Most of us have heard the story of how the planet's climate is changing and how the changes will become catastrophic if we don't stop burning fossil fuels. Life will be altered forever, and not in good ways.
The problem is that billions of people want to improve their lives in ways that require energy. The good news is that we know how to generate that energy without fossil fuels. There is much more power than we need in sunlight, wind, water, and plants. And we know how to harvest it at less cost than coal, oil, and natural gas.
The need to switch to those clean fuels is urgent because we have tolerated fossil-fuel pollution for so long. Scientists say that pollution must fall 43 percent from 1990 levels by 2030 and 84 percent by 2050 to avoid tipping into a dystopia from which we cannot return.
Most policymakers talk about an all-electric world economy powered by the natural resources I mentioned above. Wind and solar power are already the fastest-growing sources of new electricity in the world. They are available almost everywhere, never run out, produce no pollution, and we can deploy them rapidly. In many places, wind and solar energy are less expensive than fossil fuels.
Approximately 70,000 wind turbines are already generating enough electricity to power 43 million homes in the U.S. Global Wind Energy Council estimates that wind power must quadruple by 2030 worldwide to achieve the international goal of a zero-carbon global economy by 2050. The International Energy Agency expects we will develop more wind and solar power in the next five years than in the last 20.
But having this new technology is one thing; where to put it is another. In parts of the world, notably the United States and Europe, people are resisting the large-scale installation of wind turbines and solar arrays near them. To generate meaningful amounts of power, both require room.
For example, a utility-scale wind machine is likely to be 100 meters (330 feet) tall, with blades that span 100 meters. Developers must place them far enough apart that one turbine doesn't interfere with another's wind.
Some physical barriers to widespread wind and solar deployment include insufficient transmission infrastructure. But social attitudes also have become a barrier. Research shows that while large majorities of residents support wind development near them, small vocal minorities can delay or scuttle projects.
Because wind farms need space, they usually are located in rural areas and on farm and ranch lands. Farmers and ranchers should be supportive because they will bear a high price if climate change continues. Scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warn, "The agricultural industry's own interests are best served by ambitious approaches to adaptation and to cutting emissions…Climate-related impacts are already reducing crop yields in some parts of the world, a trend that is projected to continue as temperatures rise further…Climate change is projected to increase price volatility for agricultural commodities, and reduce food quality."
Without sufficient mitigation, climate change will put farms out of business with drought, fires, floods, new plant diseases and infestations, and deadly heat waves. On the other hand, zero-carbon energy is a new farm crop that requires no farm labor, water, plowing, fertilizer, seed, and so on. In the United States, wind farms produce nearly $2 billion yearly in state and local tax revenues and land-lease payments. A peer-reviewed study in 2022 showed wind projects also increase local per-capita and median household incomes.
Nevertheless, resistance to hosting wind turbines grows from misinformation. Here are examples:
"Wind developers are outsiders trying to profit at the expense of local people."
Like all businesses, wind project developers and utilities must earn profits on their investments. But landowners and communities profit, too, from those tax revenues and lease payments. In some cases, developers can buy buy-in by inviting residents to invest in and share profits from wind installations.
Developers should reduce the "outsider" problem by including residents early in the planning process and inviting them to air their concerns so project sponsors can address them. Another recent study found that local opinions about a project are formed or influenced early in project planning. Residents feel a greater sense of ownership when the project reflects their input.
"Turbines have negative impacts on wildlife habitat."
Conventional farming disrupts much more habitat than wind turbines. Their environmental disturbances are temporary during construction. The physical footprint of a wind turbine is minimal, however. The land around it can be farmed, grazed, left wild, or used for recreation. Once it's in place, a turbine's principal environmental impact is vertical, not horizontal, which leads to concerns that...
"Turbines kill birds and bats."
Avian mortality research has been underway for decades. Developers minimize turbine inference with birds and bats by locating turbines away from nesting areas and migration routes. Turbine towers are tubular to prevent birds from resting or nesting on them, and utility-scale turbines turn slowly so birds and bats can navigate through or around them. New ultrasonic sound emitters on turbine towers can keep bats away with an unpleasant noise humans can't hear. Floating platforms for offshore turbines can address worries the towers will interfere with sea life.
It's important to keep avian mortality in perspective. Powerlines, pesticides, buildings, communication towers, and vehicles kill many more birds and bats than wind turbines. Domestic cats are the greatest danger, killing as many as 4 billion birds annually in the U.S.
The biggest threat to wildlife is climate change. "Wind turbines pose only a tiny anger to bird life," notes the clean energy company Orsted. "Far greater is climate change, which threatens many species with extinction. Wind power is an important way of reducing that threat."
"Wind turbines cause cancer."
Former U.S. President Donald Trump spread this falsehood. Other misinformed critics complain the technology accelerates aging, leads to alcohol abuse, blurs vision, triggers diabetes, and produces headaches, infertility, weight gain, and weight loss. However, more than two dozen scientific reviews have found no evidence that wind farms cause any serious health impacts.
On the other hand, fossil-energy pollution is a proven killer. Fifty years after the U.S. Congress passed the Clean Air Act, 40 percent of Americans are still at risk of lung diseases, memory loss, birth defects, and other ailments from vehicle and power plant emissions. Research has found that people living within a mile of oil and gas wells are at elevated risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. Fossil energy pollution causes more than 8 million early deaths worldwide every year. Coal ash is a known carcinogen.
"Turbines are noisy."
Trump claimed people living near wind farms "go crazy after a couple of years." The noise was an issue with early wind technologies but manufactures have reduced it significantly by streamlining towers, soundproofing moving turbine parts, making blades more efficient, and designing gearboxes for quiet operation. Close-up, today's turbines produce a whooshing sound easily masked by the sound of the wind itself. The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) says that an operating wind farm at least 750 feet from the nearest residence is no noisier than a kitchen refrigerator. At a distance of 1,000 feet, a wind farm's sound is comparable to that of a quiet bedroom, AWEA says.
Some research has found the whoosh "can cause annoyance, reduce social acceptance of wind energy, create conflict and negative experiences in local communities, and result in delayed or derailed wind projects." But it also found that people's perceptions of turbine sounds result from other subjective factors like the size of the wind installation.
"Wind farms lower real estate values."
"If you have a wind farm anywhere near your house, congratulations, our house just went down 75 percent in value," Trump claimed. But the American Clean Power Association (ACPA) says, "Years of research…has found that there is no negative long-term impact to property values." In fact, "The external economic benefits such as additional revenue to schools through the increase in tax revenue may be positively capitalized into home values."
"Wind farms pollute views of natural landscapes."
We can look at wind machines as intrusions on nature or as examples of the proper relationship between humans and nature. Wind and solar energy systems are examples of collaboration with nature to provide the resources humans need and to prevent the devastation of forests and species from unmitigated climate change. Solar and wind energy will eliminate the fossil energy industry's intrusions on nature, including strip mining, mountaintop removal, water consumption, air pollution, brown clouds, biodiversity loss, floods, and the pervasive haze pollution that obscures views in nearly 90% of America's national parks.
Like any development, wind-energy projects should be carefully evaluated for their effects on wildlife, ecosystems, and people in the near term and over time. Developers should do all they can to mitigate adverse impacts, like locating wind turbines for minimal impact on residents. But a holistic assessment of wind power’s benefits and costs will show that the former far outweighs the latter.