Forget Global Warming; Could Wind Farms Affect the Weather?

windmillsEveryone (well, mostly everyone) is worried about the effects of climate change on global weather patterns. But what if wind power—one of the most prominent clean energy solutions—affects the weather too? According to scientists at the University of Maryland, large wind farms could potentially change the weather patterns of areas downwind. And that could lead to a whole new kind of NIMBYism.

Atmospheric scientist Daniel Kirk-Davidoff and his colleague Daniel Barrie calculated the effect of covering the Midwest with a grid of wind farms containing thousands of wind turbines. The result? Wind speeds lowered 5.5-5.7 miles per hour directly downwind. That's not too scary by itself, but the turbines also caused massive disruptions in air currents, leading to changes in the strength, motion and timing of storms over the entire North Atlantic.

This doesn't mean that we should stop building wind farms entirely; it's not likely that the entire Midwest will be blanketed with a grid of wind farms anytime soon, and the same effect could happen when a new city layered with skyscrapers is built (hint hint, China). But it does mean that studies about wind turbine weather impact should be fleshed out before embarking on major turbine initiatives. In the end, though, we may resign ourselves to the fact that any changes in storm intensity caused by wind farms is negligible compared to the wacky weather patterns caused by global warming.

[Via The Washington Post]

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  • Daniel Kirk-Davidoff

    I'm one of the authors of the study (Daniel Kirk-Davidoff). I want to echo a few of the other comments. I most certainly do *not* see the results of our study as an argument against deployment of wind turbines. All energy technologies have environmental impacts. I think one of the main lessons of the last 50 years of environmental science is that it behooves us to think as far in advance as possible about the impacts of human industry on the environment. This has born fruit, for example, in our successful effort to limit the destructive effect of ozone-destroying chemicals.

    In the case of our study, I think there are two main lessons. First, we ought to consider the large scale effects of wind turbine installations on the wind resource itself- if we wanted to rely *very heavily* on wind power, we would need to think about spacing wind turbines out a bit more than if we thought they would have no large scale effect. Second, there appears to be some potential that if we built out the wind resource over a large spatial area, and if we made management decisions that caused the turbines to change their behavior simultaneously over that area, we could inadvertently cause some subtle changes in weather over the following days. This certainly doesn't mean we shouldn't build the turbines, but we would want to take these effects into account in order to avoid causing trouble for people downstream. I think studying these effects before we build the turbines is the best way to successfully manage this essential resource.

    Thanks for your interest!