What is a Wind Farm?

Inspire Clean Energy

9 min read

category: Clean Energy 101

If you've ever visited California and taken a drive east down the 10 freeway from Los Angeles to Palm Springs, you'll pass a series of windmills.

This is the Alta Wind Energy Center in the Tehachipi Pass, one of the windiest spots in California. In the wind power industry, the center is currently the largest onshore wind farm in the United States, boasting a total power capacity of roughly 1500 Megawatts.

How many wind farms are in the US?

According to the AWEA, the U.S. has "approximately 1,000 utility scale wind projects, which represent 74,512 megawatts (MW) and over 48,800 wind turbines installed across 40 U.S. states plus Puerto Rico and Guam."

In other words, the United States has enough wind energy capacity across these projects to generate power for 15 million homes.

What are the types of wind energy?

Onshore Wind Farms

  • Onshore wind farms are groupings of wind turbines clustered into a windy area on land.

  • Each turbine sits atop a large steel tube (called a "tower") that gets it exposure to wind blowing at higher speeds. A series of blades spin the axis of the turbine when the wind blows over them.

Offshore Wind Farms

  • Offshore wind farms are collections of wind turbines located in water.

  • They are often built in the ocean but also on lakes and fjords when wind speeds are strong enough. Offshore wind farms generally experience stronger wind speeds due to their location. They are capable of harnessing a colossal amount of power.

  • However, given the logistics of building them in the middle of large bodies of water, they tend to be more expensive than onshore wind farms. As of December 2016, the first offshore wind farm in the United States was completed off the coast of Rhode Island.

  • Another one off the coast of New Jersey is still under construction. As the technology gets cheaper, the more it just makes sense to harness the tremendous power potential of offshore wind farms.

Aren’t wind turbines really noisy?

This is a common fear when wind farm projects are suggested near residential regions.

The fact is, wind turbines actually are very quiet considering how large they are. Typically, wind turbines are built roughly 300 meters from any residential housing. At that distance, the turbine will generate a sound pressure level of 43 decibels.

To put that into perspective, a mid-size window AC unit generates sound pressure levels of 50 decibels. If you were to walk right up to the wind turbine, it would sound as loud as a typical gas-powered lawn mower (105 decibels). Offshore wind farms completely absolve this issue though, as they are put out in the water far away from any residential housing.

What happens to the local environment where a wind farm is built?

While the power that is generated by a wind farm is 100% clean, there are some ecological concerns surrounding wind farms.

Most have to do with the deaths of birds and bats that run into the rotors, but as long as the build site is properly vetted, the impact on the local environment should be very low.

How can wind be used to generate electricity?

Humankind has used the power of wind for thousands of years to grind corn, pump water, and more. Today, we use wind turbines to generate electricity. But what is a turbine? Think of a windmill – those large “blades” catch the wind and spin, turning a stone on the inside to grind corn. Today, instead of a grindstone, the large blades of a wind turbine spin which turn an internal rotor that is connected to a generator, which produces the electricity.

What is the purpose of a wind farm?

While an individual wind turbine can produce enough electricity for 406 US homes (one wind turbine can produce a month’s power for a home in 94 minutes), you need to scale up significantly to power businesses, infrastructure, and entire cities.

To be efficient, the individual turbines are placed in high-wind areas and spread out so that each can take advantage of the airflow. The space between turbines can be left to nature, used for farming, and other uses. Wind farms are now being erected offshore, where there is plenty of wind and no landscape to disrupt. Although most projects require about 60 acres of land per megawatt, the turbines and supporting infrastructure only take up a very small percentage of the area.

What is a wind farm’s simple definition?

Any grouping of wind turbines can be described as a wind farm or wind park. They vary enormously in size, from just a small number to hundreds of turbines covering vast areas.

Are wind farms bad?

All things carry their drawbacks, and that is no exception here, as wind energy does have some disadvantagesThe energy produced by wind farms is renewable, clean, and green, but wind farms do raise environmental concerns for some.

Turbines produce noise, though they are generally built far enough away from people’s homes for this not to be a problem. Conservationists have complained that wind farms are responsible for the deaths of birds and bats. While this is true, the actual number compared to the mortality of animals from other human-induced causes, such as flying into buildings, is minuscule. But the generating companies are aware of the problem and are trialing various methods to minimize mortalities.

The other worry is aesthetics. Onshore wind farms can’t be hidden away, and there is often local opposition to their construction. Developers need to be sensitive to the impact their proposed sites may have.

How are wind farms built?

Each wind turbine is made up of a tower, a rotor, the nacelle housing the generator, and electronics for control. First, the tower is put together and raised into position, then the fiberglass nacelle is added, and finally, the blades are bolted on.

Offshore wind farms pose more of a problem to build but don’t face any opposition from residents. The bases of offshore wind turbines are rammed into the ground using a specialist hydraulic ram.

The most important part of any wind farm is its positioning, and much research is needed to ensure that the most suitable sites are chosen. Data on wind speed, temperature, pressure, and humidity must be gathered to ensure that the potential wind energy is sufficient for the project.

What are 3 disadvantages of wind energy?

  1. Variability – Wind is not consistent so the amount of energy produced by a wind farm will vary from hour to hour and day-to-day. Until electricity storage solutions are perfected, wind can only be part of the answer for our energy needs.
  2. Cost of manufacture – Wind turbines are expensive to produce and the capital investment required is substantial. However, this is offset by the low running costs once the farm is commissioned.
  3. Environmental damage – While the energy produced is clean, no one can deny the visual impact, animal mortality, and noise produced by the turbines. On the other hand, if you compare that to the ecological damage and pollution produced by extracting and burning fossil fuels, the problems of wind power seem negligible.

Do wind farms make money?

Though wind farm projects require massive financial investment, there is no doubt that over time they are profitable. A wind turbine has a long life span, an estimated 20-25 years, and usually requires little maintenance, so running costs are minimal.

It is believed that electricity from wind power is cheaper than that produced by coal-fired power plants and far less expensive than nuclear energy. So wind farms are good for the producer and the consumer. There is always the huge advantage that wind is free.

Where is the largest wind farm in the US?

The Alta Wind Energy Center is the largest wind farm in the country but others have a capacity in the same ballpark. Los Vientos in South Texas can produce over 900 MW, Oregon’s Shepherds Flat is rated at 845 MW, and Meadow Lake Wind Farm in Indiana is capable of more than 800 MW.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that, as of 2020, wind power generated some 338 billion kilowatt-hours, and contributed over 8% of the total utility-scale electricity generation in the country1. That is all facilities producing over 1 MW of generating capacity.

The Gansu wind farm2 in the Gopi desert in China is the biggest in the world, with a generating capacity of nearly 8,000 megawatts produced by 7,000 individual wind turbines.

The largest offshore wind farm at the moment is the UK’s Hornsea 1 off the northeast coast3. It covers over 100,000 acres, has 174 190-meter-tall wind turbines, and produces 1,200 MW.

The world is moving away from fossil fuels for its energy needs. Both the threat of climate change and the overreliance on vanishing resources are driving the move to renewable energy sources. Wind power, along with solar, water, and geothermal, is part of the solution to our growing energy demands.

Though individual wind turbines are an important part of the picture, wind farms and the utility-scale electricity generation they offer are a fast-growing link in the chain to a carbon-neutral future. And you can help that future become the present.

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  1. eia.gov/energyexplained/wind/electricity-generation-from-wind.php
  2. nsenergybusiness.com/features/worlds-biggest-onshore-wind-farms/
  3. orsted.co.uk/energy-solutions/offshore-wind/our-wind-farms

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