What is wind energy and how does it work?

If you’ve ever been on a road trip in Australia, chances are you’re probably well acquainted with the sight of giant wind turbines. Appearing in clusters along the countryside, they often look quite ominous perched on top of hills, forever spinning. But, there’s a lot more to these structures than just their decorative looks.

In this article, Canstar Blue breaks down the purpose of wind turbines, highlighting how they work, where you can find them and what contributions they make to renewable energy in Australia through the production of wind power.

What is wind energy?

Wind energy, as the name suggests, is power that has been generated from harnessing wind in high hilltop or ocean areas. This type of electricity is created through the use of wind turbines or windmills, which utilise the wind to operate an electric generator.

Wind power is one of the oldest forms of renewable energy technologies and is continuing to garner popularity alongside other alternative energy sources, like solar or hydroelectricity.

How do wind turbines work?

Graphic showing how a wind turbine works

For a wind turbine to work, it will require lots of wind exposure – this is usually why you may see them perched on a hill in the countryside or by the oceanside. When in a suitable position, wind currents spin the large turbine blades, which then activate an electric generator inside the system.

Generally, wind turbines will be placed in clusters along a designated area. These clusters are known as wind farms and are typically connected to a power substation through underground cables. The electricity generated from these turbines is usually at quite a low voltage, but by feeding it to a substation first, the power can be converted to a higher voltage, making it suitable for use in the grid.

Though wind turbines most commonly take the stock standard windmill style in their presentation, they can be built in all different shapes and sizes.

How can wind energy be used?

Wind energy can be used for a number of things, but primarily it is used as a source of electricity for the grid or for use on private sites. In rural areas, however, you may also find that wind power can be utilised to pump bore water.

How much wind energy is used in Australia?

According to the Clean Energy Council, in 2020 wind generated energy made up 35.9 per cent of Australia’s total clean energy supply, making it one of the country’s leading sources of clean energy generation. Wind power made up 9.9 per cent of the country’s overall electricity generation in 2020, which has been equated to that of powering 4,918,363 homes in a year.

Wind Energy Generation in Australia for 2020 as recorded by Clean Energy Council

Image: Clean Energy Council, Clean Energy Australia 2021 report.

By the end of 2020, Australia’s total installed wind turbine generation capacity was recorded by the Clean Energy Council at 7,376 megawatts (MW). Some of the biggest wind farm projects that contribute to this capacity include the Macarthur Wind Farm (420MW), Sapphire Wind Farm (270MW), Snowtown 2 Wind Farm (270MW) and Ararat Wind Farm (240MW).

Can I sign-up to wind power for my home?

While there are ways to get some wind power generated electricity to your home, signing up for purely wind energy at your property isn’t an option – at least not right now. Unless you were to go about the process of setting up and installing you own turbine or windmill on your property and becoming self-sufficient in your energy use, there’s no sure-fire way to know if the electricity you are using is 100 per cent wind powered.

That being said, if your home is powered through the grid, chances are you are already accessing a small percentage of wind powered electricity. If you were looking to increase this percentage, however, you could start contributing to an initiative called ‘GreenPower’ through your electricity provider. With GreenPower, your retailer can agree to offset some or all of your energy usage by purchasing electricity from accredited renewable generators – like wind farms.  This renewable energy can then be fed into the grid on your behalf.

While it won’t mean that your energy is 100 per cent renewable or wind powered, since all electricity, no matter how it is generated, is fed into the same grid, it does mean that you’ll be contributing more clean energy sources to the network. Keep in mind, however, that some retailers may charge you extra for incorporating GreenPower into your plan.

GreenPower Energy Plans

Here are some plans that include GreenPower as part of the deal. This means that the price you see includes the cost of GreenPower. You may also notice that the amount of GreenPower included varies according to the plan.

Here are some of the cheapest published deals from the retailers on our database that have GreenPower included in the cost and include a link to the retailer’s website for further details. These are products from referral partners†. These costs are based on the Ausgrid network in Sydney but prices may vary depending on your circumstances. This comparison assumes general energy usage of 3900kWh/year for a residential customer on a single rate tariff. Please use our comparison tool for a specific comparison in your area. Our database may not cover all deals in your area. As always, check all details of any plan directly with the retailer before making a purchase decision.

Here are some of the cheapest published deals from the retailers on our database that have GreenPower included in the cost and include a link to the retailer’s website for further details. These are products from referral partners†. These costs are based on the Citipower network in Melbourne but prices may vary depending on your circumstances. This comparison assumes general energy usage of 4000kWh/year for a residential customer on a single rate tariff. Please use our comparison tool for a specific comparison in your area. Our database may not cover all deals in your area. As always, check all details of any plan directly with the retailer before making a purchase decision.

Here are some of the cheapest published deals from the retailers on our database that have GreenPower included in the cost and include a link to the retailer’s website for further details. These are products from referral partners†. These costs are based on the Energex network in Brisbane but prices may vary depending on your circumstances. This comparison assumes general energy usage of 4600kWh/year for a residential customer on a single rate tariff. Please use our comparison tool for a specific comparison in your area. Our database may not cover all deals in your area. As always, check all details of any plan directly with the retailer before making a purchase decision.

Here are some of the cheapest published deals from the retailers on our database that have GreenPower included in the cost and include a link to the retailer’s website for further details. These are products from referral partners†. These costs are based on the SA Power network in Adelaide but prices may vary depending on your circumstances. This comparison assumes general energy usage of 4000kWh/year for a residential customer on a single rate tariff. Please use our comparison tool for a specific comparison in your area. Our database may not cover all deals in your area. As always, check all details of any plan directly with the retailer before making a purchase decision.

What is the cost of using wind energy?

Wind energy is currently one of the cheapest sources of large-scale renewable energy generation in Australia. The costs involved with creating wind farms are also anticipated to drop further over the coming years, as these farms continue to mature as an independent energy source in the country.

In fact, by 2030, it is believed that the cost for a wind farm to deliver electricity to the grid will be below $50 per megawatt hour, according to the government’s Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA).

What are the advantages of wind energy?

Graphic showing that wind power is green energy

There are a few advantages to using wind energy for electricity generation. These include;

  • Cleaner energy source: As a renewable energy source, using wind energy can help to reduce carbon emissions in the energy sector.
  • Cheaper renewable source: It’s generally pretty cost effective to generate electricity through a wind farm.
  • Safe and dependable: Wind energy has been around for quite a while, making it quite an established renewable energy source.
  • Benefits the economy: Farms and rural areas can lease land for wind farms.

Are there any disadvantages of wind energy?

Despite having many great benefits for electricity generation, there are also some disadvantages to using wind energy. These include;

  • Reliant on wind: Being powered by wind, if the turbines needed to generate this kind of power are poorly placed in an area with little to no wind, they may become ineffective.
  • Noise pollution: These turbines can generate quite a lot of noise as they work, which could be an issue, especially if a farm is set-up in close proximity to a populated area.
  • Blades can be harmful for animals: There are some concerns for the safety of birds and wildlife in areas that have been heavily adapted for wind turbines. This is as the blades of these turbines are constantly moving, meaning if an animal were to cross one’s path, it may lead to serious injury.
  • Require lots of materials and space: Wind turbines are quite large structures and may require land to be cleared in order to be installed.

Is wind power the best renewable energy option for Australia?

While it’s difficult to determine just what renewable energy source is best, it’s definitely fair to say that wind energy has got its perks. With wind being a fairly abundant source in Australia and the cost of maintaining and generating wind energy through turbines on the cheaper end of the clean energy scale, there are many benefits to be had from implementing this kind of power.

Uptake of wind energy in Australia is definitely on the rise. Whether or not this trajectory will continue into the future though will depend on how these generators are viewed by invested parties, especially with the upfront costs for construction and general display of turbines still a point of criticism.

In the meantime, however, if you’re looking to bolster your renewable credentials in the energy space, your best bet would be to jump onto a GreenPower or carbon neutral energy plan, or chuck a few solar panels on your roof. And if you do decide to install solar, or better yet, you already have it, be sure to check out our annual solar providers ratings to see which retailers Aussies reckon are ridgey-didge when it comes to offering bang-on solar feed-in tariffs.

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Image credit: iconim/Shutterstock.com, Clean Energy Council, Golden Sikorka/Shutterstock.com.

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