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Energy energy Wind

Urban Windmills: Wind energy; the future or a mere eyesore?

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by: Sharai Hoekema
urban windmills  wind energy  the future or a mere eyesore

As the world is gearing up to combat one of the largest ever threats to our wellbeing, in the form of climate change, most countries have made ambitious pledges to drastically increase the share of renewable energy sources like wind energy by 2022. Yet critics will be quick to point at the relatively insignificant results so far: wind energy, for instance, barely provides for 1% of the global energy needs as of today. 

Just how exactly are we planning on increasing this number? Especially considering the growing criticism of the visual aesthetics and noise annoyances of wind energy constructions like: windmills and windturbines. A once pristine piece of land or gorgeous view over the sea can be disrupted by the typical silhouettes of a large wind farm that can be seen from miles away. As such, it might spoil the view of those living around it and disrupt the silence with bothersome noises. All for the private gain of a few.
Village, windmills, scenery, #windenergy
Public outcry over the undesirable side-effects of these giants in the landscape will only grow louder, effectively limiting the number of new wind energy farms that can be build in rural areas. This puts more pressure on the metropolitan areas; and on finding ways of swaying public perception to be in favour of wind turbines. This is why innovative companies have been investing in a concept called urban windmills.


Urban windmills are compact, mostly silent wind turbines that have been perfected for use in skyscrapers, apartment buildings and stadiums. As such, they can be integrated within a landscape without requiring actual square footage; and with the huge plus of reduced noise emission. They can be as big or as small as required, from relatively small turbines on someone’s roof to larger ones integrated in a landmark object.

Perhaps you have seen the futuristic movie Skyscraper, currently playing in cinemas, starring Dwayne Johnson and a massive 3,500 feet skyscraper in Hong Kong. It prominently features a huge wind turbine on the top floor. While this will not quite be the new skyline-norm, it certainly provides a clear image of the concept of urban windmills.


The question is to what extent such innovations will lead to a sustainable and impactful increase in the use of renewable energy sources like wind energy. And although the idea of having a small windmill on your building’s roof or in your small garden is an attractive one; in practice you would find that it hardly delivers enough energy to power a single lightbulb. 

This lower efficiency is a result of two things. First, the smaller size of the windturbine, allowing for use in a smaller area and with less impact on its environment; and secondly, the prevalence (or lack thereof) of strong winds in cities. Traditional windmills are typically placed in wide open, obstacle-free environments for a reason - as it allows them to catch as much wind as possible. This luxury is not available in urban areas, unless - as the movie Skyscraper suggests - you place it significantly higher than all other buildings and objects around it.


While this certainly provides an interesting viewpoint for cities investing in tall buildings, one also has to consider another point. Placing a heavy, big wind energy turbine on top of a tall building - and maintaining it - requires a lot of energy. Actually, more energy than it will produce in the long run. Simply put: it requires more energy to install and operate an urban windmill than that it generates.

Combined with the relatively high initial investment, as the required technology and materials are still rather expensive, it simply might not be feasible financially. And once the costs of having an urban windmill installed outgrow the expected revenue in its lifetime, one would do well to reconsider its application.


This leads to a somewhat sombre conclusion: a single big windmill in a rural area generates much more energy than a large number of small windmills in a densely populated area. This is not to say that wind energy like urban windmills are a bad idea per se. In certain areas, that are known for being very windy and offer more space (and fewer high-rises), they could already work. For employment in the inner cities, it simply is a concept that requires more innovating and would definitely benefit from lower cost prices, both in the initial investment requirement and energy needs.

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