5 Wind Power Facts (From Better Sources Than President Trump)

April 5, 2019 | 9:32 am
Credit: J. Rogers/UCS
John Rogers
Energy Campaign Analytic Lead

It may be hard to believe, but our president is getting even more outrageous in his claims about wind power—whether it’s ignoring the reality of how our electricity system actually works or fabricating lies about non-existent health risks. Turns out there are more credible resources than him for good information about wind.

Here are five things to know about wind power, and solid sources for deeper dives.

1. Wind power doesn’t hurt the reliability of our electricity system

While President Trump may be unaware of how our nation’s electricity grids work—and how wind power fits in—others aren’t. (This handy video is a good refresher for anyone, presidential or not.)

Studies have been showing for some time now what it would mean to have high levels of renewable energy meeting our electricity needs. A 2012 study from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, for example, looked at the possibility of getting 30 to 90 percent of our nation’s electricity from renewables by 2050—and found that, as my colleague Steve Clemmer put it, “grid operators can keep the lights on in every hour of the year in every region.” And technologies have only gotten better since then.

Another good resource for this issue is present-day reality—what’s actually going on around the US. The different regional grids have proven quite capable of integrating ever-higher levels of wind and solar, and keep setting new records for how much renewable energy they’re handling. There’s also the fact that more than a dozen states use wind to generate at least 10 percent of the electricity they produce, five states are at more than 25 percent wind, and Iowa and Kansas are each at close to 40 percent. And the lights stay on.

Despite what the president may claim, your TV will still operate even when the wind dies down—even if you live in an area blessed with a wind-rich power mix.

Credit: Lance Cheung/Flickr

2. The real threat to birds is climate change

Wind turbines, like all other energy sources, can have impacts on wildlife. But it’s important to look at those impacts in context—in terms of how wind power compares to other risks to birds, say.

The very government headed by President Trump turns out to have some good info on this. The US Department of Energy (DOE) talks about the issue this way:

All energy supply options can have adverse environmental impacts. Birds and bats are occasionally killed in collisions with wind turbines. However, bird kills are limited to less than 0.02% of the total populations of songbird species, and orders of magnitude less than other causes. (Estimated annual bird mortality rates for collisions with wind turbines are one order of magnitude less than from collisions with communications and other towers, three orders of magnitude less than from collisions with power lines, and three to four orders of magnitude less than from collisions with buildings.)

And those stats don’t even talk about the impacts to birds of fossil fuels—including from carbon pollution. That’s an important piece to add in. Because groups that know a lot about birds, like the National Audubon Society, say that the greatest threat to birds is climate change.

Wind power is a key piece of how we’re addressing carbon pollution from the power sector, so it’s easy to see why, to protect birds, we want more wind turbines, not fewer.

Fortunately, we’re also getting a lot smarter about wind farm design, siting, and operation, to make sure we can have more wind power with less impact. The best resource I’ve found on what we know about bird and bat issues—and what we’re still figuring out—is the review of “wind turbine interactions with wildlife and their habitats,” updated annually, from the American Wind Wildlife Institute (on whose board I sit).

Credit: E. Spanger-Siegfried

3. Wind power is good for your health

It’s not just about birds’ health: How we make and use energy has a big impact on our health, too, given air and water pollution, and, yes, climate change and all its associated health risks. Those costs often don’t show up in the financial math—how much money we pay for a load of coal or a fossil-fueled kilowatt-hour—so they’re important to explicitly consider.

One solid resource on this issue is a 2010 National Research Council report, Hidden costs of energy: Unpriced consequences of energy production and use, which is clear about where the health risks in the power sector come from (hint: not in wind power). Another is an oft-cited Harvard paper on the “full cost accounting” of coal. UCS’s own page on the hidden costs of fossil fuels also has a lot of useful resources. And this resource from the National Institutes of Health offers a contaminant-by-contaminant breakdown of various power plant types.

On wind turbines and sound impacts in particular: While “noise” is subjective—different people can hear and interpret a given sound differently—sound itself is something that can be measured, and its effects can be studied. And here, too, what the DOE says is instructive:

Although research to develop sound mitigation techniques is ongoing, as of 2013, global peer-reviewed scientific data and independent studies consistently concluded that sound from wind plants has no direct impact on physical human health. The sound level from wind turbines at common residential setbacks is not sufficient to cause hearing impairment or other direct adverse health effects. Low frequency sound and infrasound from upwind wind turbines are also well below the pressure sound levels and which known health effects occur.

As with impacts on wildlife, good siting of wind turbines is important here, too. But it’s clear that any reasonable treatment of the energy sector would come to the conclusion that, when it comes to human health, wind power is a positive.

Wind power in Michigan

Credit: RTD Photography/Flickr

4. Wind turbines don’t hurt property values

Data and facts are also useful for examining issues like impact on property values, and here too there are some fine resources. In particular, researchers from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have looked at this in a series of surveys of reports examining home sales near and far from turbines.

The latest, most comprehensive one covered more than 50,000 home sales and found “no statistical evidence” of impacts on sale prices of homes near wind turbines. Absence of proof isn’t proof of absence, and all that, but it’s a whole lot more solid ground to stand on than whatever President Trump believes he has.

Another great source on this question might be folks who live near turbines. A 2018 survey by researchers at LBNL found that “a large majority of wind power project neighbors have positive attitudes toward their local turbines.”

North Allegheny Windpower Project in Blair and Cambria Counties. Photo Credit: Duke Energy/Flickr

5. Wind power is serious energy

This is another key part of understanding wind power. Wind provided just shy of 7 percent of US electricity last year, making it our nation’s fourth largest source of electricity. Its megawatts can produce enough to meet the needs of 30 million American households. And it’s poised to grow a whole lot more.

President Trump would do well to get the facts about one of our most powerful clean energy tools, perhaps by spending less time at coal facilities and more time at wind ones. He could maybe even climb to the top of a wind turbine to gain a little more perspective.

Wind power is a boon, not a bane. Armed with good sources and solid facts, even our president might come to realize that.

The family and the future (Credit: J. Rogers/UCS)

About the author

More from John

John Rogers is energy campaign analytic lead at the Union of Concerned Scientists with expertise in clean energy technologies and policies and a focus on solar, wind, and natural gas. He co-managed the UCS-led Energy and Water in a Warming World Initiative, a multi-year program aimed at raising awareness of the energy-water connection, particularly in the context of climate change, and motivating and informing effective low-carbon and low-water energy solutions.