Wind Power May Cause Significant U.S. Warming That Would Take 100 Years To Offset

The Klondike II wind farm rises over the landscape near Wasco, Oregon.
Melanie Conner / Getty Images

Wind power appears to be a better alternative to burning fossil fuels. For one, it does not generate greenhouse gas, which is largely blamed for man-made global warming.

Findings of a new study, however, suggest that wind power also has unwanted impact on climate.

Study researchers Lee Miller and David Keith, from Harvard University, found that high amount of wind power may actually mean more climate warming, at least regionally and in the immediate decades to come.

Their study, which was published in the journal Joule on Oct. 4, found that if wind power supplies all electricity demands of the country, the temperature in the Continental United States would increase by 0.24 ˚C because wind turbines redistribute heat in the atmosphere.

“Wind turbines generate electricity but also alter the atmospheric flow,” Miller explained in a release from Cell Press published by Science Daily.

“Those effects redistribute heat and moisture in the atmosphere, which impacts climate. We attempted to model these effects on a continental scale.”

The increase is significant in that it could exceed the reduction in US warming that the country achieved by decarbonizing its electricity sector this century.

The researchers also found that it would take about a century to offset the warming with wind-related reductions in the concentration of greenhouse gas.

The sun sets beyond a turbine in the Klondike II wind farm.
  Melanie Conner / Getty Images

Keith said that the direct impact of wind power on climate is instant and the benefits accumulate slowly.

He said that wind power would be enormously cleaner compared with gas or coal if the perspective is the next thousand years, but if the perspective is the next 10 years, wind power may, in some respect, have more climate impact than gas or coal.

The researchers said that wind power may beat coal by any environmental measure but this does not mean that its impacts are negligible.

While it is crucial to make a quick transition away from fossil fuels to stop massive emission of planet-warming carbon, the researchers said that it is important to make choices among various low-carbon technologies.

The researchers have found that solar power has about 10 times less impact than wind in terms of temperature difference per unit of energy generation. Nonetheless, it too has its own environmental and social impacts.

“Wind’s overall environmental impacts are surely less than fossil energy. Yet, as the energy system is decarbonized, decisions between wind and solar should be informed by estimates of their climate impacts,” the researchers wrote in their study.