Wind energy is anticipated to become a backbone of the future energy system. Ageing wind turbine fleets, increasing land-use constraints and rising relevance of societal factors make the deployment of land-based (onshore) wind energy ever more complicated. Consequently, repowering is expected to become a rapidly growing point of focus for the wind industry. Here we propose a more holistic and socially informed project-level approach to analyse repowering activity that enables a more robust understanding of the process and potentials. We demonstrate that for wind pioneer in Denmark, only 67% of the capacity removed in repowering projects was related to the physical space needed for a new turbine. Other factors that drive repowering include regulation (for example, noise-related, 8–17%), development principles (for example, aesthetics, 7–20%) and political bargaining (4–13%). The recognition of repowering as a negotiated process between host communities and wind developers will probably be critical to unlock the full potential of wind energy in the future.