global warming

Wind Power and Global Warming: Do the Numbers Add Up?


Science Daily has announced that “Large-scale US wind power would cause warming that would take roughly a century to offset”. The headline introduces a review of a new study done by David W Keith, an engineering and public policy professor at Harvard University, and Lee Miller, first author, also at Harvard U. They state that supplying 0.5 terawatts of wind generated power (the States’ current electric consumption in total) would raise U.S. land surface temperatures .024 degrees by the 21st century. Compared to warming estimates for conventionally generated electricity, this isn’t much. But the authors say it’s 10 times what could be expected from solar power.


The Wind Research is a Rough Estimate – Real Rough

The investigation, published in Joule, October 4th, was done using modelling only. No actual physical measurements were involved, although the authors state that 10 observational, and 40 studies of other kinds, link wind with climate impacts. Unfortunately, these papers or specifics about impacts, weren’t named. An accompanying report – published in another journal, Environmental Research Letters – is said to involve observations that validate their simulation. But all of them are all behind paywalls.

The authors do say that wind power has decided benefits, also putting it forward that studying potential impacts of new technology is very important, And who would disagree? But has enough study been done to back up the claims made here? Is half a terawatt of production by 2100 a reasonable projection? The idea that wind generators are headed for covering a third of the U.S. land area seems a little far fetched. And the wind-maps indicate there isn’t sufficient wind speeds to make it work.


What’s Going on with Wind Globally?

To put the numbers into better perspective, I looked up the rosiest predictions for wind expansion that I could find. Here’s what the Global Wind Energy Council – obviously a big fan – has to say about how much wind power there could be by 2050.

According to GWAS, the U.S. generated about 17% of 2017 ‘s global wind production of 539 gigawatts – a little under  100 GW. They estimate that by 2030, wind could reach 2 TW – up to 17-19% of global production – and 25-30% of total electrical generation by 2050. If things were to keep up at this clip, world output might reach 6 TW by the turn of the century.

But, like the Harvard study, GWEC’s ambitious world expansion estimates don’t take into account the space all of these generators would take up, even if there was enough wind to justify building them all. Unless there’s some major break-through vastly upping generator output, we’ll most likely run out worthwhile wind sites, rather than have to stop due to warming issues.


What Goes Up Might Heat Up, Too


The idea that moving the atmosphere around leads to warming needs further study. All new technology requires proper evaluation to anticipate potential downsides. And maybe someday it’ll be done before the new stuff is already in service.

But if mixing up the atmosphere leads to unwanted changes, then there’s more to look into than just wind turbines. Might aircraft engines, or even the vehicles themselves speeding around the sky, contribute to warming? Now might be the time to do some checking up – before the money and effort is poured into new air travel technology.


Is the Sky the Limit or Just the Next Challenge?


Wind power can only go so far, and is moving slowly enough that there’s time and elbow room to do far more comprehensive investigations into possible warming, or other effects. And it’s as good an excuse as any to learn more about the atmosphere and all of it’s wonders.

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