Wind Power Could Cause Warming Effect, Study Suggests

Mindy Sparks
October 8, 2018

Two papers published by Harvard University researchers on Thursday indicate that a large-scale transition to renewable sources of energy would require five to 20 times more land than prior studies have shown, and that expanding wind farms would actually warm the continental USA more than carbon emissions in the short term.

Reports suggesting that wind farms cause global warming have heated up the internet, but not everyone agrees with those claims. A new research from Harvard University suggests that the full transition to wind or solar power in the US would require five to 20 times more land than previously thought and such large-scale wind farms would warm average surface temperatures over the continental 0.24 degrees Celsius.

The researcher noted that the study shouldn't be viewed as a "fundamental critique of wind power", but as a consideration to begin assessing strategic decisions about decarbonizing electricity generation. The pair wanted to simulate the consequences if the nation's entire electricity needs were fulfilled exclusively by wind turbines. Therefore, large-scale wind farms can also lead to significant climate change.

Some parts of the central United States are already seeing nights that are up to 2 degrees warmer because of nearby wind farms. But before you go hack down your local windmill, there's a lot of important context to unravel here.

Wind advocates emphasized that the Harvard study doesn't show turbines causing global warming, just local heating. The models detailed in this study are more about the effects of wind power on our immediate future - focusing on a ten year period of increased temperatures - before we can really feel the long-term benefits of clean energy.

What was missing from this previous research, however, were observations to support the modeling. "Yet, as the energy system is decarbonized, decisions between wind and solar should be informed by estimates of their climate impacts". In 2013 research, Keith described how each wind turbine creates a "wind shadow" behind it where air has been slowed down by the turbine's blades. Miller told Futurism that he assigned different values, corresponding to a greater or lesser wind speed change, to different parts of each turbine based on height. While the materials that make up a wind turbine don't appear out of nowhere, mining for oil and coal is ecologically devastating. Then, they tweaked the model to see what would happen if wind power became a key player in helping us cut carbon emissions.

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