Wind Farms Warm the Planet

A portion of the Gansu Wind Farm in China. It is the largest wind farm in the world. (click for credit)

More than five years ago, I wrote about a study that indicates wind turbines aren’t as “green” as many think. Indeed, it has been estimated that they are responsible for slaughtering more than half a million birds and nearly a million bats each year in the U.S. alone. A new study indicates another unforeseen consequence of wind farms: they actually warm their local area, which ends up warming the planet, at least a bit.

This isn’t a new suggestion. In fact, this recent study is partly a follow-up of a study that was published 14 years ago. In that study, the authors used a fairly simple physical model to indicate that by changing the way air is mixed near the surface of the earth, wind farms increase the temperature in their local area and, in turn, the entire planet. This new study uses a more sophisticated mathematical model, but it also compares the model’s results to warming that has actually been observed and measured near wind farms.

The authors show that their model reproduces the observed warming fairly well, so they use that model to make some estimates. They estimate that if all of the United States’ electrical needs are met with wind power, the wind farms would warm the continental U.S. by 0.24 degrees Celsius. The authors are quick to point out that this is much less than the warming that is supposed to occur as a result of the carbon dioxide produced by coal and gas power. However, it is clearly more than was expected and is at least ten times larger than any warming expected to be produced by meeting the needs of the country with solar power.

Of course, all of these models are far from realistic, because we are ignorant about so much when it comes to the earth’s climate and how various factors affect it. As a result, I take all of these numbers with a grain of salt. The actual fact is that we don’t know the warming that will occur as a result of any energy production source, including coal and gas. However, just as the science behind carbon dioxide trapping heat in the atmosphere is solid, the science behind this paper is solid. The authors demonstrate quite clearly that based on well-known physics, wind farms do warm their local area, and the observational studies they reference and use in their analysis confirm that this warming does, indeed, happen.

So what’s the bottom line? The most important one is the one I brought up in my five-year-old post about wind farms. The environmental effects of energy production aren’t as simple as people make them out to be. Every means of energy production will affect our planet in some way, and unfortunately, in the effort to produce “green” energy, this fact has been overlooked. If we are really interested in caring for our planet, we should not buy into a certain means of energy production (or a certain means of transportation) just because someone has decided it is “green.” Otherwise, we might be replacing a bad system with a worse one!

3 Comments

  1. John D says:

    Very timely post… We’re out in Palm Springs at the moment driving back and forth past the wind farms as we get around town. I’m surprised the wind turbines aren’t geared to go slower. I like the idea of old school windmills powering stone grain mills… plugging along slowly and doing work.

    They also have another thing out here in the desert called concentrating solar power towers… Similarly, they kill much wildlife. The ranger told me they have a nickname for flying animals accidentally caught in the concentrated solar beams – “streamers” – because they instantly catch fire and leave a stream of smoke as they fall to the ground.

    I personally think falling mass has incredible unrealised potential for energy storage. Excess solar power could be used to raise large weights or pump water to high elevation and then this potential energy can be used in the evening simply by allowing gravity to do it’s thing.

    1. Jay Wile says:

      Your idea is already in use. According to the Department of Energy, it accounts for “95% of all utility-scale energy storage in the United States.”

      1. John D says:

        Wow! 95% seems high to me. I’ve only read about stored mass here and there (including an interesting plan to use abandoned mine shafts to raise and lower weights on cables)… Wonder why it’s not discussed more. I really love the idea of pumped water… Especially since water needs to be moved around anyway (especially if it’s ponding on land). Thanks for that link… I’ve got a big back and forth right now with my buddy about energy storage. He’s really interested in the fission / molten salt storage talk going around as well.

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