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Environmental impacts

Discuss about the Environmental and Economic Impacts of Wind Energy.

Wind energy is a type of renewable energy with numerous environmental and economic impacts. Considering the sustainability and low carbon emissions associated with wind energy, many countries are developing wind power plants to generate more energy. This paper analyzes various environmental and economic impacts of wind energy

Wind energy is one of the most sustainable and cleanest renewable energy as it does not generate pollutants, greenhouse gases or solid or liquid wastes. In this regard, environmental risks of wind energy are very low compared to those of fossil fuels.

Wind turbines are mechanical systems thus they produce noise when operating. This noise comprises of gearbox noise, aerodynamic noise and shaft noise. The noise can be a nuisance to people or wildlife near wind energy facilities (Exploring Green Technology 2012). The main determinant of the level of noise produced is the design of the wind turbines. Majority of the modern turbines are more efficient and have been designed to produce less noise. These turbine convert a large percentage of wind into rotational torque with very little amount of wind being converted to acoustic noise. These noise impacts can be minimized by selecting proper sites for installation of wind energy facilities and also use of insulating materials to reduce the amount of noise that is released into the atmosphere (Wind Energy Development Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement 2016).    

Wind turbines usually have greater heights and therefore they are highly visible in areas where they are constructed. However, too many wind turbines may ruin the look of the natural landscape thus attracting mixed opinions from the public. Some people complain that too many wind turbines affect the aesthetics of the landscape, which makes them feel uncomfortable. Wind turbines can also create an effect referred to as shadow flicker, when they are exposed to particular lighting conditions. This flickering effect can be annoying to nearby residents. The wind turbines can also interfere with telecommunication masts, radar and aviation (Ledec, 2012). Some of the strategies that are being used to reduce these visual impacts include: proper site selection; using more efficient and larger wind turbine models so as to reduce the number of turbines needed to generate same amount of wind power; and painting the wind turbines green or grey so as to make them blend into the environment (Green Rhino Energy 2013).  

Noise

The wind turbines have a significant impact on wildlife, especially bats and birds. The rotating turbine blades are a big threat to the lives of flying wildlife especially bats and birds. Studies have found that wind turbines have caused several bat and bird fatalities (National Academy of Sciences 2007). The deaths are caused by collisions of birds and bats with wind turbines, and air pressure changes resulting from rotating turbines and habitat disruption. However, these deaths can be reduced by careful selection of wind turbine sites; stopping operation of wind turbines when wind speeds are low (this is the time when bats are very active); making the rotor blades more visible; and warning traffic using white flashing lights instead of red flashing lights. Offshore wind turbines may also affect marine birds in the same way. Additionally, these turbines affect other marine wildlife such as fish.

This largely depends on the site of wind energy facilities. Facilities that are located in flat areas usually require more land compared to those in hilly areas. Nevertheless, not all the land is occupied because wind turbines have to be spaced some distance apart. Therefore wind energy facilities occupy only a small percentage of the total area set aside for production of wind energy. The other percentage of land may remain unused or put into other productive uses, such as agriculture, livestock grazing, highways, etc. Offshore wind facilities also require larger quantities of space because of the bigger sizes of their turbines. This means that offshore installations are likely to compete with several other activities in the ocean, including fishing, navigation, oil & gas extraction, aquaculture, and recreational activities, among others (Union of Concerned Scientists 2013).     

Even though operation of wind turbines does not produce global warming emissions, there are some emissions that are related to other stages of life-cycle of wind turbines, such as production and transportation of materials, on-site assembly and construction, operation and maintenance of wind turbines, and disposal of the turbines. However, these emissions are very low compared to those of fossil fuels.

Wind energy has zero emissions to the atmosphere or water bodies. Production of wind energy uses very little amount of water and does not require natural resources such as natural gas or oil. The energy produced is green, pollution free, sustainable and with no toxic waste (Suaad 2013). This means that wind energy improves the quality of air and water, which reduces global warming. This in turn improves human health.

Visual impact

In general, the environmental impacts of wind energy also depend on several factors such as geographic location, technology used, and size of the wind farms, among others.

The number of wind farms and/or wind power plants and the quantity of megawatts generated have continued to increase rapidly over the recent years (Wind Energy Foundation 2016). This is not only because of the environmental benefits of wind energy but also for the economic impacts. Wind energy has a wide range of economic impacts. Some of these include the following:

Construction of new wind energy facilities means creation of new job opportunities. These opportunities are created at different stages, including manufacturing of wind facilities components, and construction, operation and maintenance of these facilities (U.S. Department of Energy 2013). Since wind energy facilities can be built in any part of the country, it means that these jobs can also be distributed countrywide. The jobs created also translate into increased personal income. A study carried out to determine the economic impacts of wind energy found that installation of one megawatt of wind energy created half a job with a significant increase in personal income of local residents (Brown et al. 2012).       

Wind energy projects spur economic growth in the host communities during and after the wind energy facilities have been successfully installed. During construction, staffs working on the project rent accommodation from local premises; local businesses are the main suppliers of needed raw materials; and transportation firms become the major transportation service providers to the wind farms. When the wind farms start operating, the local residents and businesses can access energy easily and affordably. This creates new opportunities that were previously unattainable. For example, availability of wind energy spurs establishment of manufacturing facilities, which also generates numerous positive economic impacts. Therefore wind energy creates opportunities for economic development in remote areas. In a country like the U.S., most of the wind energy plants are developed in remote areas which have high economic development potential (Wiser et al. 2011).

Wind energy projects result into significant increase in property tax revenues in local areas. The collected property tax revenues are used for various developments, including improvement of local public services, such as recreational facilities, parks, schools, and fire department.     

One of the main causes of fuel prices volatility is dependence on fuels from foreign countries. This is a big problem especially in countries that do not have natural resources (fossil fuels) for production of energy. Foreign fuel prices can shoot up at any time thus affecting the economy of the country. With these high volatilities, it is very difficult for the country’s economy to remain stable. However, wind energy reverses this by maintaining stable fuel prices. Wind energy projects enable both local and national governments to generate adequate energy to meet their demands. Surplus energy produced during off peak can also be stored and used during peak hours; added to the national grid or sold to utility companies. These help in stabilizing fuel prices and also maintaining constant supply of energy for domestic and commercial uses.    

Habitat and wildlife

Wind energy facilities require substantial amount of land. As wind developers aim at optimizing potential investment returns in wind energy sector, ranchers and farmers are leasing their land for development of wind energy projects. The land leases offer a secure source of income as most of the leasers opt for royalty negotiations. In addition, wind turbines disturb a very small percentage of the total land on which they are installed. This allows ranchers and farmers to continue with their farming activities even after leasing the land (Reategui and Hendrickson 2011).

Wind energy projects require substantial amount of initial capital. However, the cost of operating and maintaining wind energy facilities is low. Once these facilities have been established, they supply people with safe, clean and affordable energy. After payback period, the energy generated will almost be free. Consumers will spend very little money to purchase energy thus saving some money for other uses.

The likely ultimate economic impact of wind energy is improvement of quality of life. With supply of wind energy in an area, almost all aspects of economy become improved. For instance, direct and indirect jobs are created, people’s personal income increases, businesses and individuals get enough energy for various uses, and the energy is available at stable and lower prices. All these improve the quality of life of the people.

Conclusion

Wind energy has both environmental and economic impact. The economic impacts include visual impact, noise, effects on habitat and wildlife, land use changes, and global warming emissions of wind turbine life-cycle. Some of the economic impacts are: creation of job opportunities, reviving remote areas, stabilizing fuel prices, increased property tax revenues, rising landowner revenue, financial savings, and improvement of quality of life. So wind energy facilities and/or projects should aim at minimizing environmental impacts and maximizing economic impacts.

References

Brown et al., 2012, “The economic impact of wind energy”, Energy Economics, 34, pp. 1743-1754.

Exploring Green Technology, 2012, Environmental impact of wind energy, viewed October 11, 2016, <https://exploringgreentechnology.com/wind-energy/environmental-impact-of-wind-energy/>.

Green Rhino Energy, 2013, Wind energy and the environment, viewed October 11, 2016, <https://www.greenrhinoenergy.com/renewable/wind/wind_environment.php>.

Ledec, G, 2012, Environmental impacts of wind power: birds, bats and natural habitats, The World Bank: Africa Region.

National Academy of Sciences, 2007, “Environmental impacts of wind energy projects”, The National Academic Press, pp. 67-139.

Reategui, S & Hendrickson, S 2011, Economic development impact of 1,000 MW of wind energy in Texas, National Renewable Energy Laboratory: Colorado.

Suaad, J, 2013, “Environmental impacts of wind energy”, Journal of Clean Energy Technologies, Vol. 1, No. 3, pp. 251-254.

U.S. Department of Energy, 2013, Potential economic impacts of offshore wind in the southeast region, Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, viewed October 11, 2016, <https://www1.eere.energy.gov/wind/pdfs/57565.pdf>.

Union of Concerned Scientists, 2013, Environmental impacts of wind power, viewed October 11, 2016, <https://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/our-energy-choices/renewable-energy/environmental-impacts-wind-power.html#.V_rswCbfrIU>.

Wind Energy Development Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, 2016, Wind energy development environmental concerns, viewed October 11, 2016, <https://windeis.anl.gov/guide/concern/index.cfm>.

Wind Energy Foundation, 2016, Wind energy economics, viewed October 11, 2016 <https://windenergyfoundation.org/about-wind-energy/economics/>.

Wiser et al., 2011, Economic impacts of wind turbine development in U.S. counties, U.S. Department of Agriculture: Pittsburgh.

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