New Study Finds Some Major Drawbacks To 100 Percent Wind Power


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Jason Hopkins Immigration and politics reporter
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  • A Harvard study found large-scale wind farms have a more immediate and localized effect on surface temperature. 
  • Turbines slow wind, which can affect “heat, moisture and momentum” between the atmosphere and surface, the study found.
  • Wind energy proponents have criticized the study, and pointed out that any localized temperature changes do have the same effects as emission-induced global warming.

The large-scale implementation of wind turbines would raise local temperatures in the immediate future, a study by Harvard researchers suggests.

Should the country dramatically transition its generation industry toward large-scale wind farms, the average surface temperature of the continental U.S. would rise 0.24 degrees Celsius, according to a study published Thursday by two Harvard authors. Such a temperature increase would exceed the expected reduction in warming of 0.1 degree Celsius if the U.S. were to decarbonize its electricity industry. A separate report by the authors also found that a complete shift to renewable energy would require five to 20 times more than originally anticipated.

David Keith, a Harvard professor, and Lee Miller, a post doctoral research fellow who focuses on large-scale wind power, were the two authors of the two research projects. While the paper calls into question the environmental bona fides of wind energy, the authors note that the effects on temperature are immediate, with long-term implementation of wind energy still proving more beneficial than coal and gas.

“The direct climate impacts of wind power are instant, while the benefits of reduced emissions accumulate slowly,” Keith, the senior author of the paper, explained. “If your perspective is the next 10 years, wind power actually has — in some respects — more climate impact than coal or gas. If your perspective is the next thousand years, then wind power has enormously less climatic impact than coal or gas.”

The study focuses on the consequences of using wind to generate electricity. When a turbine utilizes outside air to extract energy, the wind is ultimately slowed down, effecting “the exchange of heat, moisture, and momentum between the surface and the atmosphere,” it explains. While previous researchers have looked into the use of turbines and its effect on wind, these studies typically covered only global or small-scale impacts. The Harvard study examines a “plausible scale” of wind power in one, large country. (RELATED: The Department Of Energy Is Investing Nearly $30 Million To Beef Up Cybersecurity)

The study also found that wind power’s impact on climate was about 10 times greater than solar power.

“Our analysis suggests that—where feasible—it may make sense to push a bit harder on developing solar power and a bit less hard on wind,” Keith said in a statement, according to MIT Technology Review.

However, the controversial study has attracted pushback from wind energy advocates and other critics.

“Because the recent study only focuses on localized impacts over a short time period, it greatly overstates the surface temperature impact of renewable resources relative to fossil fuels,” Michael Goggin, a former director of research for the American Wind Energy Association, said in a statement. “If the paper instead looked across the global and long-lasting timescales that matter, renewable resources would fare hundreds of times if not infinitely better than fossil resources.”

Steven Sherwood, a professor at the University of New South Wales, conceded that the study was a useful calculation, but added that localized warming from wind farms would not result in the same environmental effects that are seen in global climate change, such as the melting of the ice caps and rising of sea levels.

“Wind does not contribute to ocean acidification. So I would characterize these impacts as extremely minor compared to those of the greenhouse gas emissions they would displace. Also, if wind farms were placed over oceans, the impacts would be even less,” Sherwood stated to E&E News.

The issue is likely to be debated more as wind quickly becomes a bigger part of the country’s energy portfolio. Since 2000, wind energy has expanded 35-fold. The Department of Energy predicts wind turbine capacity to increase more than fourfold by the year 2050.

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