What Is Wind Power?

Wind power is the nation’s largest source of renewable energy, with wind turbines installed in all 50 states supplying more than 10% of total U.S electricity and large percentages of most states’ energy needs.

Keep reading to learn:

  • How wind energy works
  • How turbines work
  • The benefits and impacts of wind energy
  • Where wind turbines are used—on land, in water, and for smaller needs (like farms or islands).

How Does Wind Create Power?

Wind power or wind energy is a form of renewable energy that harnesses the power of the wind to generate electricity. It involves using wind turbines to convert the turning motion of blades, pushed by moving air (kinetic energy) into electrical energy (electricity). This requires certain technologies, such as a generator that sits at the top of a tower, behind the blades, in the head (nacelle) of a wind turbine.

An illustration of the inner workings of a wind turbine with the label land-based gearbox turbine

Graphic from Wind Energy Technologies Office

This aerial view shows how a group of wind turbines, which can be part of a wind power plant or wind farm, make electricity. The electricity created can either provide power to specific needs (like a wind turbine powering a streetlight or isolated farm) or contribute to the electric grid, which then powers homes, businesses, and schools with the help of transmission and distribution cables (or power lines).

How Does a Wind Turbine Work?

Wind blowing above the ground spins the blades attached to the top of a wind turbine tower. Moving air rotates a wind turbine’s blades. That turning motion spins a generator just downwind from the blades (or rotor) in the nacelle, which also stores all the other working parts of a turbine. The generator produces electricity.

View the wind turbine animation to see how a wind turbine works or take a look inside.

A typical 2.8-megawatt (MW) utility-scale wind turbine could produce enough electricity to power 100,000 American homes. And wind turbines are growing taller; the bigger, the more energy they may be able to produce. New designs for blades help wind turbines generate more power and address other issues, such as material use, recyclability, or noise.

Windmills, sometimes confused with wind turbines, traditionally use the power of wind to turn blades that then rotate a grinding stone, rather than a generator, to pulverize grains into powder, like wheat into flour for baking.

Learn more about how wind turbines work on the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Wind Energy Technologies Office website.

Why Should We Use Wind Energy?

There are many important reasons we should use wind energy.

It is a renewable energy source, meaning we can keep creating energy as long as wind blows. Improvements to turbines help them become more efficient, providing clean and reliable energy to the grid, homeowners, or communities even in regions that are less windy.

Wind energy is also a form of clean energy, meaning wind turbines do not produce greenhouse gas emissions, like carbon dioxide, which means less pollution going into the air, oceans, and environment that can cause health problems or harm the environment.

Wind energy can be used in many places, including isolated or remote areas, like islands, that are not able to access the utility grid for power. Wind farms can be installed both on land and offshore, taking advantage of wind currents across the United States and along its coastlines.

There are also financial benefits and economic advantages to installing wind energy. It has a low cost of energy (cost to produce while operating), and wind turbines can help homeowners and communities reduce utility bills, benefit from tax credits and financial incentives, create jobs, and even profit from selling extra energy a turbine on their land might make.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s invests in wind energy research, development, demonstration, and deployment activities that enable and accelerate the innovations needed to advance offshore, land-based, and distributed wind energy systems; reduce the cost; drive deployment in an environmentally conscious manner; and facilitate integration with the electric grid.

What Are the Impacts of Wind Energy?

Wind energy has very few disadvantages.

Most concerns that impact social acceptance of wind energy revolve around how wind farms interact with society, such as location (including property value effects and land use), health and safety, the environment and wildlife, local communities, radar interference, and the economy or finances.

Although wind energy does not produce emissions, it is important to consider how wind turbines can coexist with the environment. In addition to identifying the best location, researchers:

To mitigate the potential impact to communities, there are a number of ongoing efforts to work with local communities to better understand their priorities and address these concerns.

Human impacts can be quite small to begin with. For example, wind turbines:

And turbines that are located far offshore can have even fewer human impacts while generating large amounts of electricity.

What Are the Different Types and Applications of Wind Energy?

Wind turbines provide electricity that can either be used at the site where it’s generated or transferred to the electrical grid. Typically, the size of a turbine determines how much energy it can produce, although technology is improving to increase turbines’ efficiency.

The term “distributed wind energy” (sometimes called “onsite wind energy”) refers to turbines installed locally to meet nearby energy needs. Distributed wind energy installations are typically used by a community, company, utility, or homeowner to power their specific needs.

The term “utility-scale” refers to typically large turbines installed either on land or in water that are used to generate large amounts of electricity to feed into the three major electrical grids in the United States (Eastern, Western, and Texas’s grid).

Regardless of size, wind energy projects connected to the electrical grid require utility approvals and sometimes grid impact studies before construction can begin, along with other permitting and zoning requirements and regulations.

Plants that combine multiple forms of energy are called hybrid power plants. For example, wind turbines and solar power technologies, as well as energy storage devices, can complement each other in what is commonly known as hybrid renewable energy systems. These systems combine different renewable energy sources to enhance overall efficiency, reliability, and energy output. The combination of wind and solar power is one of the most popular hybrid configurations.

Read a summary below or learn more about the three kinds of wind energy and our guides.

Distributed Wind Energy

An aerial view of a small wind turbine with a house in the background

Distributed wind turbines can help provide on-site electricity to homes, farms, or communities. Photo from Foundation Windpower, LLC

Distributed wind energy describes wind energy projects that serve on-site energy demand. As such, distributed wind turbines can generate on-site electricity for homes, schools, businesses, and farms. Sometimes distributed wind projects support local electricity networks, which are often called “microgrids.” They can help cut down on electricity use and, in some cases, can provide all the power for homes and other structures that are off the grid. Distributed wind turbines can also work together with other technologies like solar panels, storage, and power converters to provide power.

Distributed wind energy installations are defined by how they are applied (to serve on-site energy demand) rather than by turbine size. However, turbines used for distributed applications are typically smaller than 20 megawatts. Distributed wind turbines installed near homes are usually between 1 and 10 kilowatts, but they can be significantly bigger. Individual or small clusters of megawatt-scale wind turbines can be used to power commercial and industrial facilities, agricultural uses (farms or ranches), community facilities (such as schools, office buildings, or part of a campus), public campuses (such as a college or hospital), and isolated grids (such as small island, remote, or tribal communities). Read 10 things you didn’t know about distributed wind energy.

Learn how wind power can provide you with energy, how to install a wind turbine on your land, the details of small community or large community wind power projects, and how community agreements can benefit those living near wind farms.

Land-Based Wind Energy

Several land-based wind turbines in front of an agricultural field and green hills

Utility-scale land-based wind turbines range in size from 100 kilowatts to as large as several megawatts. Photo by Dennis Schroeder, National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Land-based, utility-scale wind energy projects use highly efficient, state-of-the-art wind turbines that generate cost-competitive electricity at power-plant scales. They can be owned and run by a utility company that then sells the power the plant makes to users, like homeowners, who connect to the electrical grid. Read 10 things you didn’t know about land-based wind energy.

These projects use large, land-based turbines that can have blade rotors measuring more than 75 meters in diameter, which is about the size of an average Ferris wheel. The rotors are installed on towers that can be taller than the Statue of Liberty.

Because of their size and the scale of the installations, utility-scale wind turbines require environmental, utility, governmental, and public coordination and they are regulated in their location, distance from nearby infrastructure (called “setback”), and other health, safety, and environmental aspects.

Offshore Wind Energy

Several large, offshore wind turbines stand on large supports as a boat floats by them

Most offshore wind turbines are taller than the Statue of Liberty, allowing them to produce vast amounts of energy by capturing powerful winds above the ocean. Photo from Siemens AG

Offshore wind energy, the newest application for wind energy, refers to utility-scale wind energy projects that capture wind resources over bodies of water. Read 10 things you didn’t know about offshore wind energy.

In water depths less than 60 meters, offshore wind turbines can be fixed directly to the bottom of the ocean, known as fixed-bottom offshore wind turbines, using foundations that can be different shapes and installed in different ways, like monopiles—single stems on which a turbine tower is attached, pictured, that are pounded into the seafloor by pile drivers.

As the newest application of wind energy, the industry, academics, government, and other stakeholders are working together to establish best practices, safety standards, technologies, marine wildlife impacts, ocean co-use (such as coordinating with fishing industries), and other aspects these water-based wind farms.

In water depths greater than 60 meters, floating offshore wind turbines are needed, which are tethered to the seafloor with long mooring lines and anchors, like boats moored in a harbor. There are several different kinds of floating offshore wind turbines, and research continues to investigate the best way to design, build, and situate these turbines in the ocean. Researchers are also looking into the potential to harness winds blowing in the middle of large lakes, like the U.S. Great Lakes, with offshore wind turbines.

Offshore wind turbines have different regulations and must consider impacts to wildlife and the environment, skylines (called “viewshed”), other uses of the ocean space (such as fishing). Because they are more remote, these turbines can be taller than land-based turbines, meaning they have the potential to harness more energy from the strong winds blowing off U.S. coastlines, which can then power offshore activities or be sent to shore via underwater cables to power homes, schools, and other electric needs.

Learn more about wind energy basics on the Wind Energy Technologies Office website. Sign up for the WINDExchange newsletter to get the latest in wind energy research, development, deployment, and more.