MIT analysis suggests wind turbines could cause temperatures to rise and fall
Turbines installed in water could cause drop in temperature; land turbines could cause riseCAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Although wind power has emerged as a viable renewable energy source in recent years — one that proponents say could lessen the threat of global warming — a new MIT analysis may serve to temper enthusiasm about wind power, at least at very large scales.
Ron Prinn, TEPCO Professor of Atmospheric Science, and principal research scientist Chien Wang of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, used a climate model to analyze the effects of millions of wind turbines that would need to be installed across vast stretches of land and ocean to generate wind power on a global scale. Such a massive deployment could indeed impact the climate, they found, though not necessarily with the desired outcome.
In a paper published online Feb. 22 in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, Wang and Prinn suggest that using wind turbines to meet 10 percent of global energy demand in 2100 could cause temperatures to rise by one degree Celsius in the regions on land where the wind farms are installed, including a smaller increase in areas beyond those regions. Their analysis indicates the opposite result for wind turbines installed in water: a drop in temperatures by one degree Celsius over those regions.
Prinn cautioned against interpreting the study as an argument against wind power, urging that it be used to guide future research that explores the downsides of large-scale wind power before significant resources are invested to build vast wind farms. “We’re not pessimistic about wind,” he said. “We haven’t absolutely proven this effect, and we’d rather see that people do further research.”
How they did it: Using a climate model, the researchers simulated the aerodynamic effects of large-scale wind farms — located both on land and on the ocean — to analyze how the atmosphere, ocean and land would respond over a 60-year span.
For the land analysis, they simulated the effects of wind farms by using data about how objects similar to turbines, such as undulating hills and clumps of trees, affect surface “roughness,” or friction that can disturb wind flow. After adding this data to the model, the researchers observed that the surface air temperature over the wind farm regions increased by about one degree Celsius, which averages out to an increase of .15 degrees Celsius over the entire global surface.
According to Prinn and Wang, this temperature increase occurs because the wind turbines affect two processes that play critical roles in determining surface temperature and atmospheric circulation: vertical turbulent motion and horizontal heat transport. Both processes are responsible for moving heat away from Earth’s surface.
In the analysis, the wind turbines on land reduced wind speed, particularly on the downwind side of the wind farms, which reduced the strength of the turbulent motion and horizontal heat transport processes. This resulted in less heat being transported to the upper parts of the atmosphere, as well as to other regions farther away from the wind farms.
In contrast, when examining ocean-based wind farms, Prinn and Wang found that wind turbines cooled the surface by more than one degree Celsius. They said that these results are unreliable, however, because in their analysis, they modeled the effects of wind turbines by introducing surface friction in the form of large artificial waves. But they acknowledge that this is not an accurate comparison, meaning that a better way of simulating marine-based wind turbines must be developed before reliable conclusions can be made.
Next steps: Prinn and Wang’s next step is to address how to simulate ocean-based wind farms more accurately. They plan to collaborate with aeronautical engineers to develop parameters for the climate model that will allow them to simulate turbines in coastal waters.
Source: “Potential climatic impacts and reliability of very large-scale wind farms,” by C. Wang and R. G. Prinn, in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, published online Feb. 22, 2010.
Funding: This work was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy, and the Corporate, Governmental and Foundation sponsors of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change.
Written by: Morgan Bettex, MIT News Office