Large-Scale US Wind Power Would Cause Warming That Would Take Roughly a Century to Offset

  • Date: 11/10/18
  • Cell Press

Researchers report the most accurate modelling yet of how increasing wind power would affect climate, finding that large-scale wind power generation would warm the Continental United States 0.24 degrees Celsius because wind turbines redistribute heat in the atmosphere.

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“Wind turbines generate electricity but also alter the atmospheric flow,” says first author Lee Miller. “Those effects redistribute heat and moisture in the atmosphere, which impacts climate. We attempted to model these effects on a continental scale.”

To compare the impacts of wind and solar, Keith and Miller started by establishing a baseline for the 2012-2014 US climate using a standard weather forecasting model. Then they added in the effect on the atmosphere of covering one third of the Continental US with enough wind turbines to meet present-day US electricity demand. This is a relevant scenario if wind power plays a major role in decarbonizing the energy system in the latter half of this century. This scenario would warm the surface temperature of the Continental US by 0.24 degrees Celsius.

Their analysis focused on the comparison of climate impacts and benefits. They found that it would take about a century to offset that effect with wind-related reductions in greenhouse gas concentrations. This timescale was roughly independent of the specific choice of total wind power generation in their scenarios.

“The direct climate impacts of wind power are instant, while the benefits accumulate slowly,” says Keith. “If your perspective is the next 10 years, wind power actually has — in some respects — more climate impact than coal or gas. If your perspective is the next thousand years, then wind power is enormously cleaner than coal or gas.”

Reference

Lee M. Miller, David W. Keith. Climatic Impacts of Wind Power. Joule, 2018; DOI: 10.1016/j.joule.2018.09.009

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