How does wind power work?

Jon Lawson

With a commitment to achieve a target of energy production with zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, the UK is investing in renewable energy production methods.

Renewable energy resources include tidal and water, geothermal, biomass and wind power.

What is wind power?

Wind power, also known as wind energy, is the process of harnessing the motion of the wind and converting it into energy, generating electricity.

Through the use of turbines both onshore and offshore, we are able to generate electricity without releasing direct CO2 emissions. In 2018, 18% of the UK’s electricity generation was contributed via wind power.

Wind surpassed coal in the UK’s electricity generation in 2016 before overtaking nuclear power generation in 2018

How wind power works

A wind turbine consists of a gearbox and blades that create energy when turned. These are connected to a generator that transforms the energy into electricity.

The blades contain multiple airfoil cross-sections, all ranging in size and shape. When wind moves both over and under the blade, the airfoil shapes create lift which causes the blades to turn.

However, these blades turn at an extremely low rate of rpm, which means we are unable to generate electricity frequency simply from these blades being turned.

To resolve this issue, the blades are connected to a gearbox that can achieve the high-speed ratio required (1:90) to generate electricity.

Electricity that is produced travels through cables to the base of the turbine to a step-up transformer where it can be converted.

How wind turbines manage changing wind direction and velocity

The direction of the wind changes regularly. For a wind turbine to be effective, it must be facing at an angle to the wind so that the blades can turn.

To resolve this issue, wind turbines have sensors that monitor the direction and speed of the wind. Where an adjustment in wind direction is sensed, an electronic controller sends a message to a yawing mechanism to rotate the turbine until the blades are line with the direction of the wind.

Additionally, if the velocity of the wind changes the blades will also adjust so that they are aligned to an optimum angle of attack with the relevant wind flow.

Wind power advantages and disadvantages

From costs through to environmental impact, all energy resources (both renewable and nonrenewable) have disadvantages as well as advantages.

Advantages of wind power

  • Cost-effective
  • Onshore wind energy is considered the cheapest source of renewable energy in the UK. Whilst still more expensive than some fossil fuels, the wind energy generation process is not exhaustive.
  • Swift installation
  • A wind turbine can be operationally active within months, whereas a nuclear power station can take more than 20 years from planning to operation.
  • Wind power offers employment
  • From individuals manufacturing the turbines to those running them on wind farms, the implementation of wind energy creates jobs and internships. Between 2015 and 2016, the UK employed 42,000 people in the wind energy sector.

Disadvantages of wind power

  • Not a strictly clean process
  • When operational and generating electricity, wind turbines are emission-free. However, there are limited amounts of emissions associated with the manufacture and installation of wind turbines.
  • Experiences intermittent electricity production
  • Harnessing wind is not an option 24 hours a day. It is impossible to control when there is enough wind to power a turbine, making it less reliable than other energy sources.
  • They can be unpopular amongst locals
  • There are occasions when local people complain about the noise produced by the turbines. Additionally, onshore turbines are criticised as not being aesthetically pleasing

The future of wind power

With wind-powered energy increasing, there are continuing plans to improve infrastructure. There are already plans for the world’s largest offshore wind farm to be built 75 miles from the coast of Yorkshire. Known as Hornsea Project One, this project is predicted to supply over 1 million homes with wind-powered energy. 

With the first project predicted for completion by 2020, there are two more expansion projects currently in the pipeline.