What is wind power?
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Published: 9 May 2024
Contributors: Alexandra Jonker

What is wind power?

Wind power is a type of renewable energy that harnesses the kinetic power of wind for electricity generation. As one of the largest sources of sustainable and clean energy, wind power is essential to the journey towards net zero emissions.

Humans have used wind energy for mechanical purposes since antiquity, using simple windmills to pump water. Today, wind power generation relies on wind turbines to catch energy from the wind. Wind turbines operate on both a small (single home) to large (wind farm) scale and can be built on land or offshore—such as in lakes or oceans.

Alongside solar power, wind power is considered to have the greatest potential for increasing renewable capacity growth around the globe: in 2023, the top five markets for new wind power installations were China, the United States, the European Union, India and Brazil.1 Innovation to evolve offshore wind capabilities, decrease production costs and improve wind turbine power generation efficiency is under way to encourage industry growth.

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The history of wind power

Some of the earliest mechanical uses of wind power date back to 200 BC, when people in the Middle East used windmills to grind grain and in China to pump water. Later, as early as the 12th century, windmills were utilized for industrial purposes, like draining lakes and ponds in Europe.

By the 19th century, wind energy had become a source of electricity generation. James Blyth, an electrical engineer from the United Kingdom, is credited with building the first wind turbine in 1887. He was closely followed by wind energy pioneers American Charles Brush and Dane Poul la Cour, who used wind energy to power individual buildings.2

It wasn’t until the late 20th century, however, that commercial wind power generation emerged as a viable energy option. The first utility-scale wind farms (projects containing a group of wind turbines) were installed in the 1980s in America. The industry has grown rapidly since 2000—global installed wind generation capacity has increased by a factor of 98 in the past two decades.3 Today, wind turbines around the world produce more than 2,100 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity each year.4

How do wind turbines work?

Modern wind turbines have propellor-like blades (or rotor blades) which turn a rotor when they are force spun by the wind. The rotor spins a generator, which sits inside a box-like container at the heart of the turbine called the nacelle. The rotor’s spinning creates clean electricity that can be fed to the electrical grid or power individual homes. This process can also be described as kinetic energy being converted into rotational energy, which is then converted into electrical energy.

The most common wind turbines are horizontal axis wind turbines (HAWTs) and resemble a fan with three blades. But there are also vertical axis wind turbines (VAWTs) with blades that revolve like a kitchen stand mixer.

How much electric power is generated from the wind depends on turbine size and blade length. Wind turbines can reach heights upwards of 700 feet with blade rotor diameters extending more that 530 feet. These mammoth turbines can produce up to 9.5 megawatts of power. However, most wind turbines are roughly 260 feet tall with blades 130 feet long. They produce up to 1.8 megawatts of power.5

The three applications of wind power

There are three major applications of wind power: land-based, distributed and offshore.

Land-based wind power

Most wind turbines are installed on land, making land-based wind energy the most frequent application. A common example of land-based wind power is a utility-scale wind farm, often run by a utility company which then sells the power. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) considers land-based, utility-scale wind energy to be one of the lowest-cost sources of electricity.

Distributed wind power

Distributed wind energy produces power on a smaller scale. It usually is characterized by one or several small wind turbines that provide on-site wind power generation to individual homes, manufacturing sites, agricultural areas or rural communities. In addition to on-site generation, distributed wind energy can also connect to microgrids and hybrid energy systems. Distributed wind energy installations are generally smaller than 20 megawatts.

Offshore wind power

Offshore wind energy generation can be much larger than onshore wind power or land-based wind power, in both scale and number of turbines. Some offshore wind turbine blades can be as long as a football field, with the towers themselves one-and-a-half times the height of the Washington Monument.6

The current largest is in the Irish Sea and larger than the island of Manhattan, New York. Offshore wind turbines can be anchored to the bottom of the body of water as “fixed-bottom” turbines or on floating platforms. The electricity generated flows through buried, underwater cables back to land.

What are the advantages of wind energy?

As one of the fastest growing energy sources, wind power has many advantages.

Clean and renewable

Unlike fossil fuels (oil, coal and natural gas) and conventional power plants, wind turbines produce zero greenhouse gas emissions and wind power projects can be developed with little environmental impact. In fact, farmers can lease their land to wind energy projects while continuing their agricultural or livestock operations. And, as long as the wind blows, turbines will continue to spin—making it a strong renewable energy source.

Abundant

Developers and individuals can install wind turbines anywhere with viable wind currents—which is many places on Earth. This includes on land, offshore and even in more remote communities, like islands which may not have access to the power grid or power lines.

Cost-effective

Land-based, utility-scale wind power is one of the lowest-priced energy sources available today. Additionally, wind power projects have low operating expenses and no fuel costs. Distributed wind energy can also help homeowners and communities lower their energy bills and receive tax credits and incentives.

What are the disadvantages of wind power?

Wind power does not have many disadvantages, and those that it does have are often addressable.

Environmental and societal disruption

Since wind power produces no emissions, the main environmental challenges revolve around the impact of wind farms and wind turbines on nearby communities (such as sound concerns) and wildlife (such as the impact of offshore farms on marine life habitats).

High upfront costs

There are often high upfront costs of wind turbines and wind projects. However, wind turbines often pay for themselves after time. Additionally, mechanisms like renewable energy certificates (RECs) and power purchase agreements (PPA) can help provide financial certainty for renewable energy project developers.

Weather dependence

Wind energy generation depends on weather conditions—that is, turbines need wind to spin. Without adequate weather forecasting and energy storage capabilities, wind power can be unpredictable and intermittent.

Supply chain instability

The wind energy supply chain has not yet caught up with the industry’s rapid growth. There is high volatility with raw material prices, regulations and supply. This lack of consistency can make long-term supply chain strategy difficult.

The future of wind power

There are several wind energy technologies advancing across the wind industry:

Renewables forecasting

Weather and climate influence the generation of renewable energy resources like wind and solar energy. With growing sustainability and climate change concerns, new technologies to precisely forecast wind speed for wind plant power output are critical. Today’s renewables forecasting solutions use advanced analytics, the Internet of Things (IoT) and weather data to generate high-accuracy energy production forecasts for wind farms.

Offshore expansion

Large-scale floating turbines that can be placed in deeper water have the potential to more than double wind power capacity. The US government announced an initiative to expand offshore wind energy production in America by deploying 30 gigawatts of floating offshore wind farms by 2030.7 There are currently four types of floating platforms used to harness these offshore wind resources: tension leg, semi-submersible, barge and spar-buoy.

Manufacturing advancements

The aerodynamic profile of turbine blades is key to efficient power generation. Some companies are applying multiple technologies—computer vision, machine learning, edge computing and IoT—to ensure manufacturing accuracy. Additionally, research into advanced materials like thermoplastics are creating a future of recyclable wind turbine blades.8

Maintenance efficiency

Data integration, analytics and visualization can provide wind farm operators with detailed and accurate understanding of assets, including predictive solutions to improve maintenance operations. This visibility can raise situational awareness across power production, turbine availability, wind power conversion rates and turbine health to help optimize output.

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Resources What is renewable energy?

Renewable energy is energy generated from natural sources that are replenished faster than they are used.

What is a microgrid?

Microgrids are small-scale power grids that operate independently to generate electricity for a localized area.

What is climate change?

Climate change refers to global warming, the documented global temperature increase of the Earth’s surface since the late 1800s.

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IBM Environmental Intelligence Suite is a SaaS platform used to monitor, predict and respond to weather and climate impact. It includes geospatial and weather data APIs and optional add-ons with industry-specific environmental models—so your business can anticipate disruptive environmental conditions, proactively manage risk and build more sustainable operations.

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Footnotes

1 Global Wind Report 2024.” (link resides outside ibm.com), Global Wind Energy Council, 16 April 2024.

2Let There Be Wind.” (link resides outside ibm.com), History Today, Aug. 11, 2021.

3Wind Energy.” (link resides outside ibm.com), International Renewable Energy Agency, 2023.

4 "Wind." (link resides outside ibm.com), International Energy Agency, 2023.

5 "Wind power." (link resides outside ibm.com), Encyclopedia Britannica, 24 April 2024.

6Top 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Offshore Wind Energy.” (link resides outside ibm.com), Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, 24 August 2023.

7 "New Actions to Expand U.S. Offshore Wind Energy" (link resides outside ibm.com), The White House, 15 September 2022.

8Advanced Thermoplastic Resins for Manufacturing Wind Turbine Blades.” (link resides outside ibm.com), National Renewable Energy Laboratory.