A new MIT analysis may serve to temper enthusiasm about wind power, at least at very large scales. Ron Prinn, TEPCO Professor of Atmospheric Science, and principal research scientist Chien Wang of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, used a climate model to analyze the effects of millions of wind turbines that would need to be installed across vast stretches of land and ocean to generate wind power on a global scale. Such a massive deployment could indeed impact the climate, they found, though not necessarily with the desired outcome.  In a paper published online Feb. 22 in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, Wang and Prinn suggest that using wind turbines to meet 10 percent of global energy demand in 2100 could cause temperatures to rise by one degree Celsius in the regions on land where the wind farms are installed, including a smaller increase in areas beyond those regions. Their analysis indicates the opposite result for wind turbines installed in water: a drop in temperatures by one degree Celsius over those regions. The researchers also suggest that the intermittency of wind power could require significant and costly backup options, such as natural gas-fired power plants.  Previous studies have predicted that annual world energy demand will increase from 14 terawatts (trillion watts) in 2002 to 44 terawatts by 2100. In their analysis, Prinn and Wang focus on the impact of using wind turbines to generate five terawatts of electric power.

Using a climate model developed by the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research, the researchers simulated the aerodynamic effects of large-scale wind farms — located both on land and on the ocean — to analyze how the atmosphere, ocean and land would respond over a 60-year span.  For the land analysis, they simulated the effects of wind farms by using data about how objects similar to turbines, such as undulating hills and clumps of trees, affect surface “roughness,” or friction that can disturb wind flow. After adding this data to the model, the researchers observed that the surface air temperature over the wind farm regions increased by about one degree Celsius, which averages out to an increase of .15 degrees Celsius over the entire global surface.

According to Prinn and Wang, this temperature increase occurs because the wind turbines affect two processes that play critical roles in determining surface temperature and atmospheric circulation: vertical turbulent motion and horizontal heat transport. Turbulent motion refers to the process by which heat and moisture are transferred from the land or ocean surface to the lower atmosphere. Horizontal heat transport is the process by which steady large-scale winds transport excessive heat away from warm regions, generally in a horizontal direction, and redistribute it to cooler regions. This process is critical for large-scale heat redistribution, whereas the effects of turbulent motion are generally more localized.

In the analysis, the wind turbines on land reduced wind speed, particularly on the downwind side of the wind farms, which reduced the strength of the turbulent motion and horizontal heat transport processes that move heat away from the Earth’s surface. This resulted in less heat being transported to the upper parts of the atmosphere, as well as to other regions farther away from the wind farms. The effect is similar to being at the beach on a windy summer day: If the wind weakened or disappeared, it would get warmer.

In contrast, when examining ocean-based wind farms, Prinn and Wang found that wind turbines cooled the surface by more than one degree Celsius. They said that these results are unreliable, however, because in their analysis, they modeled the effects of wind turbines by introducing surface friction in the form of large artificial waves. But they acknowledge that this is not an accurate comparison, meaning that a better way of simulating marine-based wind turbines must be developed before reliable conclusions can be made.

Courtesy of MIT news

The publication concludes that using wind turbines to meet 10% or more of global energy demand in 2100, would;

  • Require about 13 million wind turbines
  • Occupy a continental-size area
  • Cause surface warming exceeding 1 C over land installations
  • Cause alterations of the global distributions of rainfall and clouds
  • Cause climatic perturbation well beyond the installation regions
  • Reduce convective precipitation in the Northern Hemisphere
  • Enhance convective precipitation in the Southern Hemisphere
  • Cause higher energy costs and undesired environmental impacts
  • The intermittent nature of wind power on daily, monthly and longer time scales would require backup generation, onsite energy storage, and costly, very long-distance power transmission lines, all of which require technological advances to accomplish.

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Prinn cautioned against interpreting the study as an argument against wind power, urging that it be used to guide future research that explores the downsides of large-scale wind power before significant resources are invested to build vast wind farms. “We’re not pessimistic about wind,” he said. “We haven’t absolutely proven this effect, and we’d rather see that people do further research.”



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