Energy in Wind

Part of the Climate Change exhibition.

Wind can push a ship across the ocean or it can power your dishwasher. When specialized windmills, known as wind turbines, spin in the breeze, they turn a shaft connected to an electrical generator that produces electricity. Groups of wind turbines—a wind farm—on land or offshore, where winds are about 90 percent stronger and more consistent, can provide as much electricity as a coal-fired electrical plant.

Wind power is...

  • clean.
     Wind turbines release no greenhouse gases during operation and are nearly pollution-free.
  • here today.
    Wind is already a mainstream power source in Denmark, Germany and Spain. Globally, wind power is growing around 30 percent a year, especially in North America, Europe and Asia.
  • cheap.
    The cost of wind-powered electricity is falling and fast approaching the price of coal-powered electricity. More important, as fossil fuels like coal and natural gas become more expensive, "clean" electricity from wind and solar farms will become relatively less expensive.
  • widely available.
    Wind power is virtually unlimited and could help generate electricity wherever wind is strong and consistent.
  • site-specific.
    Wind farms require open, windy spots near where the electricity is needed. Alternatively, expensive high-voltage power lines can carry electricity from remote wind farms to consumers.
  • unattractive.
    Some people believe wind turbines are noisy eyesores that damage the local economy by scaring away tourists and lowering property values.

20% of electricity needs could be met by wind power

In theory, experts say, the winds off the mid-Atlantic coast of the United States could provide all the power needed by that densely populated region. In reality, wind power is too variable to depend on entirely: without a means of storing energy, wind farms cannot consistently provide any one place with more than about 20 percent of its electricity demands.

Denmark gets over 20 percent of its electricity from wind power. When Danish wind farms generate excess electricity, power lines carry it away to be used elsewhere. Some of that power is stored by pumping water uphill to high reservoirs. When extra electricity is needed, that water is released from reservoirs to flow through hydroelectric generators. Denmark had to negotiate with its neighbors to make this plan work: most of the reservoirs are in the mountains of nearby Norway.


Critics of wind power say that turbines are bad news for birds. But advocates argue that the danger is no worse than that posed by any tall structure, such as a skyscraper or electrical tower. And turbines can be placed away from known bird habitats to minimize deaths.