types of wind turbines

Two Conventional (and One Cutting-Edge) Types of Wind Turbines Explained

Jane Marsh - February 18, 2023

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Renewable energy is an overdue revolution, which is why people talk about it so frequently nowadays. Now that we understand the degree to which human beings impact natural climate cycles, we require new ways to power our world. That means turning to wind power. What are the different types of wind turbines, and how do they work?

Why the Push for Wind Turbines?

Since 1880, Earth’s temperature has risen by 0.14°F (0.08°C) per decade. Based on our understanding of the planet’s natural carbon cycle — both before human beings entered the scene and after — this represents an unprecedented alteration of natural processes. The word “anthropogenic” (“human-made”) is rightly applied to the extinction events and ecological collapse now threatening Earth.

In the areas where it’s viable, adopting wind power is a no-brainer. Of all current types of renewable energy, wind power is actually the United States’ most prolific source. Wind accounts for 9.8% of the country’s electrical generation capacity and that number is only growing. Globally, wind power produces an annual 743 gigawatts of electricity.

What are the advantages of wind power? Some of them are typical of renewable energy in general, while others are specific to wind turbines:

  • Wind turbine technicians enjoy far faster job growth and better job security than almost any other field this decade.
  • Wind power provides almost 10% of the United States’ energy generation capacity and could provide much more if turbines are deployed to every area where it’s viable.
  • Wind power is an inexhaustible source of energy.
  • Building wind turbines already prevents 329 million metric tons of CO2 from entering the atmosphere every year. That’s 71 million cars’ worth of acid rain, greenhouse gases, and smog — gone.
  • Wind power supports community investment and enrichment. Wind farms generate local tax and land-lease revenue, which directly supports schools, infrastructure, and tax cuts for families.
  • Wind turbines do not generate greenhouse gas emissions during the generation of power, unlike fossil fuels.

Wind power is just one part of a cohesive climate change strategy, but it’s an important one.

There are two main types of wind turbines, with even more impressive next-generation designs currently being explored.

What Are the Main Types of Wind Turbines?

There are two main types of wind turbines.

1. Horizontal-Axis Wind Turbines

These are the wind turbines you’re probably most familiar with. They consist of a shaft planted in the ground and blades held aloft at the top, which spin in the wind. A generator at the top of the shaft converts the mechanical energy into electricity and carries the charge to the ground via a transmission-line cable.

Such mechanisms operate similarly to airplane engines. They can be as tall as a 20-story building and their blades can be as long as 100 feet.

2. Vertical-Axis Wind Turbines

The other main type of wind turbine is probably not as familiar, but it’s been around since 1931. The Darrieus turbine — named after its inventor — is the most prevalent variant of the vertical-axis wind turbine.

A vertical-axis wind turbine could best be compared to an egg beater. Curving vertical rotors attach to a turbine that spins on the vertical axis to generate mechanical energy that becomes electricity.

Is One Type of Wind Turbine Better Than the Other?

Vertical-axis wind turbines are more energy efficient per square meter compared to conventional wind turbines, meaning they do more with less. A smaller footprint is always a good thing when it comes to energy installations. They’re also credited with reducing the number of bird and bat deaths. The danger doesn’t quite drop to zero, but observations so far are extremely encouraging in terms of these mechanisms’ impact on native species.

What Are the Challenges of Wind Power?

There are, of course, some challenges associated with any type of wind turbine.

1. Feasibility

The first is that, as mentioned, wind power isn’t feasible in every area. In simple terms, not every community on Earth is windy enough to support it.

2. Remote Sites

According to the U.S. Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, the best sites for wind power are typically remote. This poses practical challenges for installation and ongoing maintenance.

3. Ecosystem Impact

The noisiness and aesthetic impact of wind turbines are largely overstated — the larger concern is for local species, especially birds and bats. Current wind turbine designs kill as many as 949,000 bats and 679,000 birds annually.

Where Do Wind Turbines Go From Here?

Overcoming some of the above challenges — like minimizing collisions with bats and migrating birds — is possible with the right planning.

The Wind Exchange, a part of the U.S. Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Office, publishes resources on proper site selection for wind turbines. The Bats and Wind Energy Cooperative and Bat Conservation International are two other groups raising awareness of wind turbines’ impact on flying species and publishing practical solutions.

Even better: The types of wind turbines described above aren’t the end of the story. There are new wind turbines emerging that bear little resemblance to their predecessors.

Kite-Style Wind Generators

How about a wind turbine that looks and flies like a kite? That’s the idea under active development at 10 or more startups across the U.S. and Europe.

Compared to conventional wind power installations, kite-style wind generators would be cheaper to assemble, easier to transport to terrestrial or marine sites (including many that would be unfit for conventional turbines), and even provide higher energy-generation efficiency compared to previous designs.

That’s according to Florian Bauer, who serves as chief technology officer and CEO at Kitekraft, a startup based in Munich. This concept is not without challenges of its own. These get explored in a 2022 paper co-written by Bauer called “Annual Review of Control, Robotics and Autonomous Systems.”

This concept is admittedly in its earliest stages but already demonstrates tremendous potential. The kites would be tethered to the ground and flown aloft at the end of an 800-meter (2,625 feet) tether.

While operating, the kites fly in languid figure-eights and provide enough energy for about 60 typical homes. That 80-kilowatt output is less than a portable diesel generator but competitive with a typical wind turbine. Its impact on the land is about the size of a shipping container and is otherwise highly unobtrusive.

The kites themselves span 180 square meters (591 square feet) and operate on the principle that wind travels more quickly the higher into the air you go. As the kites move, they pull on the tether, generating mechanical energy to power a ground-based generator that translates that effort into usable electricity.

Unlike the other two types of wind turbines, kites don’t present the end-of-life challenges that conventional wind turbine rotors do. More research is required before truly and fully recyclable turbine blades become widely implemented. They exist, but the process is too burdensome for companies to undertake it at scale without proper incentivization.

Wind Turbines Power the Future

We hope you’ve enjoyed this look at the two conventional types of wind turbines and the sneak peek at kite-based turbines that may appear soon on a hillside near you.

Remember that wind power is a hugely important industry that’s growing fast and providing lots of interesting, good-paying jobs. If you’re interested in cleaning up the environment and your country’s energy portfolio, there’s probably a great job in wind just for you.

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About the author

Jane Marsh

Starting from an early age, Jane Marsh loved all animals and became a budding environmentalist. Now, Jane works as the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co where she covers topics related to climate policy, renewable energy, the food industry, and more.