Exploring Energy: Wind

Elena Bilheimer, EcoNews Journalist

Offshore wind, National Renewable Energy Lab, flikr.

Along with solar, wind energy —  with its aesthetically striking and futuristic equipment — is an emblem of green technology and renewable energy.  As the development of offshore wind in Humboldt continues to progress in coming years, the local community will witness firsthand the various environmental and social trade-offs of this energy source. This preliminary period offers a unique opportunity for members of the public to share their place-specific knowledge and ideas to help shape the future of wind energy in Humboldt, so having some basic knowledge of wind energy is crucial. 

How Wind Energy Works

This form of energy is powered by wind, which according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, is caused by a combination of three concurrent events: “the sun unevenly heating the atmosphere, irregularities of the earth’s surface, and the rotation of the earth”. While the physics behind how wind turbines function is complex, the general mechanics are relatively easy to grasp. The basic components of a wind turbine include a turbine foundation, the energy tower, the blades, and the nacelle, which includes the generator and brake. The towers are made from tubular steel, and are generally quite tall in order to capture higher and less turbulent winds. There is also a wind vane that is connected to a computer to measure wind direction and keep the turbine facing toward where it is most productive.

Most turbine blades are made of fiberglass, and similarly to airplane and helicopter wings, the shape of turbine blades is designed to create uneven air pressure when wind flows around them that is higher on one side and lower on the other. This uneven pressure causes the blades to spin around a metal rotor shaft in the center of the turbine. Because the shaft doesn’t spin quickly enough to generate electricity by itself, it is connected to a series of gears that increase the rotation speed significantly. At these higher speeds, the generator can be powered and electricity can be produced, which is then transported from the generator in the turbine to a transformer before beginning the transmission process that will eventually result in electricity in someone’s home or business. 

While three blade horizontal-axis wind turbines are the most familiar and common, vertical-axis wind turbines, which sometimes resemble giant egg beaters, are omnidirectional and don’t need to be adjusted toward the wind to operate efficiently. There are various types of wind energy, including land-based, offshore, and distributed. Offshore wind is the newest innovation, and has the ability to generate vast amounts of energy with its taller and larger turbines, some the height of the Statue of Liberty or taller than the Golden Gate Bridge. Not taking into account place-specific needs or challenges, the ​​​​2022 Offshore Wind Resource Assessment conducted by The United States Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) determined that the potential of offshore wind (both fixed-bottom and floating) represents enough energy to cover three times the U.S. annual electricity consumption.

A Brief History of Wind Energy

Wind energy has been used for thousands of years, with data showing that as early as 5,000 BC wind energy was used to propel boats along the Nile River. Water pumps powered by wind were used in China around 200 BC, and in the Middle East windmills were widely used for food production by the 11th century. This energy developed quickly and spread to Europe. In the Netherlands, where the wind mill is still an iconic symbol, the Dutch used wind pumps to grind grain and pump water to mitigate flooding issues. When European immigrants came to what is now known as the United States, they brought this technology with them. American colonists installed thousands of wind pumps across the western United States, and by the late 1800s and early 1900s, small wind-electric generators, also known as wind turbines, were commonplace. 

With the development of rural electrification programs in the 1930s, small wind energy became less commonplace, although it was still occasionally used to pump water for livestock. However, during World War II, the largest turbine at the time — nicknamed “Grandpa’s Knob” — generated 1.25 megawatts of electricity to the local utility network for several months from a hilltop in Vermont. In 1970, interest in wind energy in the United States was reignited due to skyrocketing prices of oil and gas and a decade later the first utility-scale wind farms were developed in California. 

By 2022, about a tenth of the country’s utility-scale electricity came from wind, which is more than 60 times the amount generated just two decades ago. During President Biden’s campaign, he pledged to eliminate carbon emissions from the electric sector by 2035, and while that goal is still out of reach, the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 did include funding and incentives to boost offshore wind production.

Why It’s Championed

Unlike nuclear and biomass, wind energy is considered a truly clean and renewable energy source once it has been developed, as it provides electricity without burning fuel, creating toxic air pollution, or contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. It is a domestic and inexhaustible source of energy, meaning that it doesn’t have to travel as far and is more likely to benefit local economies. Many advocates also promote wind’s ability to create clean, good paying jobs — a key component of a just transition — as the sector is experiencing massive growth. In this decade, wind turbine service technicians are the second fastest growing job in the U.S., with a 44 percent projected change in employment from 2021 to 2031. 

According to Richard Engel, the Director of Power Resources at Redwood Coast Energy Authority, wind also acts as a partial solution to an issue associated with the large-scale deployment of solar power. The duck curve, named because the visual data looks duck-shaped,  is a phenomenon that occurs because of the fluctuations in sun presence and weather. During the day, there is an abundance of solar energy (sometimes more than can be used), but in the evening when most people need electricity to light their homes, the sun has gone down and that energy is no longer available. While wind can also be variable at times, it doesn’t have the same circadian constraints that prevent it from producing energy at night. Wind can also help bridge the gap when it is winter and there is minimal sun exposure. 

Off the coast of  Humboldt County, wind has the potential to provide upwards of 1.6 gigawatts of  energy, all of which would reduce carbon emissions and help California meet its climate goals. It also has the potential to substantially contribute to the local economy, creating many family-wage jobs and improving necessary services like healthcare. 

Why It’s Controversial

One of the biggest issues with wind energy is that often where wind is most abundant is not where it is most needed. Finding ways to bring electricity from wind farms in rural areas to urban areas can be challenging, especially considering that the grid in the U.S. already struggles with transmission related concerns. Upgrades to the grid and building new facilities for maintenance and assembly can cause substantial disturbances for communities and ecosystems, and those who live near wind facilities have to deal with new sound and visual impacts. Although advances in technology are helping to mitigate some of these concerns, this is one reason why addressing and adjusting to community needs throughout the development process is incredibly important.

“I think that community members, for example, often don’t know what they can ask,” said Maia Cheli, Senior Development Manager at the Schatz Energy Research Center. “And they don’t know when decisions are being weighed…so I think bringing the discourses together as much as possible and continuing to remain in conversation is incredibly important. It’s less of what do I think isn’t being talked about, but what layers do I think are not communicating well with each other.”

Another difficulty is the way wind farms affect the land or coasts where they are installed, and this energy source takes up a lot of space and visually alters the landscape significantly. However, less than one acre of land per megawatt is considered to be disturbed permanently and the remainder of the land can be used for a variety of other purposes. Sometimes where it would be most economical to put turbines doesn’t make sense for cultural or historical reasons, as Humboldt experienced with Terra-Gen — a land-based proposed wind project that was denied due to strong opposition from Tribes and other stakeholders.

Rapidly escalating costs for equipment and construction expenses due to inflation has also made things more difficult in recent years. Materials production and transportation need to be taken into account, in addition to the lifetime of the equipment required. Wind turbines last an average of about 25 years, and about 85 percent of turbine component materials can be recycled or reused. Because the blades are made of fiberglass, a composite material that is very difficult to recycle, they often end up in landfills, although efforts are being made to find alternative resolutions. 

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, it is estimated that the wind turbine life-cycle global warming emissions are between 0.02 and 0.04 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour, which is quite minimal in comparison lifecycle emissions from natural gas (0.6 and 2 pounds) and coal-generated electricity (1.4 and 3.6 pounds). These emissions are a result of material manufacturing and transportation, on-site construction and assembly, use of cement in concrete foundations, and maintenance and decommissioning processes. While these numbers suggest that wind is still better, the quantity  of resulting emissions could still be reduced. “The impacts of building a new project on one side are very easy to observe and measure, but are a trade off against this really dispersed global threat of climate change,” said Engel. 

Wildlife can also be impacted, and the ecosystem impacts vary greatly depending on location and whether the wind is on land or offshore. On land, the concern is mostly about birds and bats, which studies have shown can be negatively impacted by wind farms. The more recent iteration of turbines are spaced farther apart to help diminish the number of fatalities, and more in depth wildlife impact reports and mindful siting of turbines can help as well. Adjusting the speed of the blades and finding a way to deter birds and bats, either by innovations such as painting one of the blades black to make them more visible or creating ultrasonic or sonic repellers, could be effective. 

Wind Energy in Humboldt

In 2021, the White House announced that Humboldt County was a prospective location for the Pacific Coast’s first commercial-scale offshore clean energy project, partly because the winds beyond the Bay and along the coast of northern California and southern Oregon are some of the strongest in the U.S. Since then, five leases (two on the North Coast and three on the Central Coast) have been signed  with offshore wind developers who are now in the process of site assessments, the results of which will ultimately influence the projects they propose.

When thinking about wind off the Humboldt coast, Cheli recommends delineating the different projects involved in order to gain a better understanding of the various processes involved in this undertaking. The port is an especially pertinent topic, as in 2022, the energy company Crowley Wind Services signed an agreement with the Humboldt Bay Harbor District to build the heavy lift terminal that will be responsible for constructing, assembling, and maintaining the offshore wind turbines. Many organizations (including the NEC)  and community members are urging decision-makers and developers to commit to building a green port that will help reach the goal of zero-emissions by 2035. 

“Done right, we could build one of the first green ports on the West Coast and set standards for fair labor engagement,” said Cheli. “We could train construction, operation, and maintenance staff in a collaborative way if it [labor development] was really vested in and maximally drawn from local community members. We could boost some of the services that are very much in need in this area like health care. So I think that there’s a lot of opportunities if that work is done with that vision forefront.”

The other components of offshore wind include the wind and the transmission of the electricity generated from the turbines. As already reported in EcoNews, there isn’t a large capacity for importing or exporting electricity into or out of Humboldt County currently. Significant improvements or new development would need to take place in order to meet transmission needs. More research about the impacts turbines and cables have on wildlife and ocean upwelling are necessary. 

According to Cheli, it is important to differentiate between what is changeable in this process and what isn’t. For example, community members won’t have control over the size of the turbines due to economical constraints, but there could be opportunities to offset the visual loss that will accompany their construction. “I think that there are more possibilities for how we go about constructing the grid of the future than are currently seen as being in play,” said Cheli. 

For Engel, thinking more critically about how energy is actually used is also important. “Looking at the demand side of the equation,  it’s always important to think, ‘what can we do to conserve energy to be more energy efficient?”’, said Engel. “I always like to put in a plug for making sure that our end use of energy is as efficient as it can be.” Cheli also advocated for an environmental justice approach when she said “I think it’s really important to not allow the urgency of climate change to mean that as a default we reinforce existing systems of power, and I mean that both physically but also socially.” 


  • Schatz Energy Resource Center 
  • The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE)
  • National Renewable Energy Laboratory
  • Bureau of Ocean Energy Management 
  • California Energy Commission