Harnessing the wind to make work easier is not a new technology. People have been using wind to mill grain, draw water and to power their boats for thousands of years. As we become increasingly concerned about the impacts of fossil fuels on climate change, the idea of electricity generated through wind has much appeal.

Wind power uses the kinetic energy from the wind to turn large turbines, transforming the energy into electricity that we can then use. The most common type of turbine consists of a number of long blades, with the turbine attached to a pole many metres above the ground. The location of a turbine (or many turbines together, called a wind farm) is vital – they need to be in an area of constant wind.

Currently, there are seven wind farms throughout New Zealand. Like those in the Tararuas and in Wairarapa, these wind farms are ideally situated to capture good levels of wind. The Tararua wind farm near Palmerston North in the North Island, for example, operates 90–95 percent of the time. However, overall wind-generated power only accounts for about two percent of power generated in New Zealand, although there is great potential for higher levels – in fact, there are around 15 wind farm sites in the planning stage.

There are many benefits to using wind power. It is a green renewable resource because we will not run out of wind, and wind produces no harmful wastes. Wind farms have little running cost once built compared to traditional electricity producers, and the time taken to build a wind farm is usually short. Plus, once built, additional turbines can be added as supply grows.

One of the biggest problems facing wind powered generation is that they are considered to be an eyesore. While we may want the electricity generated by a wind turbine, few of us want one in our back yard! Some people living in the vicinity of wind farms also find the noise the blades generate can be problematic. Another problem associated with wind farms is the possibility that they may be detrimental to wildlife. Studies continue to be carried out to see if wind turbines interfere with the sonar of bats and the migration pathways of birds. Both of these problems are taken into consideration when resource consents are being sought. This process allows people near proposed sites to argue for or against wind farms.

Useful links

This animation shows how wind turbines work.

A fact sheet on wind energy from the NZ Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority

Additional information about the science of wind, wind power and more.

Published 10 June 2008