When I was reading about the environmental benefits of wind energy, I started to wonder if it produces any kind of waste. So, I did some research to find out if there are any harmful effects of using wind energy.
Does wind energy produce waste? The use of wind energy in recent years has significantly cut back on air pollution due to the fact that turbines do not contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. However, there are some underlying negative effects that wind energy has on the environment in different areas of the world.
All different forms of energy sources must have some kind of impact on the environment, whether its effects are positive or negative. Although wind energy has been known to solve problems around the world, could it potentially be causing a few of them as well?
Related: Bird Killers: The Environmental Cost of Being Environmentally Friendly
Wind Energy Does Not Release Harmful Emissions Into the Environment
The wind is a clean, natural, and renewable source of energy that benefits the environment in more ways than one. First of all, it does not produce or release any harmful emissions of toxic carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. As a result, the use of wind energy has lowered air pollution significantly as well as water waste.
Wind turbines do not rely on large amounts of water in order to function properly and produce usable energy like other forms of electricity. It is among one of the most environmentally friendly, efficient, and sustainable forms of energy to this day.
Additionally, the construction and installation of wind turbines do not require drilling and mining of any kind that would trigger the release of oils, gases, and chemicals into nature.
The concrete foundations and bases of wind turbines are much less invasive and damaging to the earth than the process that is followed for the traditional power plant.
Although it can be argued that fossil fuels must be used in order to pour the concrete and build these foundations, it is still the better option against the alternative energy sources that will use them around the clock.
In a 2014 report titled More Wind, Less Warming by the Environment America Research & Policy Center, it was reported that wind power got rid of over 130 million tons of carbon dioxide pollution from the air in the previous year.
Although wind energy does not directly produce any toxic chemicals that are passed through nature, it has been argued that it could potentially generate heat underneath the ground and contribute to global warming effects.
Some research was actually done on the subject to prove this point, but there were very minimal levels of heat found in the area that were ultimately not concerning. Additionally, this was a very small scale study that was performed in only one small area, so the warming effects of wind turbines across the world are unknown.
Currently, no additional research has been done to bring light to these claims.
The 2014 research further pushes the agenda of wind energy improving and eventually putting a stop to global warming concerns. It was hypothesized in the same report that if the Unites States could reach a total wind energy use of 30 percent by the year 2030, the level of carbon fumes emitted from power plants would sink to 40 percent under the reported levels in 2005.
The expansion of wind energy has the potential to repair damages that have been done to the environment for hundreds of years as well as reduce the toxic materials that are so detrimental to nature.
Harmful Materials Used in Wind Turbines
Despite the long list of positive effects on the environment that come from the use of wind power, there is a downside to the methods that are used to construct wind turbines. Many wind turbines are built with rare earth minerals that are acquired from toxic mines in other countries. The main materials that are put to use in turbines include neodymium and dysprosium.
Neodymium is a soft silver metal material that is commonly used as a component of magnets, as well as about twenty percent of mischmetal materials.
Traces of neodymium are used in the magnets inside of wind turbines. Dysprosium, on the other hand, is another metallic silver material that is commonly extracted from other minerals found in nature, since it is never found completely on its own in the environment.
There are almost ten thousand different individual components that go into a single wind turbine with rare earth minerals included in a decent percentage of that number.
A study that was done at MIT published to the Bulletin of Atomic Sciences reported a staggering 800 pounds on neodymium and 130 pounds of dysprosium in a wind turbine with the capacity of 2 megawatts.
This is a total of 752 pounds of toxic materials in just one large wind turbine that utilizes these rare earth minerals.
Even further, the capacity and amount of rare earth materials used correspond directly with equal amounts of radioactive waste. According to the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, there were over 13 thousand megawatts of wind capacity added within the United States in the year 2012.
Considering the above calculations from the MIT study, this information translates to over 6 million pounds of rare earth materials as well as the corresponding amount of radioactive waste that was released into the environment.
To compare the nuclear industry in America, it will reach numbers of approximately 5 million pounds of nuclear fuel on a yearly basis. Therefore, if wind energy surpasses that number at a value of 6 million, it is possible that the wind industry could be doing more harm than its counterpart.
In the same year, nuclear energy sources accounted for close to one fifth of electricity in the United States. On the other hand, wind energy came in just under 4 percent.
Potential Waste Produced By Wind Energy Indirectly
These rare earth materials are mined in and imported from China, which controls almost all of the rare minerals in the world. Although these elements are scattered throughout the earth’s crust in multiple locations, many countries choose not to extract them from the ground, which is why
China has possession of almost one hundred percent of the market. The same materials are restricted for mining in the United States, even if there are trace amounts below the ground, due to the adverse affects they have on the environment. So, what affect do they have on the environment that they come from?
Although the United States may not see the immediate affects of the harmful materials that are used in their wind turbines, these changes are reflected in another environment across the world. Baotou, China is home to one of the biggest toxic lakes in the world, which was created by the development of technology and manufacturing machines with rare earth materials including the construction of wind turbines.
The Baotou region is full of mines and factories that produce magnets, televisions, and handheld electronics. In fact, the Bayan Obo mines hold 70 percent of all of these elements that exist in the entire world.
The toxic lakes created near the mining regions are full of dark black dust and chemical waste that was extracted from the rare earth materials.
Essentially, each time even one wind turbine is manufactured and sent to the United States, it adds to pollution and creates a negative environmental impact in the Chinese cities they came from.
To compare the nuclear industry in America to wind energy, nuclear power plants reach numbers of approximately 5 million pounds of nuclear fuel on a yearly bases. So, if wind energy surpasses that number at a value of 6 million, it is possible that the wind industry could actually be doing more harm than its counterpart.
In the same year, nuclear energy sources accounted for close to one fifth of total electricity use in the Unites State. On the other hand, wind energy came in at just under 4 percent of energy consumption.
However, it can be argued that wind turbines do not have as many adverse affects on the environment as it may seem. Physicist Amory Lovins wrote an informational piece on the topic for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that highlighted rare earth materials only accounting for about 2 percent of all wind turbines in the United States.
He claimed that the same functions rare earth materials perform inside turbines can be replaced with other types of motors without magnets, proposing software and electronics made of silicon, which is a more widely available and non-toxic element of the earth.
Turbines without magnets can carry out all normal functions, and although some manufacturers of wind turbines choose to use imported magnets derived from toxic chemical materials, it does not mean that it is necessary for all of them to work.
The Effects of Wind Energy on Wildlife
As the potential of the wind energy industry has grown over the past several years, there have been increasing concerns about the affects the newly installed wind turbines have on wildlife and the environment.
Numerous studies have been done to record the death toll that wind turbines inflict on flying animals such as birds and bats. The results of this research was less than desirable, now with legitimate scientific research to back the rumors surrounding wind turbines that have been going on for decades.
In 2014, a study titled State of the Birds examined the number of yearly deaths that wind turbines caused to birds only. Bird deaths are among some of the most popular rumors that come with the increasing use of wind turbines.
The results showed that about 300,000 birds were killed by the blades of wind turbines in rural areas throughout the entire year. Although it was mentioned in the same study that turbines only account for a very minimal percentage of bird deaths around the world each year in comparison to other causes, it can still be concluded that they frequently inflict harm on wildlife.
Similarly, the flying patterns of bats in the Appalachian Mountains region were observed in relation to the influx of wind turbines that were placed in the area. General statistics have shown that a large percentage of bat deaths across the world come from wind turbines alone, it might even be considered the primary cause of death for the species.
The common belief that bats suffer the most damage from wind energy out of all other flying animals was proven further in this study. Scientists tracked a certain number of bats and calculated their deaths by the wind turbines.
Bats usually get caught in the blades of the wind turbine or fly through the turbulence that is created by the rapid spinning speeds, causing their lungs to expand and their entire bodies to explode from the inside. Unfortunately, this issue has continued to affect bats throughout the years and no solutions have been implemented to protect them as of yet.
In a study that was published in the Nature Ecology & Evolution Journal, scientist Maria Thaker led an investigation of wind turbines in a mountain region of India. This region was previously home to a species of predatory raptor birds. You can read the full details here.
Not long after the wind turbines were put into place, the raptor birds began to slowly disappear from the region. However, they were not stuck in the blades of the turbine nor were they collapsed by the air pressure around them as most people might assume before reaching the conclusion of the study.
The results of the research showed that the presence of the new wind turbines intimidated the raptors. While they had previously held the position of the top predator in their ecosystem, frequently hunting small lizards on the ground level, the tall and loud spinning blades of the turbines caused them to completely vacate the area.
The raptors had become nearly extinct in this area after the presence of the wind turbines became known. Although this was proven to be beneficial to the stress hormone levels of the lizards that were no longer being targeted by the large predators, it did cause a significant shift in the ecosystem’s food chain.
Any disruption like this that occurs unnaturally in the environment will always have adverse affects in some way, even if they are not immediately visible.
In conclusion, for every action there must be an adverse reaction. This statement applies to wind turbines that supply the earth with a clean and natural source of energy, limiting pollution and toxic fumes. However, the same turbines might contribute to severe pollutions in other countries and harm a certain percentage of flying animals in the ecosystem.
Although it may seem that wind turbines cannot create any waste from the wind, the negative effects of wind energy are conducted in a less obvious way that is not directly in front of us.
Is There Any Way to Protect Animals From Being Killed by Wind Turbines?
Although none of these methods have been implemented on a large scale as of yet, a few proposals have been put out there to better protect wildlife from the damage of wind turbines.
Some scientists have argued for painting the turbines purple instead of white, in order to attract fewer insects to the reflection of the sunlight and limit the deaths of flying animals that will be lured toward the spinning blades.
An additional proposal was to turn off the functions of wind turbines in the less windy seasons, which actually happen to be the most active times for bats to be flying through the areas.
Would it be Possible for the Wind to Ever Become a Depleted Resource?
Since the wind is one of the earth’s natural and renewable resources, it is impossible for it to ever completely run out. As long as the earth is spinning and the sun is shining, there will always be an abundance of wind blowing through the air.
However, there are some limitations that should be adhered to in order to make the most of the wind’s energy. When wind turbines spin their blades to collect the kinetic energy given off by the wind, they can significantly slow it down.
Therefore, too many wind turbines should not be placed too closely together in order to achieve maximum efficiency for all machines. Additionally, methods of compressing air can be used to store excess wind energy for later dates when the wind is scarce and a higher energy demand must be met.
This is a great practice, considering the fact that the weather is unpredictable and it never hurts to be prepared.
If you’re serious about learning more about wind energy, I recommend the Wind Energy Handbook on Amazon. This book is great for both students and professionals, and it holds invaluable information on the subject of wind power.