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Your guide to wind energy and how it works

Disclaimer: The information on this page was correct as of June 29, 2021.

With renewable energy on the rise, you might be wondering how it all works. Wind energy is one of the fastest-growing energy sources, and the UK is the perfect place to harness it. We now generate twice as much energy from wind power as we do from coal – enough to power 16 million homes across the country.

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How does wind energy work?

Wind energy is created by a wind turbine, capturing the kinetic energy in the airflow. You’ve likely seen these turbines driving through the countryside or along the coastline where the wind is stronger and there’s more space available. As the windiest country in Europe, where better to generate electricity through wind power?

The wind turns these turbines, which causes the blades to spin. These spinning blades cause the axis to rotate and send energy to a generator. This generator then creates Direct Current (DC) electricity which, unfortunately, is useless in our homes. Because of this, the DC electricity has to pass through an inverter to turn it into Alternating Current (AC) electricity, which we can use as power.

Industrial sized turbines only start to generate electricity at wind speeds of over 8mph and will cut off at 55mph so that they’re not being over or under-worked. They’re able to switch on and off through an anemometer which is attached to a control panel.

A gearbox in the turbine can control the speed of the blades and the axis’ rotations, meaning it can change the speed from 30 revolutions per minute to 1,000. Because this part of the process is very expensive, researchers are working to make this more efficient to bring costs down and produce more energy at slower speeds.

Generating energy with a home wind turbine

There are two main types of home wind turbine: pole-mounted and building-mounted.

Pole-mounted wind turbines are free-standing. They’re similar to the larger ones you see at wind farms and are still installed quite high up – at least 9m above anything in a 90m radius. With a generation capacity of 5-6kW, they are more efficient than building-mounted wind turbines, however, they cost a lot more to install.

Building-mounted wind turbines are a lot smaller, which means that they can be installed on your roof as long as there is enough wind to power it. Having it installed on your roof means that it’s out of the way and doesn’t take up as much space, however, they usually only generate around 1-2kW of electricity.

As long as certain criteria and conditions are met, you shouldn’t need to ask for planning permission to install a wind turbine. However, you should still check with your local council that your turbines are meeting the limits and conditions required.

What’s the difference between a wind turbine and a windmill?

The main difference between a wind turbine and a windmill is the type of energy they generate. While a wind turbine generates electrical energy, a windmill generates mechanical energy.

The mechanical energy generated from a windmill is most often used to grind and mill crops or pump water. While some windmills have the ability to generate electricity, due to their shape and size, they’re more suited to farming processes.

Advantages of wind power

There’s a reason the UK Government is investing so heavily in wind power – choosing wind energy to supply your electricity comes with some great benefits, such as:

  • It’s entirely clean – It doesn’t cause any pollution or greenhouse gases and contributes massively to reducing carbon emissions.
  • It’s sustainable – Wind is continuously being produced and we won’t run out of airflow to harness, especially in the UK where we have an abundance of wind, both on and offshore.
  • It’s cheap – Wind power is one of the most cost-effective forms of renewable energy. The only large costs involved are the installation and maintenance which means that it can help you save money on your energy bills.
  • It creates jobs – Thousands of jobs are created to construct, manage, and maintain wind turbines and farms.
  • It takes up very little space – Many onshore wind farms are constructed on land owned by agricultural farmers because they can still use the land between the turbines to raise animals. The most effective wind farms are installed offshore so they take up even less space.
  • Smart Export Guarantee payments – If you’re producing wind power, you might be able to get money back on any unused energy you feedback into the grid with the Smart Export Guarantee which has replaced Feed-in Tariffs.

Disadvantages of wind energy

Where there are great benefits, there is also going to be a few drawbacks to wind power.

  • It can be inconsistent – While we have a lot of wind in the UK, onshore wind farms see a lot of irregular weather patterns which will affect the amount of electricity generated.
  • High start-up costs – Setting up wind turbines and wind farms can come with hefty installation prices, especially offshore.
  • Noise pollution – Residents living near wind farms often complain about the noise the turbines generate.
  • Intercepting wildlife – Across the world, a lot of birds have had their migration paths disrupted due to wind turbines. There are also reports of bats and birds flying into the blades and becoming injured.
  • They stand out – Having wind turbines in rural areas does mean that they’re intercepting the natural beauty of the countryside.

How much can I save with a home wind turbine?

While the initial price of a wind turbine can be between £10,000-£30,000 depending on the turbine and capacity, it does give you the opportunity for free electricity. As long as your turbine is generating a significant amount of energy, it can present a great return on investment.

A home wind turbine could save you £250 per year on your electricity bills and over 2.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide. If you are storing your unused wind energy in batteries, you might be able to generate and store enough electricity to never have to pay for it again!

You don’t just save with wind energy, you can also be paid to use it! If you send your unused wind energy back into the national grid, you might be able to receive Smart Export Guarantee payments which you can put towards any energy you might need to borrow if you run out. If you own a lot of land, you could also rent it out to install a wind farm on your property and could be a significant source of income.

With very few upkeep costs and Government subsidies, overall, you could easily break even within 15-20 years, but your energy payback could be less than a year.

Wind power around the world

Wind power is quickly becoming an important energy source around the world, with a capacity of almost 700gw.

The US is home to 5 of the top 10 highest-capacity wind projects around the world, all of which are onshore. However, they’re still in second place for the highest overall capacity – China is at number one, with over double the capacity of the US.

France is hoping to triple its onshore wind energy capacity by 2030. While a lot of the population are against wind farms, deeming the turbines noisy and ugly, the French Government has increased its renewable energy budget to €71 billion between 2019 and 2028.

Wind power in the UK

Of the 10 highest-capacity offshore wind projects around the world, 6 of them are based in the UK. We’re home to the largest offshore wind project in the world, located off the coast of Cumbria, which generates over 1gw of electricity by itself. Despite this, with a capacity of almost 25gw, we are only the 6th largest wind power generator in the world and the 3rd in Europe.

Not surprisingly, wind power is a huge part of the UK’s fuel mix, and the most-used renewable energy source, averaging a share of 20.6% of all of our energy use.

Boris Johnson has pledged that, by 2030, offshore wind farms will produce enough energy to power every home in the UK.

Wind energy for business

With renewable energy costs decreasing and non-renewable costs soaring, if your business is in a particularly windy area and has a lot of spare land, you might want to consider installing a wind turbine and generating your own power.

As long as you choose the right sized turbine for your business’ energy use, it can take less than 15 years to generate enough revenue to pay back. If you opt for a small, 20-50kW turbine, you could be paying it back within 8-15 years, while if you opt for the 1-2.4mW turbines, you could have it paid off within 1-5 years.

Switching to wind energy is a great USP at the moment as it gives you a better reputation with existing and potential customers. Commitment to sustainability is valued very highly by customers and other stakeholders and you can really stand out from your competitors.

If you don’t have the room for your own turbine, but still want to opt for wind power, you might be able to buy renewable wind energy from your provider. Not all providers will offer this, but it’s a great way to get involved with wind power in the city.

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This page was written by...

Polly Tyler

I've loved writing since I was a child and have worked on a number of different projects since I left school, including journalism, copywriting, and marketing. Utilty Switchboard has given me the opportunity to grow my knowledge and experience and I've loved every minute!

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