Wind energy's frequently asked questions (FAQ)

The basics

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What is the wind?

The Earth is surrounded by the atmosphere, which is made up of air. Air is a mixture of gas, and solid and liquid particles. Energy from the sun heats up the atmosphere and the Earth unevenly.

Cold air contains more air particles than warm air. Cold air is therefore heavier and sinks down through the atmosphere, creating high pressure areas. Warm air rises through the atmosphere, creating low pressure areas. The air tries to balance out the low and high pressure areas – air particles move from areas of high pressure (cold air) to areas of low pressure (warm air). This movement of air is known as the wind.

The wind is also influenced by the movement of the earth. As it turns on its axis the air does not travel directly from areas of higher pressure to areas of lower pressure. Instead, the air is pushed to the west in the northern hemisphere and to the east in the southern hemisphere. This is known as the Coriolis force. Click to see a diagram of how the movement of the Earth affects wind.

The Earth's surface is marked with trees, buildings, lakes, sea, hills and valleys, all of which also influence the wind's direction and speed. For example, where warm land and cool sea meet, the difference in temperature creates thermal effects, which causes local sea breezes.

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How can you measure the wind?

Wind is usually measured by its speed and direction. Wind atlases show the distribution of wind speeds on a broad scale, giving a graphical representation of mean wind speed (for a specified height) across an area. They are compiled by local meteorological station measurements or other wind-related recorded data.

Traditionally, wind speed is measured by anemometers – usually three cups that capture the wind rotating around a vertical axis (pictured below). The wind direction is measured with weather vanes.

After measuring wind data for at least one year, the mean annual wind speed can be calculated. Wind speed and wind direction statistics are visualised in a wind rose, showing the statistical repartition of wind speed per direction.

Wind statistics show the best sites to locate wind farms according to the best wind resources. They also provide further information on how the turbines should be positioned in relation to each other and what the distance between the turbines should be.

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What is a wind turbine?

A wind turbine is a machine that transforms the kinetic energy of the wind into mechanical or electrical energy. Wind turbines consist of a foundation, a tower, a nacelle and a rotor. The foundation prevents the turbine from falling over. The tower holds up the rotor and a nacelle (or box).

The nacelle contains large primary components such as the main axle, gearbox, generator, transformer and control system. The rotor is made of the blades and the hub, which holds them in position as they turn. Most commercial wind turbines have three rotor blades. The length of the blades can be more than 60 metres.

See how a wind turbine works!

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How big is a wind turbine?

The average size of onshore turbines being manufactured today is around 2.5-3 MW, with blades of about 50 metres length. It can power more than 1,500 average EU households.

An average offshore wind turbine of 3.6 MW can power more than 3,312 average EU households.

In 1985, wind turbines were under 1 MW with rotor diameters of around 15 metres.
In 2012, the average size is 2.5 MW with rotor diameters of 100 metres.

7.5 MW turbines are the largest today with blades about 60 metres long – over half the length of a rotor diameter of over 120 metres – longer than  a football field. 15 MW turbines are planned and 20 MW turbines are considered to be theoretically possible.

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What is a wind turbine made of?

The towers are mostly tubular and made of steel or concrete, generally painted light grey. The blades are made of fibreglass, reinforced polyester or wood-epoxy. They are light grey because it is inconspicuous under most lighting conditions. The finish is matt, to reduce reflected light.

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How is a wind farm designed?

There are many factors at play when designing a wind farm. Ideally, the area should be as wide and open as possible in the prevailing wind direction, with few obstacles. Its visual influence needs to be considered – few, larger turbines are usually better than many smaller ones.

The turbines need to be easily accessible for maintenance and repair work when needed. Noise levels can be calculated so the farm is compatible with the levels of sound stipulated in national legislation. The turbine supplier defines the minimum turbine spacing, taking into account the effect one turbine can have on others nearby – the 'wake effect'.

Then, the right type of turbine must be chosen. This depends on the wind conditions and landscape features of the location, local/national rules such as on turbine height, noise levels and nature conservation, the risk of extreme events such as earthquakes, how easy it is to transport the turbines to the site and the local availability of cranes.

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How long does it take to build a wind farm?

Construction time is usually very short – a 10 MW wind farm can easily be built in two months. A larger 50 MW wind farm can be built in six months.

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What are the costs of building a wind farm?

Costs vary but the biggest cost is the turbine itself. This is a capital cost that has to be paid up front and typically accounts for 75% of the total.

Once the turbine is up and running there are no fuel and carbon costs, only operation and maintenance costs (O&M), which are minimal compared to e.g. a gas power plant where O&M is 40-70% of total costs, and the rest of the cost is fuel.

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How efficient are wind turbines?

Wind turbines start operating at wind speeds of 4 to 5 metres per second and reach maximum power output at around 15 metres/second. At very high wind speeds, that is gale force winds of 25 metres/second, wind turbines shut down. A modern wind turbine produces electricity 70-85% of the time, but it generates different outputs depending on the wind speed.

Over the course of a year, it will typically generate about 24% of the theoretical maximum output (41% offshore). This is known as its capacity factor. The capacity factor of conventional power stations is on average 50%-80%. Because of stoppages for maintenance or breakdowns, no power plant generates power for 100% of the time.

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Why do some wind turbines have two and others three blades?

The optimum number of blades for a wind turbine depends on the job the turbine has to do. Turbines for generating electricity need to operate at high speeds, but do not need much turning force. These machines generally have three or two blades. On the other hand, wind pumps need turning force but not much speed and therefore have many blades.

The majority of modern commercial wind turbines have three blades, as they produce the optimum amount of power.

Two bladed machines are cheaper and lighter, with higher running speeds which reduces the cost of the gearbox, and they are easier to install. They perform almost as well as three blade turbines. However they can be noisier and are not as visually attractive, appearing 'jerky' when they turn.

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Why do some of the turbines in a wind farm sometimes stand still?

Turbines sometimes have to be stopped for maintenance, for repairing components or if there is a failure that needs to be checked. Another reason can be too little or too much wind: if the wind is too strong, the turbine needs to be shut down because it could be damaged.

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How much space does a wind farm need?

In a wind farm the turbines themselves take up less than 1% of the land area. Existing activities like farming and tourism can take place around them and animals like cows and sheep are not disturbed.

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Could I put a turbine in my garden or on the roof of my house?

More and more householders, communities and small businesses are interested in generating their own electricity by using small scale wind turbines, either on their roofs or in their back gardens. If you are interested in how you can power your home or business with your own turbine, then contact your national wind energy association for more information on how this works in your country.

Click here to find your national association.

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Who makes wind turbines?

Browse through our Members Directory to see a comprehensive list of wind turbine manufacturers.

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Why don't we put all wind turbines out to sea?

At present, onshore wind is more economical than development offshore. Furthermore, offshore wind farms take longer to develop, as the sea is inherently a more hostile environment. To expect offshore to be the only form of wind generation allowed would therefore be to condemn us to miss our renewable energy targets and commitment to tackle climate change.

However, in the coming years, as offshore turbines are manufactured on a larger scale, prices will come down, making offshore wind energy increasingly competitive. Enough wind blows over European seas to power Europe seven times over, making offshore wind a highly viable option to exploit.

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How many wind turbines are there in the EU?

In 2010, there were 70,488 onshore wind turbines and 1,132 offshore turbines across the EU. As technology progresses, turbines are becoming bigger and more efficient as the generation of the same amount of energy can be achieved with fewer machines.

There is currently 19.5 MW of wind power capacity installed per 1,000 km of land area in the EU, with the highest densities in Denmark and Germany. Although 25 of the 27 EU Member States now utilise wind power, there is still a substantial amount of wind power capacity available among countries like France, the UK, and Italy. More….

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How long does a wind turbine work for?

Wind turbines can carry on generating electricity for 20-25 years. Over their lifetime they will be running continuously for as much as 120,000 hours. This compares with the design lifetime of a car engine, which is 4,000 to 6,000 hours.

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How fast do the blades turn?

The blades rotate at anything between 15-20 revolutions per minute at constant speed. However, an increasing number of machines operate at variable speed, where the rotor speed increases and decreases according to the wind speed.

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Electricity

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How is electricity measured?

The ability to generate electricity is measured in watts. Watts are very small units, so the terms kilowatt (kW = 1,000 watts), megawatt (MW = 1 million watts), and gigawatt (GW = 1 billion watts) are most commonly used to describe the capacity of generating units like wind turbines or other power plants.

Electricity production and consumption are most commonly measured in kilowatt hours (kWh). A kilowatt-hour means one kilowatt (1,000 watts) of electricity produced or consumed for one hour. One 50 watt light bulb left on for 20 hours consumes one kilowatt-hour of electricity (50 watts x 20 hours = 1,000 watt-hours = 1 kilowatt-hour).

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How much electricity can one wind turbine generate?

The output of a wind turbine depends on the turbine's size and the wind's speed through the rotor.

An average onshore wind turbine with a capacity of 2.5–3 MW can produce more than 6 million kWh in a year – enough to supply 1,500 average EU households with electricity.
An average offshore wind turbine of 3.6 MW can power more than 3,312 average EU households.

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How much electricity is created from wind in Europe?

The total installed wind power capacity in Europe at the end of 2012 covers 7% of the EU-27’s electricity demand.

By 2020, EWEA estimates that 230 GW (including 40 GW offshore) of wind power capacity will be installed in the EU, meeting 15-17% of the EU’s electricity demand (4.2% from offshore). By 2050, EWEA estimates that wind power will meet 50% of the EU’s electricity demand.

Wind provides 26% of electricity in Denmark, while Portugal and Spain get around16% of electricity from wind power respectively, followed by Ireland (12%) and Germany (11%).

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How does a wind turbine produce electricity?

The wind passes over the blades creating lift (like an aircraft wing) which causes the rotor to turn. The blades turn a low-speed shaft inside the nacelle: gears connect the low speed shaft of the rotor with a high speed shaft that drives a generator. Here, the slow rotation speed of the blades is increased to the high speed of generator revolution. Some wind turbines do not contain a gearbox and instead use a direct drive mechanism to produce power from the generator.

The rapidly spinning shaft drives the generator to produce electric energy. Electricity from the generator goes to a transformer which converts it to the right voltage for the electricity grid. The electricity is then transmitted via the electricity network.

See how a wind turbine works with EWEA’s interactive infographic!

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What happens when the wind stops blowing?

The power grid operator constantly matches the electricity generation available to electricity demand. No power plant is 100% reliable, and the electricity grid is designed to cope with power plants shutting down unexpectedly, and times when the wind is not blowing. Wind is variable, but predictable. Wind farm sites are chosen after careful analysis of wind patterns. This enables a forecast of output to be made - information which can be made available to the network operators who will distribute the electricity.

In the future, once a truly European electricity grid has been constructed, wind-powered electricity will be able to be traded between EU countries to balance out supply and demand even more easily. Other renewables such as solar will also form part of this electricity exchange.

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Why do we need a European power grid?

Much of today’s electricity grid was built 40-60 years ago. It was built around large fossil-fuel burning power stations usually sited near large urban areas. European grids are largely national grids.

In order to harness the power of renewable energy, including wind, the grid has to be extended to where the resource is located: i.e. where the wind blows most frequently, and where the sun shines the brightest. For wind, this includes out to sea, and in some remote land areas. The grid needs to be expanded so that it can deliver power from where the wind is blowing to where it is needed.

The grid also needs to be better interconnected to improve security of supply and prevent black outs – regardless of the source of energy – and in order to improve competition in the electricity market, which would bring down prices. A European grid might also use more modern cables that lose less electricity in transit.

The investment need for new and refurbished grid infrastructure is about €140 bn up to 2020, according to the European Commission. The opportunity is there to make a more modern system that meets tomorrow’s energy, social, environmental and economic needs.

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What is a Transmission System Operator?

In the electricity sector, a transmission system operator (TSO) is a company that transmits electrical power from generation plants to regional or local electricity Distribution System Operators (DSO). It is responsible for operating, maintaining and developing the transmission system for its own control area and its interconnectors.

At a European level, ENTSO-E (the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity) is an association of European TSOs. It aims to increase integration between electricity markets in the EU, establish network codes which will define rules for cross-border grid management and develop a Pan-European ten-year plan for grid development.

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Can wind deliver enough electricity?

EWEA and others believe Europe could achieve an electricity which is 100% from  renewable sources, with wind energy providing 50% of this.

The European Commission believes wind energy will supply between 32% and 49% of the EU’s electricity by 2050. The key will be a Europe-wide power grid which will transport wind energy from where it is produced to where it is consumed – the wind is always blowing somewhere.

Today, in Denmark, over 26% of electricity demand is already supplied by the wind, and is managed successfully by the grid operator. The Danish government aims to get 50% of its electricity from wind by 2025. In Spain 16% of electricity demand is met by wind, and at times wind provides over half the electricity needed.

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Environment

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What are a turbine’s lifetime emissions?

Wind turbines produce no greenhouse gas emissions during their operation. It takes a turbine just three to six months to produce the amount of energy that goes into its manufacture, installation, operation, maintenance and decommissioning after its 20-25 year lifetime. During its lifetime a wind turbine delivers up to 80 times more energy than is used in its production, maintenance and scrapping. Wind energy has the lowest ‘lifecycle emissions’ of all energy production technologies.

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What other environmental benefits does wind power bring?

Wind energy emits no toxic substances such as mercury and air pollutants like smog-creating nitrogen oxides, acid rain-forming sulphur dioxide and particulate deposits. These pollutants can trigger cancer, heart disease, asthma and other respiratory diseases, can acidify terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, and corrode buildings.

Wind energy creates no waste or water pollution. Unlike fossil fuel and nuclear power plants, wind technology uses very little water to produce electricity. Given the fact that water scarcity is pressing and will be exacerbated by climate change and population growth, wind energy is key to preserving water resources.

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How much of our daily CO2 emissions can wind avoid?

Each year we release millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide by burning fossil fuels (oil, coal and gas) contributing to climate change.

Wind energy produces no greenhouse gas emissions during its operation. A turbine will produce up to 80 times more energy than is used to build, install, operate, maintain and decommission it.

EWEA estimates that wind energy avoided the emission of 140 million tonnes of CO2 in 2011 in the EU, equivalent to taking 33% of cars in the EU – 71 million vehicles – off the road. This avoided CO2 costs of around €1.4 billion.

In 2020 wind energy will avoid 342 million tonnes of CO2, equivalent to taking 80% of the EU’s car fleet off the road and avoiding CO2 costs of around € 8.5 bn.

In 2030 wind energy is projected to avoid 646 million tonnes of CO2, equivalent to taking 152% of the EU’s car fleet off the road and avoiding CO2 costs of around € 26 bn.

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Do wind turbines harm animals, birds and marine life?

Big environmental and nature conservation groups like Birdlife, WWF, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and Birdlife support wind energy. Birdlife recently stated that climate change was the single largest threat to birds and wind and renewables were a clear solution to climate change.

Wind farms are always subject to an Environmental Impact Assessment to ensure that their potential effect on the immediate surroundings, including fauna and flora, are carefully considered before construction is allowed to start. Deaths from birds flying into wind turbines represent only a tiny fraction of those caused by other human-related sources such as vehicles and buildings.

A 2012 study carried out in the UK (Pearce- Higgins et al.) concluded that a large majority of species can co-exist or thrive with wind farms once they are operating (Journal of Applied Ecology).

According to the Greening Blue Energy study, “Including both on and offshore facilities, estimated rates of mortality for different bird species range from 0.01 to 23 mortalities per turbine per year” (Drewitt & Langston, 2005). It has been estimated that wind turbines in the US cause the direct deaths of only 0.01-0.02% of all of the birds killed annually by collisions with man-made structures and activities.

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How popular are wind farms?

A 2013 Eurobarometer survey found that 70% of EU citizens think renewable energy should be prioritized as an energy option for the next 30 years.

Awareness campaigns such as the Global Wind Day help inform Europeans and people around the world about the benefits of wind energy.

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Are wind turbines noisy?

The noise of wind turbines has been reduced significantly. Improved design has drastically reduced the noise of mechanical components so that the most audible sound is that of the wind interacting with the rotor blades. This is similar to a light swishing sound, and much quieter than other types of modern-day equipment. Even in generally quiet rural areas, the sound of the blowing wind is often louder than the turbines.

A 2010 Canadian report, ‘The Potential Health Impact of Wind Turbines’, confirmed that noise level emissions complied with the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations for residential areas.

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Do wind turbines harm human health?

Wind energy is one of the cleanest, most environmentally-friendly energy sources. It emits no greenhouse gases or air pollutants. It emits no particles, unlike fossil fuels, which are carcinogenic and severely affect human health.

A study, Wind Turbine Sound and Health Effects, was conducted in 2009 by a panel of medical professionals from the US, Canada, Denmark, and UK. The study concluded, “There is no evidence that the audible or sub-audible sounds [including infrasound] emitted by wind turbines have any direct adverse physiological effects.”

The Australian government and the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) conducted a study on ‘Wind Turbines and Health’ (2010) which concluded: ‘There are no direct pathological effects from wind farms […] any potential impact on humans can be minimised by following existing planning guidelines’.

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Economy

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Is wind power good for the economy?

Yes! Wind energy contributed €32 billion to the EU economy in 2010 and as of 2012, 250,000 people in Europe had a job linked to wind energy - by 2020, the sector will have generated 520,000 jobs.

Between 2001 and 2010 the wind energy sector increased its contribution to GDP by 33%, ever as overall GDP growth slowed. Between 2001 and 2010, jobs in wind energy went up by 30% while EU unemployment rose by 9.6%.

The EU wind energy sector was a net exporter of € 5.7 billion worth of products and services in 2010. The EU accounted for 37.5% of the global wind energy market in 2012.

Wind energy makes Europe less dependent on fuel imports at unpredictable prices - in 2012, wind power production in Europe avoided fuel costs of €9.6 billion. This will rise to €22 -27 billion in 2020 and €47-51 billion in 2030.

Wind-generated power comes at a zero fuel cost and zero CO2 cost, unlike most traditional energy sources. Wind power can also lower electricity prices and bring more competition to the market.

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Is electricity from the wind more expensive than fossil fuels?

Find out for yourself using EWEA’s electricity cost calculator, which includes the risk of changing fuel and carbon prices.

The calculator shows that in 2010, onshore wind cost €64.9 per Megawatt hour (MWh): less than coal at €67.6. By 2020 the gap should be even wider – €80.3 for coal and €57.41 for wind.

Nuclear is considerably more expensive than wind energy. ‘In liberalised energy markets, building nuclear power plants is no longer a commercially feasible option: they are simply too expensive”, wrote The Economist in March 2012.

Because the fuel for wind power production does not have a cost, the cost can be predicted with great certainty, unlike the fluctuations in the price of oil, gas and coal. The increase in the oil price over the past few years from $20 to over $100 has added $45 billion to the EU’s annual gas import bill.

The more wind power Europe produces, the less reliant it is on fossil fuels at unpredictable prices.

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Is wind power competitive?

Yes, onshore wind power is competitive once all the costs that affect traditional energy sources - like fuel and CO2 costs, and the effects on environment and health – are factored in.

Taking CO2 costs alone - if a cost of €30 per tonne of CO2 emitted was applied to power produced, onshore wind energy would be the cheapest source of new power generation in Europe.

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What does the ETS mean for wind energy and how will it benefit consumers?

Under the Emission Trading System (ETS) 10 000 large CO2 emitters – power and heat producers, oil refineries, steel manufacturers, cement manufacturers, glass manufacturers, bricks and ceramics, and the paper industry -  are able to buy and sell permits to emit CO2.

The ETS works by setting a CO2 cap, or a CO2 allowance, on how much the big polluters can emit. Companies that exceed their CO2 allowance are either fined or allowed to buy unused allowances from greener companies. Buying allowances (at an auction) is cheaper than the fine imposed on companies that exceed their CO2 limit, thereby creating an incentive for companies to reduce their CO2 by investing in green technologies like wind power to reduce their own CO2 emissions and create revenue from selling CO2 allowances.

One MWh of electricity produced by coal emits about a tonne of CO2, one MWh of electricity produced by gas emits about half a tonne of CO2, whereas wind-powered electricity emits no CO2. If gas and coal producers have to pay for their CO2 emissions, wind power becomes comparatively cheaper since its CO2 costs are zero. The zero-cost of CO2, in addition to the savings from the zero-fuel costs involved in producing wind power, means lower electricity prices for consumers since the wind-powered electricity companies will pass the savings on to the consumer. Once this happens on a wide scale, the polluting power technologies will be pushed out of the electricity market as they become comparatively too expensive compared to wind.

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What is a feed-in tariff?

Electricity from renewable energy sources is supported by EU governments in different ways, known as “support mechanisms’”. The most common support mechanism for electricity from renewable energy sources is the feed-in tariff (green electricity quotas in combination with tradable green certificates are also used in countries such as Belgium, Sweden, and Romania).

Under a feed-in tariff, electricity utilities must buy renewable electricity at a price that reflects what it cost to generate it. Under this system, the renewable electricity is dispatched in priority to the grid and producers generally sign long-term contracts (12-25 years) for the energy produced. These instruments allow renewables to be developed, and investors to get a reasonable return on renewable energy investments.

From 2010, feed-in tariffs were in place in Austria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia and Switzerland.

Certain countries (Denmark, Spain) use a feed-in premium. This is where green electricity producers get the market price plus a fixed premium. This system, which exposes green electricity producers to market dynamics, is well adapted to countries with a large penetration of wind power. Germany gives green electricity producers the possibility to choose between a feed-in tariff and a feed-in premium.

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Does the wind industry depend on subsidies?

Although electricity produced by wind is supported by governments, oil, gas, coal and nuclear all receive subsidies, and, despite having been subsidised for more than 50 years, continue to get substantially more than wind.

The International Energy Agency’s 2011 World Energy Outlook shows that in 2010, renewables got just $1 for every $6-7 given by governments to fossil fuels.

“Fossil fuels [are] still receiving four times the level of subsidies [as renewable energy]”, European Commission said in 2011 (in the Communication: “Renewable Energy: Progressing towards the 2020 target”).

The IEA goes on to forecast that government support for renewables will go up to $250 billion in 2035. That is still – a quarter of a century in the future – less than two-thirds of the sum being doled out to fossil fuels today. The UK has now set aside £54bn for decommissioning its nuclear power stations – enough to pay for wind turbines to produce 40% of UK’s power demand.

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Does wind energy reduce fossil fuel imports?

According to the European Council in 2011, the EU imports 54% of its energy and this is set to increase to 70% by 2030. Europe is dependent on countries such as Russia, Algeria and Colombia for oil, gas and coal.

In 2010 each person in the EU paid €706 to countries like Russia, Algeria and Colombia to import oil, gas and coal.

Using an indigenous source of energy such as the wind helps the EU be more self-reliant, providing its own power. In 2012 avoided fuel costs from wind power production were €9.6 bn. This will rise to €22 -27 billion in 2020 and €47-51 billion in 2030.

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Does wind energy create jobs?

In 2012, around 249,000 people were directly and indirectly employed by the European wind energy sector – a significant increase from the 182,628 employed in 2007.

Jobs range from manufacturing to services and development.

By 2020, more than 520,000 people will be employed by wind energy. By 2030, that will be up to 795,000.

The European wind industry has grown rapidly: nearly 50,000 additional trained staff will be needed by the industry by 2030. A recent report shows that the European wind industry can play a key role in combatting unemployment.

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