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Wind power affects climate – cooling and warming regions around farms, studies claim

Wind turbines take energy from the atmosphere and turn it into electricity: so we know they must have some impact on the atmosphere’s flow. With industrial grade turbines being built at a terrific rate…

Spinning turbines have mixed effects on the atmosphere. Charles Cook

Wind turbines take energy from the atmosphere and turn it into electricity: so we know they must have some impact on the atmosphere’s flow. With industrial grade turbines being built at a terrific rate, scientists have been trying to assess exactly what the effects are both at local and at global levels.

New research using a finely resolved model which focuses on Europe indicates that the effects of doubling the present wind capacity by 2020 are at the level of a couple of percent changes in rain and a few tenths of a degree of temperature. The study by Vautard and colleagues shows that these effects include a mix of more rain and less rain, and warming and cooling, depending on where you are around Europe. But a key policy question left unresolved by this paper is: to what should these changes be compared?

Measuring impact

There are two main ways of estimating the climate impact of wind turbines. One is to compare the real climate of a region before and after wind farms are installed there. This approach is limited by the availability of observations – modern wind farms are a relatively new phenomenon so there is not much data to compare the climate after wind farms are installed with the years before. Ruling out other reasons for the climate changes we observe is also a challenge.

Using this observational approach, researchers have found that the climate around a large wind farm in Texas was affected by the presence of the turbines. Taking the ground temperatures measured by satellites, they detected a warming of 0.5°C at night in the region directly under the farm. This warming effect was local and small – the nighttime warming did not extend beyond the farm’s immediate neighbourhood.

But not many people live right among the wind turbines. To look at smaller effects far from the wind farms, another approach is to simulate the earth’s climate with computer models. Using climate history data, projections are made that account for motion, thermodynamics, chemistry and radiation in the atmosphere, land and sea. Years of simulations are run with and without wind farms installed.

This method has the advantage of being able to detect very small climate change signals, since the model can be run for a long time, and natural variability gets smaller as you average over more and more years. Also, all factors besides wind that might cause climate changes can be held constant. The disadvantage is that the model of climate behaviour may not correspond exactly to what happens in reality.

This approach was first attempted by David Keith and colleagues in 2004. When they compared the climate in their model with and without extremely large wind farms (large enough to generate about twice the world’s total present electrical demand), they found that in addition to climate effects in the immediate vicinity of the wind farms, there were changes in climate all around the world.

There were regions of warming and cooling of about 0.5°C, and increases and decreases in precipitation by a few percent. A followup paper showed that these changes were mostly a result of changes in wind direction caused by the wind turbines. The model winds tended to shy away from the wind farms a little, so that downstream from the farms there would be regions of extra wind from the south, that would tend to be warmer, and regions of extra wind from the north, that would tend to be colder.

Vautard’s study agrees with this earlier work, in finding that the climate impacts of wind farms extend beyond the farms themselves and are caused by changes in the flow of the atmosphere that bring warming and cooling to different regions around the wind farms.

What’s the right comparison?

So how should we understand these results? Keith and colleagues compared the climate changes caused by wind turbines with the climate changes that would have been caused by fossil fuel burned to make the same amount of electricity. But because carbon dioxide lasts for centuries or millennia in the atmosphere (unless we suck it out somehow), it’s hard to know over how many years to calculate the avoided carbon dioxide emissions. For the 20-year life of the turbines? Or for the few hundred years of supply of fossil fuels that could be burnt?

Now that the impacts of wind turbines on climate are becoming better understood, more comprehensive studies of complete future energy systems are needed. We need to ask, what combination of wind power, solar power, nuclear power and fossil fuel power, together with what combination of measures to remove carbon from the atmosphere, will result in the lowest overall environmental and social costs.

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36 Comments sorted by

  1. David Arthur

    resistance gnome

    Thanks for this article, pointing out that no technology is utilised without consequences.

    Prof Kirk-Davidoff writes that: "We need to ask, what combination of wind power, solar power, nuclear power and fossil fuel power, together with what combination of measures to remove carbon from the atmosphere, will result in the lowest overall environmental and social costs."

    I don't know what proportions of solar, wind and nuclear power are required to achieve these "lowest overall environmental and social costs", but I do know that they must sum to 100%.

    That is, the proportion of power provided by fossil fuel required for "lowest overall environmental and social costs" is 0%.

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    1. Daniel Kirk-Davidoff

      Adjunct Associate Professor Atmospheric and Oceanic Science at University of Maryland

      In reply to David Arthur

      Hi David, I'm sure you agree that we need some kind of glide path to zero fossil fuels- zero fossil fuels tomorrow would have a pretty high social cost. But I agree that we should be aiming for a comprehensive transformation of our energy system into one that's sustainable, for the natural world and for us, for thousands of years.

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    2. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Daniel Kirk-Davidoff

      A glide path to zero fossil fuels would be provided as an automatic consequence of James Hansen's carbon fee - whatever $ per tonne at which it's introduced, its rate is then increased year by year until fossil fuel use has been priced out of the economy altogether - a process facilitated by technological advances.

      I've been thinking about the optimal way to steadily drive fossil fuel use out of our economies for many years, and concluded that consumption taxation would be the optimal tool some years before publication of "Storms of My Grandchildren", in which I first read of Prof Hansen's preferred scheme.

      In the comments after another 'The Conversation' piece, Katharine Lake & Brad Jessup's "Let’s link up: joining our carbon price to California’s" (23 Jan 2013) I set out my ideas for carbon pricing via a revenue-neutral consumption tax in greater detail: (https://theconversation.com/lets-link-up-joining-our-carbon-price-to-californias-11701).

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  2. Paul Richards

    integral operating system

    Appreciate the altitude and worldview.
    Daniel Kirk-Davidoff wrote; "We need to ask, what combination of wind power, solar power, nuclear power and fossil fuel power, together with what combination of measures to remove carbon from the atmosphere, will result in the lowest overall environmental and social costs." We certainly do.

    The only source of energy without a time line of cost metrics for analysis is nuclear energy.

    All we have is forward projections from consultants from the Military…

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    1. Michael Shand
      Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Tester

      In reply to Paul Richards

      The latest developments of GenIV reactors are worth a look at and are already being piloted in china and india

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    2. Paul Richards

      integral operating system

      In reply to Michael Shand

      Appreciate your perspective, however most of the meme pushing nuclear is coming from those wilfully blind to one or both sides of the issue. Any assessment has to include the downside of nuclear energy and lack of integration with the planets ecosystem.
      Michael Shand wrote;" The latest developments of GenIV reactors ... worth a look at." True, I have extensively.
      They are sold under the very same language as the current reactor, using the very same ccporporate consultant sales brochures.
      But…

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    3. Michael Shand
      Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Tester

      In reply to Paul Richards

      I feel many of the same criticism could be made of renewable energy, also, I feel that your assertion that the new reactors are being sold under the same language as the old ones is not true or at least not important.

      It's the same line that I hear from AGW deniers that state the latest claims by scientists are using the exact same rhetoric as the claims from the 70's and 80's from people who were certain that the world would be destroyed by now......maybe thats true, but just because you listened…

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    4. Paul Richards

      integral operating system

      In reply to Michael Shand

      Appreciate the response. Disappointed you clearly have not examined both sides of the Gen IV 'story' examining the downside and facts of the issue.
      Michael Shand wrote; " ... I feel many of the same criticism could be made of renewable energy.." Yes from the tone of your comments that is transparent. But Facts are not feelings.
      Whereas the metrics do exist for renewables, the whole cycle is there to analyse, but resisted by those promoting the current energy corporations distribution paradigm…

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    5. Michael Shand
      Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Tester

      In reply to Paul Richards

      On your suggestion I'll be sure to take a look at the cons to the GEN IV reactors, if you could provide a source you find useful and reliable that would be great as well

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    6. Paul Richards

      integral operating system

      In reply to Michael Shand

      Michael Shand wrote; "On your suggestion ... could provide a source you find useful and reliable that would be great as well" There are many documentaries / papers / commentary on nuclear energy production, LFTR and the nuclear cycle*.
      Anyone linked to the current nuclear lobbyist will leave out the bad parts to promote the 'story' about LFTR.
      When scanning for data the most important issue is source, just verify there is no vested interest. Not hard using the internet. Who behind the group…

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    7. Paul Richards

      integral operating system

      In reply to Steve Hindle

      Appreciate and respect the perspective, however from what altitude is the worldview?
      Steve Hindle wrote; "There is going to be an ongoing debate [against] ..... environmentalists who will always be strongly opposed (some even want to close down all discussion on the subject)." No need to close down discussion Steve.
      Can you please explain what has been exposed in the counter point to the video* promoted in the article you put up?
      Then let's just see who wants to shut down the discussion ...
      ___________________
      * http://youtu.be/F3N_Gx3XSyM

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    8. Steve Hindle

      logged in via email @bigpond.com

      In reply to Paul Richards

      Paul, the article was just to highlight the debate between environmentalists over nuclear.
      The line about some wanting to close down debate on nuclear is my opinion based on many comments I read. When it comes to low carbon energy production I have seen people arguing that nuclear is just a "distraction". To me the implication is that they would prefer it not included in the debate over future energy production.
      ".. what altitude is the worldview? " I don't know what you are getting at.

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    9. Michael Shand
      Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Tester

      In reply to Paul Richards

      "No one would buy a car from a 'salesman' without doing research" - you over-estimate human beings

      "LFTR on The Conversation without exception. This is an untested nuclear energy reactor" - you need to calm down before you make claims like this which are demonstratably not true, there has been plenty of testing, you yourself even said that the testing shows it can't work

      I didn't get a chance last night to look at it but thanks for the link, will definitely have a read this weekend

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    10. Paul Richards

      integral operating system

      In reply to Steve Hindle

      Appreciate the further comment, however there is still no comment on the lack of failsafe in the nuclear energy option.
      Steve Hindle wrote; ".. what altitude is the worldview? " I don't know what you are getting at." Not surprised. On this thread there is no indication of clear support.
      Except one, promotion of an article pushing the IAEA solution.
      So the question stands about your perspective; "... however from what altitude is the worldview?
      Is it an integral view or one based on the current paradigm promoted by this eras meritocracy?
      "Can you please explain what has been exposed in the counter point to the video* promoted in the article you put up?" It's still hanging as is the question of altitude.
      __________________________
      http://youtu.be/F3N_Gx3XSyM

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    11. Steve Hindle

      logged in via email @bigpond.com

      In reply to Paul Richards

      Paul, I don't know what height above sea level has to do with world view. Are you confusing altitude with attitude?
      I will watch the video but as it goes for 3 hours it will not be today.

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    12. Paul Richards

      integral operating system

      In reply to Michael Shand

      Michael Shand wrote; "I didn't get a chance last night to look at it but thanks for the link, will definitely have a read this weekend" That is a disappointing response because it is a video, to be seen not read.
      Michael Shand wrote; " ... This is an untested nuclear energy reactor ..." Yes, the theory model reactors and physics have been done or tested. I used the analogy of buying a car. Just what car would anyone buy if the vehicle had not gone through extensive testing of it's life cycle? Put…

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    13. Michael Shand
      Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Tester

      In reply to Paul Richards

      Paul I didn't read your comments till this morning mate, whilst my life is pathetic and misreable, I still do have somethings to do that do not involve the internet, hope you understand

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    14. Paul Richards

      integral operating system

      In reply to Steve Hindle

      Appreciate the comment Steve.
      Steve Hindle wrote; "I will watch the video but as it goes for 3 hours it will not be today." Good to read, will look forward to your take on the video.
      Aware that value systems and life conditions have a bearing on personal / group worldview. The very old meme of '... cannot see the forest for the trees' is a comment on personal 'altitude' just how wide a view we have.
      Close to sea level we can only see the trees, higher 'altitude' we can see the forest.
      Does that clarify the line of logic?
      It is the language of strategic foresight, futurist, my field. I do apologise for any misunderstanding.

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    15. Paul Richards

      integral operating system

      In reply to Michael Shand

      Michael, that's ok. All our life conditions vary appreciate the comment.
      Thankfully the 'people' who get these threads shut down are a little subdued at the moment. So we may get a chance to continue the conversation, I hope so.

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  3. Ketan Joshi

    Research and Communications Officer at Infigen Energy

    It's quite fascinating to see what happens when research like the ones quoted above are thrown out of all proportion by news outlet hostile towards renewable energy sources:

    http://www.csmonitor.com/Science/2012/0430/Don-t-believe-the-headlines.-Wind-farms-do-not-cause-global-warming

    Not long ago, the meme of 'WIND FARMS CAUSE GLOBAL WARMING HOW IRONIC' spread like wildfire across the world's media landscape, fuelled by terrible stories on Reuters and Fox News.

    "Wind power does affect the climate" is technically correct, but liable to be quickly and reliably misunderstood, as I suspect this news will be. It betrays the difference between emotional and deliberative reasoning. The passionate few hoping for bad news on wind aren't going to notice you're referring to local effects, rather than significant changes to the global climate system. They won't really care even if they do, I suspect.

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    1. Daniel Kirk-Davidoff

      Adjunct Associate Professor Atmospheric and Oceanic Science at University of Maryland

      In reply to Ketan Joshi

      I agree that it's really important to write carefully, so as to avoid giving grist for rumors. But we're building wind turbines because we want that choice to affect the climate (by reducing fossil fuel use), so there's no avoiding the topic. I think the best approach is to study these things to death (studies are cheap- Vautard et al.'s work probably cost France than one tenth of a wind turbine), to build everyone's confidence that we have a good sense of what consequences of our actions will be.

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    2. Ketan Joshi

      Research and Communications Officer at Infigen Energy

      In reply to Daniel Kirk-Davidoff

      Well said - totally agree with you. It's more harmful to the progress of a technology to ignore potential issues, or sweep them under a rug (the integration of wind technology into an energy system is another good example - some challenges, but there's worth in acknowledging and studying these)

      Thanks for the reply,
      Ketan

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  4. Michael Shand
    Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Software Tester

    Ahhh wouldn't the massive amount of planes in the air also have an affect? lets just be consistent in our approach here

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  5. James Hill

    Industrial Designer

    OK, since the amount of power in any particular "wind field" accessed by turbines can be estimated using the same formulae which apply to the turbines, what is the proportion of energy being extracted over any given period , by the turbines compared to the total amount of energy available.
    1%? 3%,What?
    High school physics, ladies and gentlemen, you can derive the formulae and figures yourselves.
    That is what a public education is for.
    Not information critical to any argument concerning effects upon climate?
    What is this, the age of innumeracy?
    Ooh , ooh ooh! Nobody Knows!!!
    This is getting beyond pathetic.

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  6. Craig Myatt

    Industrial Designer / R&D

    I am not sure if James was trying to make this point too...but:

    - Has the study considered the first law of thermodynamics (conservations of energy)?
    - Is the work done and so the energy removed by turbines from the climate system so small that it is negligible?

    (1st Law is: The increase in the internal energy of a system is equal to the amount of energy added by heating the system, minus the amount lost as a result of the work done by the system on its surroundings.)

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    1. Paul Richards

      integral operating system

      In reply to George Papadopoulos

      Coincidence - Altocumulus cloud are found at 2,000 – 6,100 m. It is really incredible how our cognitive biases can shape our worldview.
      But George don't believe me.

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    2. George Papadopoulos

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Paul Richards

      Paul, I took a good wide shot so you could see the absence of such cloud formations in the sky except downwind from the wind turbines. So who is talking of cognitive biases? Maybe there is something we have not anticipated about wind turbines...

      And I have obseved similar cloud pattern peculiarities around wind turbines many times before, but this was the least ambiguent.

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    3. Paul Richards

      integral operating system

      In reply to George Papadopoulos

      George - " I have obseved similar cloud pattern" Good, take it to Dr. Dr.Karl Kruszelnicki - as a question on triple J thursday morning at 11:00hrs. It's a great question.
      But if you do your study and accept the 2,000 – 6,100 m range of the Altocumulus cloud you have recorded. There is no issue, because the affect of a turbine at that altitude is a puppy breath if any.
      As I said don't belive me. Think about it or ask a university physicist, or climate scientist.
      Feelings are not facts. Prove me wrong your feeling are right, that's ok.
      Just use current science.

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    4. George Papadopoulos

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Paul Richards

      Sorry Paul, but I'm not going to place my two feet into your "scientific boot".

      I know what the skies look like and what's weird and unusual.

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    5. Paul Richards

      integral operating system

      In reply to George Papadopoulos

      George wrote; " ... skies look like and what's weird and unusual." Appreciate your feelings on the issue.
      What classification of cloud are they George?
      I can only go off your video.

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    6. Daniel Kirk-Davidoff

      Adjunct Associate Professor Atmospheric and Oceanic Science at University of Maryland

      In reply to George Papadopoulos

      Nice shot. Those clouds show the presence of gravity waves in the atmosphere, probably due to mountains upstream. The location with respect to the wind farm is probably not a total coincidence- the turbines are located on a hill downstream from the mountains, and the hill is there because of the same geological forces that made the mountains. But the turbines don't make the waves!

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    7. George Papadopoulos

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Daniel Kirk-Davidoff

      Daniel, have you ever entertained the thought that the sound energy from the wind turbines could be accentuating the gravity waves?

      I have been living in the area for ten years but the other hills in the region, particularly those around my place have never been noted to produce such formations.

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