Wind Energy FAQs


Q. How big is wind energy?

A. The Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC) reported that the wind industry installed 35,289 megawatts (MW) of new clean, reliable wind power in 2013, bringing total installed global wind capacity to more than 318,000 MW.


Q. What percentage of our electricity comes from wind?

A. About 4% of the electricity generated in the United States is produced from wind energy. In 2013, Iowa and South Dakota produced more than 25% of their generation from wind energy.


Q. How much of our electricity supply can be provided by wind power?

A. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that 20% of the electricity in the United States could be provided from wind energy with the existing transmission infrastructure. That’s more than nuclear energy and about the equivalent of natural gas. To learn more, see the 20% Wind Energy by 2030 website, which includes a link to the original report.


Q. What is the wind energy situation outside of the United States?

A. In percentage terms, wind power is currently the fastest-growing source of energy in the world. Serious commitments to reduce carbon dioxide have promoted wind power in Europe, while the ability to avoid constant imports of fuel has appealed to developing nations like India. Learn more about wind energy around the world at the Global Wind Energy Council website.


Q. Is wind energy economical?

A. Wind energy is one of the most affordable forms of electricity today. In fact, in some cases it is cheaper than conventional fuels. Power purchase agreements are now being signed in the range of 5 to 6 cents per kilowatt-hour, which is competitive with new gas-fired power plants. Wind energy also produces no emissions or waste and uses no water, making it the leading choice for new power generation.


Q. When was wind power invented?

A. Wind power has been around as long as sails have been used to propel boats. In America, the heyday of wind was between 1870 and 1930, when thousands of farmers across the country used wind to pump water. Small electric wind turbines were used in rural areas in the United States as early as the 1920s, and prototypes of larger machines were built in the 1940s.


Q. When did wind turbines first connect to the electric grid?

A. When the New Deal brought grid-connected electricity to the countryside, windmills lost out to cheap coal-fired power. It wasn’t until the energy crisis in the 1970s that interest in wind power resurfaced. The U.S. Department of Energy led a research effort focusing on blade design and engineering principles for extremely large machines, helping to pave the way for today’s 2- and 3-megawatt turbines.


Q. When did the modern wind energy era start?

A. The modern wind era really began in California in the 1980s. Motivated by the high cost of fossil fuels, a moratorium on nuclear power, and environmental concerns, the state provided tax incentives to promote wind power. Combined with federal tax incentives, the state incentives resulted in small companies and entrepreneurs installing 15,000 medium-size turbines, providing enough power to meet the residential needs of a city the size of San Francisco. After the tax credits expired in 1986, wind power continued to grow, although more slowly.


Q. Why did the growth in wind power slow in the 1980s?

A. The decline in fossil fuel prices that occurred in the mid-1980s slowed the growth of wind energy during that period.


Q. Did concerns about climate change make a difference?

A. In the early 1990s, concerns about global warming and the recent Gulf War inspired the U.S. Congress to pass the Energy Policy Act of 1992, which granted a new production credit for wind and biomass electricity.


Q. How does wind energy generate electricity?

A. Wind is created by the unequal heating of the Earth’s surface by the sun. When the wind spins the wind turbine’s blades, a rotor captures the kinetic energy of the wind and converts it into rotary motion to drive the generator. In this way, wind turbines convert the kinetic energy in wind into clean electricity.


Q. How do wind turbines work?

A. A wind turbine works like a fan, but in reverse. Instead of using electricity to make wind, like a fan, wind turbines use wind to make electricity. The wind turns the turbine’s blades, which spin a shaft connected to a generator to make electricity.


Q. What is a wind farm?

A. To meet the electricity needs of a power company, a number of large wind turbines (50 kilowatts up to 3 or more megawatts) can be built close together to form a wind “farm.” Several power providers today use wind farms to supply power to their customers.


Q. How is a commercial wind farm developed?

A. Commercial wind farms are built by wind energy developers using private sources of financing. Before installing turbines, the developer will assess the wind resource at a particular site by collecting meteorological data, determining access to transmission lines, and considering environmental and community impacts. If sufficient wind resources are found, the developer will secure land leases from property owners, obtain the necessary permits and financing, and purchase and install wind turbines. The completed facility is often sold to an independent operator (called an independent power producer) who generates electricity to sell to the local utility, although some utilities own and operate wind farms directly.


Q. Do wind projects create jobs?

A. Yes! Wind energy development creates thousands of long-term, high-paying jobs. Workers are needed for wind turbine component manufacturing, construction and installation, maintenance and operations, legal and marketing services, transportation and logistical services, and more. In 2013, the U.S. wind energy industry invested more than $2 billion toward projects built during the year. Over the past 5 years, the U.S. wind energy industry on average has invested more than $15 billion annually in new wind power projects. Approximately 50,000 people are employed in the U.S. wind industry today.


Q. How can I find a job in the wind industry?

A. The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), the trade association for the wind industry, developed Careers in Wind, a website that includes job postings from its members and other companies working in the industry. The U.S. Department of Energy also maintains a list of websites that post jobs in the renewable energy sector.


Q. Do wind turbines kill birds and bats?

A. Birds and bats occasionally collide with wind turbines. Like any form of development, wind projects can also negatively impact wildlife by altering habitat. Over the past two decades, the impact of wind development on birds has been greatly reduced by improvements in turbine design and particularly through improved project and turbine siting. The wind industry works to reduce the risks of wind development to wildlife by participating in collaborative research and outreach efforts with industry, such as the National Wind Coordinating Collaborative and the Bats and Wind Energy Cooperative. The wind industry, in partnership with environmental organizations, is also taking action to reduce wildlife impacts through the efforts of the American Wind Wildlife Institute.


Q. Are wind turbines noisy?

A. The sound heard from wind turbines at a distance, as with other local sources of sound, is affected by many factors – including the wind direction, meteorological conditions, vegetation, and other barriers. Site-specific acoustic models can anticipate sound levels for consideration during project siting. The sounds emitted from wind turbines can be mechanical, from internal equipment such as the gearbox or yaw drive, or aerodynamic, from air moving past the rotor blades. Current turbine designs effectively reduce mechanical sound through soundproofing, which means the aerodynamic sound, often described as a “whooshing” sound, is generally what is heard. To learn more, read the American Wind Energy Association’s fact sheets Utility-Scale Wind Energy and Sound (PDF 154 KB) andWind Turbines and Health (PDF 136 KB).


Q. Do turbines create shadow flicker?

A. Shadow flicker occurs when the blades of a turbine pass in front of the sun to create a recurring shadow on an object. Computer models in wind development software can determine the days and times during the year that buildings in close proximity to turbines may experience shadow flicker. Mitigation measures can be taken based on this knowledge and may include setbacks or vegetative buffers. Issues with shadow flicker are less common in the U.S. than in Europe due to the lower latitudes and the higher sun angles in the United States. To learn more, read the American Wind Energy Association’s fact sheet Wind Turbines and Health (PDF 136 KB).


Q. What is the wind resource like in my area?

A. The U.S. Department of Energy’s WINDExchange provides high-resolution wind resource maps that show average wind energy at 50-meter tower height across each state. These maps provide a good overview of a state’s wind resources. However, wind resources can vary significantly due to local site characteristics, such as trees, hills, and buildings. Therefore, you should get a professional evaluation of your site before purchasing or installing a wind energy system.