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While wind power undoubtedly beats fossil fuel-powered energy in environmental measures, large-scale wind power deployment could cause rising temperatures, a new study by Harvard researchers suggests.
While wind power reduces emissions, its climate impacts—if wind plants were to generate 100 percent of U.S. electricity demand—are not negligible, according to Harvard postdoctoral fellow and first author Lee Miller, and to David Keith, the Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Physics at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), and senior author of the paper.
The researchers modeled a scenario in which wind power were to provide all the present U.S. electricity demand and covered one-third of the continental U.S. with enough wind turbines to meet that demand. Using a standard weather-forecasting model, the researchers found that this scenario would warm the surface temperature of the continental U.S. by 0.24 degrees Celsius, with the largest changes occurring at night when surface temperatures would increase by up to 1.5 degrees. Wind turbines actively mix the atmosphere near the ground, which causes the warming.
According to the study, the warming effect is “small compared with projections of 21st century warming, approximately equivalent to the reduced warming achieved by decarbonizing global electricity generation, and large compared with the reduced warming achieved by decarbonizing US electricity with wind.”
“The direct climate impacts of wind power are instant, while the benefits of reduced emissions accumulate slowly,” Keith said, commenting on the study in The Harvard Gazette.
“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 has enormously less climatic impact than coal or gas,” Keith said.
The researcher noted that the study shouldn’t be viewed as a “fundamental critique of wind power,” but as a consideration to begin assessing strategic decisions about decarbonizing electricity generation.
Stanford professor John Dabiri criticized the study and told MIT Technology Review that the modeling assumptions used are known for doing a poor job in predicting the flow in real-world wind farms.
According to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), wind power generated a record 6.3 percent of U.S. electricity in 2017. Currently, there are more than 54,000 wind turbines with a combined capacity of 90,004 MW operating in 41 states, Guam, and Puerto Rico.
The Department of Energy expects total U.S. wind capacity to be 404.25 GW across 48 states in 2050.
By Tsvetana Paraskova for Oilprice.com
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Tsvetana is a writer for Oilprice.com with over a decade of experience writing for news outlets such as iNVEZZ and SeeNews.