On November 15th 2021, President Joe Biden implemented a $1.2 trillion executive order on “Implementation of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.” He described it as a “once in a generation investment” that would modernise the electricity grid and improve transmissions across longer distances. The Order states a priority on “building infrastructure that is resilient and that helps combat the crisis of climate change.” This funding is a necessity for wind and other renewable energies. The progress in wind energy has not come without criticism from anti-wind lobbyists who blamed turbines for Texas’ power outages in early 2021, accused local officials of corruption for signing easements for wind energy projects, claimed a general inefficiency of turbines, and argued that local communities were deeply affected by wind farms. In today’s day and age of global warming, environmental disasters, and climate refugees, emissions—and how to curb them—are the elephant in the political, social, and economic rooms in the United States. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, only 20% of the U.S. electricity generation in 2020 came from renewable sources, 8.4% of which was wind,  while nuclear, natural and coal took the remaining 80%.  According to the Global Wind Energy Council, Denmark, Ireland, Portugal, Germany, and the United Kingdom led the race in 2019 for wind energy penetration with percentagesof 48%, 33%, 27%, 26%, and 22%, respectively. Why is it that the United States lags behind these countries? 

Firstly, what is wind? Wind is produced by the uneven heating of air across the Earth’s surface. This is caused both by the uneven distribution of solar energy across the Earth’s surface due to Earth’s tilt and the faster heating of air above land than above water. Cold air contains more particles hence it is heavier than hot air and sinks, producing high pressure areas, while hot air expands and rises, causing low pressure areas. The motion of air moving to create an equilibrium in air pressure is called wind. During the day, air above the land heats up faster than air over water. Similarly, the earth’s equator is hotter than polar regions so atmospheric winds circle the Earth. General wind patterns can be mapped as Earth spins on its axis, air is pushed west in the northern hemisphere and east in the southern hemisphere. 

Wind energy is harnessed by three types of wind turbines: utility-scale wind, single small wind turbines, and offshore wind. Utility-scale and single small wind turbines are located on land and produce 100 kilowatts and several megawatts of energy, respectively. The former delivers electricity to the power grid from which it is distributed to the end user by electric utilities or power system operators; the latter delivers electricity directly to homes, farms, or small businesses. Offshore wind differs in that it is located in large bodies of water, is much larger than land-based turbines, and produces more energy. The reason for this increased production is that winds are seventy percent faster over the ocean than over the land because there is less friction over water, since land has mountains, coastal barriers, trees, structures, and sediments that cause resistance to wind flow.

In order to harness wind’s kinetic energy, it must be transformed into electrical energy. When wind blows past a turbine, the air passes around both sides of the blades that are shaped to cause uneven air pressure. The blades’ rotation  turns an internal shaft and spins a set of gears hundreds of times faster from which a generator produces electricity. In 2019, 160,000 terawatt-hours of electricity were used globally and 2.2% was sourced from wind. This begs the question of whether a lack of wind energy potential is the reason for the United States’ lag in investing in wind energy. However, the U.S. shores alone have a power potential of 2,000 gigawatts, double the nation’s current electricity use. An average onshore and offshore wind turbine can produce enough energy for 1,500 average homes and  3,312 average households, respectively. An important condition to consider is that these numbers are rough estimates because wind speeds are subject to change. From the 1980s, a decrease in wind speeds was observed called “terrestrial stilling.” If this trend had continued until the end of the 20th century, global wind speed would have declined by 21% but wind speeds are now seen to increase at 7% per decade. The increasing global temperature has caused increases in the heating and pressure gradient globally, causing average wind speeds to increase from about 7 mph to 7.4 mph which translates to 17% increase in potential wind energy and possibly 27% increase in average global power generation by 2024. 

A major issue with the harnessing of wind’s energy is wind’s intermittent nature. As the leader in wind energy production per capita and wind energy penetration, Denmark has over 6,000 turbines that produce 42% of electricity and is hoping to use zero fossil fuels by 2050. In some of Denmark’s regions, however, the turbines create much more energy than can be stored so the excess energy is sold to neighboring countries. When it is less windy for a few days, they end up buying other sources of energy back. Hence, intermittency and variability has caused a stark increase in electricity cost for Danish citizens and some power plants have now been shut down. In order for wind power to be efficient, consistent access to strong winds must be available because electricity cannot be stored effectively. Although methods to store excess wind power have been researched, none have been fully developed yet. The United States Department of Energy is working with the National Laboratories to develop and improve technologies to store excess wind energy such as batteries, pumped-storage hydropower, and thermal electricity storage. While this places a hurdle in the United States achieving a hypothetical state of 100% wind energy usage, it does not explain the low production number as an increase in wind energy production would not mean complete dependence on wind.

The race to develop larger and stronger batteries to store wind power is not in vain as wind would be economically beneficial. It is one of the lowest-priced energy sources at less than two cents per kilowatt hour. This economic benefit has already been seen in the European Union where 32 billion euros were gained in 2010 from wind energy. In the United States, it could create eighty three thousand jobs by 2030 as more than a million jobs have been created globally since 2016. Harnessing the U.S.’s offshore wind would also revitalize ports and coastal communities, improve national security, and deliver vast amounts of reliable energy to America’s biggest population centers. This change has already been observed off the coast of Rhode Island where a five-turbine-30-megawatt project has been installed--prices are down, tourism is up, and high-speed internet is available for the first time.  

The environmental benefits are just as promising as the economic ones. The EWEA estimates that wind energy avoided the emission of 140 million tonnes of CO2 in 2011 which is equivalent to 71 million vehicles being taken off the road, equivalent to 33% of the cars in the EU. The estimates for 2020 are that wind energy has avoided the emission of 342 million tonnes of CO2, equivalent to 80% of the E.U.’s cars. We haven’t tapped into the full potential of wind energy but the future is promising because energy production consists of 73% of greenhouse gas emissions. In terms of local environmental impacts, local changes in temperature could be observed only if the number of turbines skyrocketed to the point of exceeding what is necessary for current energy demand. Wind turbines push warm air that flows higher down which could cause local heating over the short term. This has yet to be observed and is temporary, unlike climate change. With enough turbines on the continental US to meet present-day electricity demand, the US surface temperature could increase by 0.24°C -- on the short-term more impactful than coal or natural gas energy, on the long-term, much cleaner.

Other concerns relate to wind turbines’ effect on wildlife. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that turbines kill 140,000 to 500,000 birds per year in the US. However, 500 million to 1 billion bird deaths are caused by collisions of birds with cellular and other small communication towers, automobiles, agricultural activities, buildings, and cats. This problem could also be curved by using bigger turbines, as the proportion of at-risk area is smaller since their higher efficiency causes less swept area to produce the same amount of energy. Additionally, Birdlife International has stated that climate change is the largest threat to birds, and wind and renewables are a clear solution. Finally, wind farms are subject to an Environmental Impact Assessment to consider their effect on the immediate surroundings, including fauna and flora. 

Along with the problem of the intermittency of wind and the inability to store the energy is the hurdle that has been and continues to be NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard) on the advancement of wind energy projects. It caused the shut down of a $100-million-130-turbine project off the coast of Cape Cod that would have powered 200,000 homes as the offshore turbines would have been visible to wealthy waterfront property owners. To this point, the former state secretary of energy and environmental affairs, Ian Bowles, responded: “The project unfortunately demonstrated that well-funded opposition groups can effectively use the American court system to stop even a project with no material adverse environmental impacts.” While this led to critics of NIMBYism promoting the idea that only irrational and obstructive people would oppose a wind energy project, pushback for the Cape Wind project also came from local officials, business owners, fishermen, and Native American tribes. To increase community acceptance of projects, in 2008, Denmark passed the Promotion of Renewable Energy Act that would offer at least 20% of the ownership interest of wind projects to local communities. The aesthetic, environmental, and cultural significance of the landscape and the local sensitivity to disturbance of the landscape that fuels NIMBYism has played a large role in the slow progress of wind energy.


The term NIMBY was coined in the mid-1970s in Seabrook, New Hampshire and Midland, Michigan in the context of constructing nuclear-power generating stations. It is defined by Britannica in two ways. Firstly: “The unwillingness of individuals to accept the construction of large-scale projects by corporations of governmental entities nearby which might affect their quality of life and the value of their property.” Secondly: “Term used in social service and environmental justice advocates to imply an absence of social conscience expressed by a class-, race-, or disability-base opposition to the location of social service facilities in neighborhoods.” Both of these definitions hold two negative connotations, the first being that opponents of a particular project want low-income communities and individuals to be burdened with toxic waste facilities of quarries and the second that these opponents are willing to sacrifice blue-collar jobs generated by the construction and operation of the facility. 

However, the term NIMBY has been critiqued because it often paints a mistaken picture of the reason for a community’s opposition to wind energy projects being selfish protection of their own backyard in a way that is irrational, obstructive, and against the common good. Studies mapping the reason for community opposition to wind projects have shown that environmental attitude, socio-demographic status, attachment to a particular place, experience with and knowledge of renewable energy, and political beliefs all have an impact on the acceptance of wind energy projects. The Social Acceptance of Wind Energy: Where we stand and the path ahead written by the European Commision offers a summary of thirty studies based in Europe to explore the validity of the opposition to wind energy can be explored by discussing the impacts of wind energy: visual, auditory and health, and fiscal. 

Wind turbines can be visible up to 30 kilometers away but typically the range is moreso five to ten kilometers. Studies summarized in The Social Acceptance of Wind Energy have shown that the impact of the visual aspects of wind turbines are negative on sensitive and protected landscapes and positive on low quality landscapes. Another fear that is important because of its higher impact on low-income communities is the impact on values of properties located near wind energy projects. A study in the United States involving 50,000 sales in proximity to wind farms, with 1,198 properties within 1 mile of a turbine, showed no statistical evidence that house prices are affected by proximity or visibility to wind turbines. Another similar study was held in New Zealand with 1,000 sales between 2.5 and 6 kilometers from visible turbines and again, no impact was seen. While visual impacts can have a negative impact on communities, their negative impact can be fixed with proper research into the optimal location that won’t cause stress or annoyance on the community and based on the two studies in New Zealand and Rhode Island, fiscal impacts can be ignored as they are not statistically significant.

An additional concern is the health effect of the visual and auditory impacts of turbines. Wind turbine syndrome is defined as the alleged adverse human health effects due to proximity to wind turbines caused by shadow flicker, audible noise, low frequency noise, electromagnetic fields, and infrasound. Shadow flicker is the effect of the sun (low on the horizon) shining through the rotating blades of a wind turbine, casting a moving shadow. It would be perceived as a “flicker” due to the rotating blades repeatedly casting the shadow. Although in many cases shadow flicker occurs only a few hours in a year, it can potentially create a nuisance for homeowners in close proximity to turbines. Computer models can accurately predict when, where, and to what degree this problem will occur, so wind project developers can mitigate this impact during the site selection process. The auditory impact has been observed and wind turbines are placed no closer than 300m from the nearest house. The World Health Organization found that nighttime noise greater than 55dB or 40 dB for vulnerable populations like children and the elderly can cause sleep disturbance and annoyance which may cause human health problems like cardiovascular disease and noise level is achieved 1670 feet away from the wind turbine. While there exist human health concerns due to wind turbine syndrome, they can be mitigated with adequate distancing from communities and landscape decisions to block shadows. 

Wind energy would be beneficial to our planet and our economy and while technological hurdles lay in the path, the social hurdles caused by the visual, health, and fiscal impacts of wind farms on individuals and communities can be overcome by correctly researching potential locations for wind farms so that they are not of sentimental, religious, or cultural value to local communities or close enough to them to cause health problems.