Wind Energy: The Basics

Wind energy is one of the fastest-growing energy sources in the world. It was the largest source of renewable energy generation in the EU in 2018. For some, the sight of large, white turbines on the horizon is a symbol of progress and clean energy, however, wind energy has faced strong and vocal opposition.

Humans have been constructing wind-powered structures for over 1,500 years. The first windmills recorded were used by the Persians in A.D 500-900 to grind grain and pump water. The wind turbines used for electricity today are based on a similar basic concept; wind turns the blades on the turbine which is connected to a generator that creates electricity.

It is one of the fastest-growing energy sources globally and, in 2019, it’s capacity grew by 19% (over 60 gigawatts) compared with 2018. The Global Wind Energy Council noted that this was one of the strongest years on record for the industry.

Types of Wind Energy

While there may be variations in the design, wind energy is generally produced by using turbines. These turbines can be placed onshore or out at sea. Onshore, or land-based, wind turbines are either used as standalone or in small amounts to power small communities or agricultural operations or they can be installed in larger numbers in what is referred to as a wind farm. Windfarms are used to feed electricity into the country’s power grid for larger-scale generation.

Offshore wind energy is when turbines are installed out at sea where they can take advantage of stronger and faster winds. Offshore wind systems are a newer concept but are gaining in popularity. The International Energy Agency has predicted that installing wind turbines in the best offshore sites around the planet could be enough to provide energy to meet global demand.

Wind Energy in North Macedonia

In 2018, North Macedonia generated only 97,338 MWh from wind energy which totals to just 1.8% of its total energy mix. Currently, there is just one wind farm in the country located in Bogdanci. The farm generates 36.8MW but a tender has been launched to expand it to 50 MW. The farm in Bogdanci was the first of its kind in the Western Balkans.

A further two wind farms are expected to be built around the country which should bring North Macedonia’s total capacity up to 86 MW. According to the Strategy for Energy Development of the Republic of North Macedonia up to 2040, wind energy is the energy source with the highest potential for growth in the country (up to almost 5 GW) but current government decisions appear to be favouring more focus on hydropower which has severe environmental and social implications, is not economically viable and only has potential for growth up to 0.76 GW.

The good, the bad, the future

Wind energy is considered to be a renewable and clean energy source. The production of electricity through the rotation of wind turbines produces no emissions and involves no chemicals. It is also cost-effective and is becoming even more so as the years pass and the world slowly moves away from dirty energy like oil and gas. Wind energy is one of the most cost-effective energy sources and is also relatively stable.

In December of 2019, customers of a renewable energy service provider in the United Kingdom benefitted from a particularly windy weekend. Their service provider, Octopus Energy, encouraged its clients to make use of their appliances over the weekend including doing extra laundry, setting the timers on their dishwashers and charging their electric vehicles as the windy weather generated around 45% of the country’s energy that Sunday morning. What’s more, its clients made approximately 0.07c per every kilowatt-hour they used during that time.  

The wind energy sector creates a significant amount of jobs and the position of wind turbine technician is one of the fastest-growing jobs in the United States over the last ten years. Wind turbines can also be beneficial for farmers since these are able to be built on agricultural land or rural sites. Farming activities can continue and it also provides the farmers with added income.

The wind energy sector does have a number of issues which need to be addressed going forward. Since turbines and farms are often installed in remote places, there is the logistical issue of connecting them to the power grid. The turbines can cause a certain amount of noise from the rotating blades. Studies have been done on the noise levels and have found that these are not damaging to human health in any way. Regardless, a lot of research and development is being done to find solutions to this. Some of wind energy’s critics also point out that wind turbines create aesthetic pollution, however, this issue is a purely subjective one. Ultimately it boils down to whether or not you prefer the sight of wind turbines producing clean energy or power plants spewing toxic and damaging emissions into the air.

One of the main arguments that critics of wind energy put forward is that the wind turbines can kill birds and bats. While this is true, a lot of resources have been put in to the industry to combat this. Thorough environmental impact assessment before installing turbines is vital and these must not be installed along important migration paths or habitats. Currently, turbines kill less than 0.02% of songbird species and this number will likely continue to drop as technological advancements continue. This figure is significantly less than bird collisions with communications towers, power lines and about three to four times less than collisions with buildings. The staggering number of birds killed by domesticated cats every year is a cause for much greater concern.

Wind energy, like solar, has the problem of intermittency. This means that energy is only produced when wind is blowing. There are various potential solutions to this issue including inter-linkages between the grids of different countries, energy storage and electricity demand management. Experts have argued that the future impact of intermittency on the renewable energy sector will be relatively low.

Finally, the biggest and potentially most tricky issue with wind energy is the materials required to produce the technology. Old wind turbines need to be properly recycled and, while the number of environmentally sensitive materials required for wind energy is not as high as for PV (solar) panels, the implications behind the extraction and mining of such minerals need to be addressed. This issue will be tackled in further detail in a separate article.

The advancements in wind technology and the discussions being had around responsible sourcing of materials are good and encouraging signs for the future of the sector. Furthermore, we must keep in mind that simply replacing the processes from which we obtain our energy from dirty to renewable and not tackling the fundamental flaws in our current socio-economic system which is based on the unequal distribution of wealth, energy and resources and attributes success to GDP then we are bound to fall into the same traps further down the line. 

The Authors: Simona Getova and JD Farrugia



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