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Wind farms: What are the pros and cons of wind energy?

Wind energy and renewable energy is big business — with the UK considered one of the best locations for wind power in the world — here's what you need to know about it.
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An offshore wind farm

How do wind farms work?

Wind turbines are a relatively simple system of generating electricity, and haven’t changed much over the centuries.

As the wind rotates the blades – which face into the wind and are tilted to generate the greatest rotation – the blades rotate a shaft and a generator, which turn the energy into electricity.

Modern wind turbines will also have sensors which detect the direction and power of the wind, so they can be rotated toward the wind or shut down if the wind is too low, or too powerful.

Crucially, electrical energy is lost if it is transported great distances, so the closer the wind farms are to the grid, the more efficient they become.

The UK is a very windy country, with an estimated 40% of the wind that hits Europe passing over us first. This is valuable in terms of energy production because wind is a renewable resource, with wind farms having a virtually non-existent carbon footprint (once constructed).

In 2016, the Government announced ambitious new carbon targets: to reduce carbon emissions by 57% compared to 1990 levels by 2030, putting a lot of emphasis on wind farms and wind energy.

A lot of progress has been made since then. Wind power contributed 18% of the UK's electricity generation in 2018, compared to just 1.5% ten years earlier.

In fact, as of 2024, the UK is the world leader of offshore wind power, providing more than a third of Europe's offshore wind resource. In the first three months of 2023, a new UK record for energy generated by wind was set, with more electricity generated by wind than by gas-fired power stations for the first time ever. Additionally, during Storm Pia in December 2023, wind turbines generated more than half of the country’s electricity for the first time.

What are the pros and cons of onshore wind?

  • Onshore wind costs half as much as offshore wind, a quarter as much as solar power, and even slightly less than nuclear power

  • It's environmentally friendly - while building wind turbines involves some emissions, once running they have a very low carbon footprint

  • Onshore wind has a limited physical impact on the environment - it doesn’t poison the land, or release toxins, can be farmed around, and once removed leaves almost no impact

  • When they are not running, wind turbines will need fossil fuel backup, particularly as they take up a greater proportion of our overall energy generation

  • The turbines have a huge visual impact, particularly as wind farms are built on top of hills to capture the most wind

  • Additional concerns are that they can impact birds and bats, and they can also produce some noise, disturbing local residents

What are the pros and cons of offshore wind?

  • Offshore wind farms are bigger than their onshore rivals, and with far more wind out at sea compared to onshore, they can produce far more energy and more reliably

  • There is lower visual impact with offshore wind

  • There is very little impact to wildlife, with the farms even providing offshore reefs for fish, making them one of the greenest forms of energy generation available

  • Constructing huge wind farms out at sea is understandably expensive, and when they break down they are also expensive to fix and maintain

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