The use of wind energy traces back through early recorded history. Wind power technology, such as windmills, has been used to help drain lakes and marshes in northern European countries since the medieval period. In the United States during the late 19th century, wind power was used in some capacity to generate electricity for homes and businesses. The largest wind turbine began operating in Vermont, generating 1.25 megawatts for local utilities.
In 1978, Congress passed the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act, which required companies to purchase a particular amount of electricity from renewable sources, including wind power. In 1990, California accounted for more than half of the globe's capacity for wind power after facilities installed throughout the state produced more than 2,000 megawatts of electricity from wind. Congress then passed the Energy Policy Act of 1992, creating a production tax credit of 1.5 cents per kilowatt hour of wind-generated electricity. Electricity costs from wind-generated energy fluctuated between 2000 and 2004, from 4 to 6 cents per kilowatt hour in 2000 to 3 to 4 cents per kilowatt hour in 2004.
By 2007, wind energy powered 2.5 million households and made up 5 percent of all renewable energy used in the United States. In 2012, wind energy powered roughly 15 million households and became the number-one source of electricity produced by renewable sources.
Types of wind power
The major types of wind power include:
- Utility-scale wind, which are wind turbines larger than 100 kilowatts and distribute generated electricity to a power grid. This power grid distributes the electricity to users and consumers.
- Distributed wind, which includes turbines that deliver electricity to a home, farm or business.
- Offshore wind, which includes wind turbines near bodies of water around the world. These turbines were not found in the United States as of November 2014.
Wind energy advocates say that the industry supports thousands of jobs. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, there were 75,000 full-time-equivalent employees throughout the industry in 2011. Employees work in manufacturing, project development, construction, installing and operating wind turbines (including maintenance) and provide financial, legal and consulting work. The Wind Energy Foundation estimated that wind energy costs have been declining and are becoming more affordable than traditional energy resources. According to the foundation, since 1980, the price of wind has declined by 90 percent. In 2011 and 2012, the price of wind averaged 4 cents per kilowatt hour.
According to the Wind Energy Foundation, purchasing and installing a wind power system in a home has an average cost of $30,000, and the price can range from $10,000 to $70,000 depending on how large the wind power system is and how much installation will cost. Small off-grid wind turbines can cost from $4,000 to $9,000, while a turbine capable of generating 100 kilowatts per hour can cost $350,000.
Wind energy is considered an emission-free source of energy, since it does not use combustion resulting in air pollutants or greenhouse gas, which can negatively affect human health or the environment.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, wind power could reduce or degrade habitats for wildlife and plants. Spinning turbine blades can also pose a threat to bats and birds. The National Wind Coordinating Collaborative, which includes officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and wind industry representatives, estimated that about three to four birds are killed per megawatt each year. Using the United States' wind energy capacity from 2012 (60,000 megawatts), between 180,000 and 240,000 birds are killed each year, although studies on the issue are few.
- U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Glossary, W” accessed January 29, 2014
- U.S. Department of Energy, "Energy Dept. Reports: U.S. Wind Energy Production and Manufacturing Reaches Record Highs," August 6, 2013
- U.S. Department of Energy, "History of Wind Energy," accessed March 26, 2015
- American Wind Energy Association, "Wind 101: the basics of wind energy," accessed November 11, 2014
- Union of Concerned Scientists, "Benefits of Renewable Energy Use," accessed March 26, 2015
- Wind Energy Foundation, "Economics of wind power," accessed March 26, 2015
- Wind Energy Foundation, "Wind Power Your Home," accessed March 26, 2015
- U.S. Department of Energy, "Environmental Impacts and Siting of Wind Projects," accessed March 26, 2015
- American Wind Energy Association, "Wind Energy Facts at a Glance," accessed March 26, 2015
- PolitiFact, "Lamar Alexander's wind claim: Is it for the birds?," March 9, 2012