption. The NWCC concluded that these impacts are relatively low and do not pose a threat to species populations [5]. 

Additionally, research into wildlife behavior and advances in wind turbine technology have helped to reduce bird and bat deaths. For example, wildlife biologists have found that bats are most active when wind speeds are low. Using this information, the Bats and Wind Energy Cooperative concluded that keeping wind turbines motionless during times of low wind speeds could reduce bat deaths by more than half without significantly affecting power production [6]. Other wildlife impacts can be mitigated through better siting of wind turbines. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services has played a leadership role in this effort by convening an advisory group including representatives from industry, state and tribal governments, and nonprofit organizations that made comprehensive recommendations on appropriate wind farm siting and best management practices [7].

 Offshore wind turbines can have similar impacts on marine birds, but as with onshore wind turbines, the bird deaths associated with offshore wind are minimal. Wind farms located offshore will also impact fish and other marine wildlife. Some studies suggest that turbines may actually increase fish populations by acting as artificial reefs. The impact will vary from site to site, and therefore proper research and monitoring systems are needed for each offshore wind facility [8].

Public Health and Community

Sound and visual impact are the two main public health and community concerns associated with operating wind turbines. Most of the sound generated by wind turbines is aerodynamic, caused by the movement of turbine blades through the air. There is also mechanical sound generated by the turbine itself. Overall sound levels depend on turbine design and wind speed.

Some people living close to wind facilities have complained about sound and vibration issues, but industry and government-sponsored studies in Canada and Australia have found that these issues do not adversely impact public health [9]. However, it is important for wind turbine developers to take these community concerns seriously by following “good neighbor” best practices for siting turbines and initiating open dialogue with affected community members. Additionally, technological advances, such as minimizing blade surface imperfections and using sound-absorbent materials can reduce wind turbine noise [10].

Under certain lighting conditions, wind turbines can create an effect known as shadow flicker. This annoyance can be minimized with careful siting, planting trees or installing window awnings, or curtailing wind turbine operations when certain lighting conditions exist [11]. 

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires that large wind turbines, like all structures over 200 feet high, have white or red lights for aviation safety. However, the FAA recently determined that as long as there are no gaps in lighting greater than a half-mile, it is not necessary to light each tower in a multi-turbine wind project. Daytime lighting is unnecessary as long as the turbines are painted white.

 When it comes to aesthetics, wind turbines can elicit strong reactions. To some people, they are graceful sculptures; to others, they are eyesores that compromise the natural landscape. Whether a community is willing to accept an altered skyline in return for cleaner power should be decided in an open public dialogue [12].

Water Use

There is no water impact associated with the operation of wind turbines. As in all manufacturing processes, some water is used to manufacture steel and cement for wind turbines.

Life-Cycle Global Warming Emissions

 While there are no global warming emissions associated with operating wind turbines, there are emissions associated with other stages of a wind turbine’s life-cycle, including materials production, materials transportation, on-site construction and assembly, operation and maintenance, and decommissioning and dismantlement.

Estimates of total global warming emissions depend on a number of factors, including wind speed, percent of time the wind is blowing, and the material composition of the wind turbine [13]. Most estimates of wind turbine life-cycle global warming emissions are between 0.02 and 0.04 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour. To put this into context, estimates of life-cycle global warming emissions for natural gas generated electricity are between 0.6 and 2 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour and estimates for coal-generated electricity are 1.4 and 3.6 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour [14]. 

References:

[1] Denholm, P., M. Hand, M. Jackson, and S. Ong. 2009. Land-use requirements of modern wind power plants in the United States. Golden, CO: National Renewable Energy Laboratory.   

[2] National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). 2012. Renewable Electricity Futures Study. Hand, M.M.; Baldwin, S.; DeMeo, E.; Reilly, J.M.; Mai, T.; Arent, D.; Porro, G.; Meshek, M.; Sandor, D. eds. 4 vols. NREL/TP-6A20-52409. Golden, CO: National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

[3] National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). June 14, 2010. Brownfields' Bright Spot: Solar and Wind Energy. Online at http://www.nrel.gov/news/features/feature_detail.cfm/feature_id=1530

[4] Michel, J.; Dunagan, H.; Boring, C.; Healy, E.; Evans, W.; Dean, J.; McGillis, A.; Hain, J. 2007. Worldwide Synthesis and Analysis of Existing Information Regarding Environmental Effects of Alternative Energy Uses on the Outer Continental Shelf. MMS 2007-038. Prepared by Research Planning and ICF International. Herndon, VA: U.S. Department of the Interior, Minerals Management Service.

[5] National Wind Coordinating Committee (NWCC). 2010. Wind turbine interactions with birds, bats, and their habitats: A summary of research results and priority questions.

[6] Arnett, E.B., M.M.P. Huso, J.P. Hayes, and M. Schirmacher. 2010.  Effectiveness of changing wind turbine cut-in speed to reduce bat fatalities at wind facilities. A final report submitted to the Bats and Wind Energy Cooperative. Austin, TX: Bat Conservation International.

[7] Fish and Wildlife Service (FSW). 2010. Recommendations of the wind turbine guidelines advisory committee.

[8] Michel, et al. 2007.

[9] Chief Medical Officer of Heath of Ontario. 2010. The potential health impact of wind turbines. Toronto, Ontario: Ontario Ministry of Health and Long Term Care.

American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) and the Canadian Wind Energy Association (CanWEA). 2009. Wind turbine sound and health effects: An expert panel review.

National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). 2010. Wind turbines and health: A rapid review of the evidence. Canberra, Australia: National Health and Medical Research Council.

[10] Bastasch, M.; van Dam, J.; Søndergaard, B.; Rogers, A. 2006. Wind Turbine Noise – An Overview. Canadian Acoustics (34:2), 7–15.

[11] National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). 2012. Renewable Electricity Futures Study.

[12] Union of Concerned Scientists. Tapping into Wind.

[13] National Academy of Sciences. 2010. Electricity from Renewable Resources: Status, Prospects, and Impediments.

[14] IPCC, 2011: IPCC Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation. Prepared by Working Group III of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [O. Edenhofer, R. Pichs-Madruga, Y. Sokona, K. Seyboth, P. Matschoss, S. Kadner, T. Zwickel, P. Eickemeier, G. Hansen, S. Schlömer, C. von Stechow (eds)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, 1075 pp. (Chapter 7 & 9).

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