Potential Impacts From Wind Farms

By Matt Palmer

One main thrust of this documentary project is to explore the positive and negative impacts of major energy systems. So much focus right now is on the negative impacts that result from our use of fossil fuels, and there is no doubt that those effects are real and serious. But, to a large extent the debate over our energy future focuses mostly on the bad impacts of one energy source, while portraying the alternatives as having little or no impact. Yet, we know that our world exists in a state of yin and yang, for every cause there is an effect. Understanding as best we can what the potential effects are before global implementation of new energy systems, so that we can deal with the impacts would seem to be prudent and practical. Those who deal with industrial projects know that taking a system from small scale to large scale introduces a new set of problems.

Over the last many years we have seen a huge shift to build new energy systems based on wind and solar power. Wind and solar can be very useful, with great potential for helping to decentralize electrical transmission. There are benefits and drawbacks to this particularly as it pertains to providing consistent and reliable power. Battery technology is a big hold back. There are certainly other issues as well, but today I want to focus on something else.

One question I have had for three years, and have struggled to find much if any information on, is the question of what the possible impacts might be from large scale wind farms? We know that wind turbines are a major concern regarding bird and bat mortality. Further there have been concerns about potential impacts from the noise produced by the turbines on humans. There needs to be more study of this issue, and it should be extended to sound impacts on birds, animals, and marine life.

One of my questions has been: what happens when you slow the wind down? Cities, for example, create their own weather systems from tall buildings stopping or slowing the wind. Then we should consider if is there an impact from the turning of the turbine blades and mixing the warm and cold air? Remember that big turbines tower more than 400 feet in the air with blades the size of football fields, so their reach within the immediate atmosphere is reasonably big. I’ve been trying to find any research into these potential impacts, and today, thanks to Twitter, I did find a study on the impacts of wind turbines conducted at the University of Illinois.

This is only one study, but it certainly points to potential impacts that could be of concern, especially with regards to large scale wind farms, and offshore wind. It doesn’t mean we should stop wind development by any means, but it does point to the importance of asking bigger questions around industrial scale development of alternative energy.

We know that we need to transition our electrical system to cleaner and hopefully more sustainable systems, but we should not rush, or else we risk repeating past errors.

The link to this study is included below. Here is a quote from the Abstract.

Wind power is one of the fastest growing energy sources in the world, most of the growth being in large wind farms that are often located on agricultural land near residential communities. This study explores the possible impacts of such wind farms on local hydrometeorology using a mesoscale model equipped with a rotor parameterization based on data from a commercial wind turbine. Results show that wind farms significantly affect near-surface air temperature and humidity as well as surface sensible and latent heat fluxes. The signs of the impacts, i.e., increase or decrease, depend on the static stability and total water mixing ratio lapse rates of the atmosphere. The magnitudes of these impacts are not only constrained by the hub-height wind speed but also depend to some extent on the size of the wind farms. Wind farms also affect the hydrometeorology of an area up to 18–23 km downwind. More work is required to conclusively estimate the length-scale of wind farm wakes. This study is one of the first few to provide realistic estimates of possible impacts of wind farms. The model developed and used in this study can help in assessing and addressing the environmental impacts of wind farms thereby ensuring the long-term sustainability of wind power.

http://www.atmos.illinois.edu/~sbroy/publ/jweia2011.pdf

About Unintended Consequences Documentary Project

I'm Producing and directing a multi-platform documentary project on global energy called "Unintended Consequences".
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