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How Offshore Wind Farms Could Protect The Coast From Hurricanes

Arrayed in very large numbers, offshore turbines could have a huge secondary upside: Stopping a disastrous storm in its tracks.

How Offshore Wind Farms Could Protect The Coast From Hurricanes
[Image: Hurricane Igor via Flickr user NASA Goddard Space Flight Center]

The United States currently has exactly zero offshore wind turbines, so it may be premature to talk about their “secondary benefits.” Getting a few machines up and running would be good enough at this stage.

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However, if you’re looking for an additional rationale to build them, a new study provides it. It shows how turbines, when arrayed in large numbers near the coastline, could help dissipate hurricanes and storm surges–in some cases dramatically so.

The research was led by Stanford University professor Mark Jacobson, who explains the work in the video below.

Jacobson modeled what would have happened if we’d stuck large farms in the way of three recent hurricanes: Katrina in 2005 and Isaac and Sandy in 2012.

In one scenario, with 78,000 turbines in the Gulf, Katrina would have been neutered by the time it made landfall. Having to pass through all those blades, its speed would have dropped by 78 mph. Its surge would have lessened by three-quarters.

“These turbines would pay for themselves because they’re used all year round to generate electricity. They just serve an additional benefit to reduce the damage of hurricanes,” Jacobson says.

Wind farms, he adds, may be a more cost-effective measure than building seawalls, which have no effect on wind speeds and, of course, generate no electricity. (In case you’re wondering, he doesn’t think the turbines would be knocked over by the winds themselves, at least not until they reach at least 112 mph).

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Still, some of Jacobson scenarios are frankly pie-in-the-sky in the current environment. Two of them test the effect of 543,442 turbines in the Gulf–which is a long, long, long way from the zero we have now. Even 78,000 machines is a lot at a time when other countries are having trouble reducing offshore wind costs, and the cost of solar is falling fast.

Then again, there could be a marginal–and useful effect–even at lower numbers of turbines. That’s something worth considering.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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