The energy crisis in Europe, fueled by the Ukraine-Russia conflict, had a tremendous effect on the world, both in economic and environmental sectors.
This issue is situated in the context of a decades-long global discussion about environmental concerns, specifically, the use of clean energy instead of fossil fuels.
As a result, countries started implementing wind power to achieve a greener energy mix.
However, as time went on, concerns and challenges started to arise, leading to the current question of whether wind energy is as clean as advertised.
The global rise of wind power
As countries aim to divert their investments from polluting energy sources (i.e. coal and oil), their energy mix has changed considerably. On a global scale, wind power accounts for more than 7% of energy in 2022, double the proportion seen in 2015. The national leader in this industry is China, with a capacity of 221GW, followed by the United States at 96.4GW, and its European counterpart Germany, at 59.3GW of installed capacity. For perspective, a single household in Canada typically uses 0.01GW a year. Due to the promise of lower pollution, at 11g of CO2 per kWh of electricity, there is a global shift towards the use of wind power.
Wind farms vary in size from a few to hundreds of turbines, covering an extensive area, and are usually located in rural areas. In technological terms, the farms function by harnessing the wind’s kinetic energy and converting it to rotational energy, which in turn, is transferred by a shaft into mechanical energy. This can then be exploited for our daily use. In laymans terms, the process is rather simple: farms harness wind power to generate electricity.
Challenges and criticisms of wind energy sustainability
While wind energy is renewable, and, at its core, clean, there are some sustainability issues with our current use of wind power. Beyond the aesthetic disruptions of wind farms on landscapes, a main criticism of this energy source is its negative impact on biodiversity. Many aerial species are hurt by the spinning of the blades; there are 1.8 birds killed per MW in the United States. Likewise, terrestrial species are impacted by habitat loss from the wind farm’s infrastructure. The wind farms have a viability of approximately 20 years, after which they often stop working and are abandoned. However, the foundation of the windmill is often left behind, which impacts the environment and makes previous losses difficult to recover. Another key point is that wind power is not an efficient energy source in terms of the Energy Returned on Energy Invested Index. Indeed, its EROEI is between 5 & 10, one of the lowest efficiencies of all energy sources. In comparison, hydropower’s EROEI is 50.
Innovations and the future of wind power
In light of those environmental issues, there have been technological improvements to mitigate the impact of wind power on ecosystems. The increasingly large R&D investment, expected to reach US$36 billion globally by 2028, already has and will continue to increase the efficiency, recyclibility, and durability of wind farms. Indeed, a new technique to recycle a wind farm’s waste has begun to be implemented in the United States. The blades are shredded in factories to then be used as cement. This would also reduce the demand for limited resources such as clay and sand, that are required to make cement. Those innovations highlight the importance of R&D in improving the sustainability of wind power.
The road to carbon neutrality is not a straightforward one, and neither is the road to a clean energy mix.
Wind power should be considered as an option, as it is a rather cheaper energy source, and essentially clean, but its downsides should not be forgotten. While it might not yet be the most ideal energy source, as research and innovation grow exponentially, wind power will become a more feasible energy alternative in the future.