Here is an interesting story that I have been too busy to discuss in recent days, and it is something that regular blog readers were well aware of over the last couple of years – and that is - wind turbines cause local warming in their places of operation. A recent study of large wind farms in Texas has shown that the farms cause warmer temperatures, particularly at night. The wind turbines keep the air “mixed” and thus the air cannot “settle down” overnight and allow temperatures to drop as much as they otherwise would. This of course has caused some snickers of irony from some AGW skeptics. It should be understood that the wind turbines don’t cause “global warming” (directly), but the warming of the lower levels of the atmosphere will affect local microclimates. Average annual temperatures for people in the “business end of the atmosphere” (the boundary layer) will go up around large wind farms.
Notice the word “directly” used just above. I say directly because wind power, while touted as the most viable alternative energy solution based on EROI, is certainly not perfect. I have mentioned many of the quandaries and problems with large scale wind power before but I also wonder about the lifetime costs of a large turbine. I am unsure if the total cost is accurately accounted for. Cement production is one of the largest contributors to fossil fuel emissions around the world and every large turbine sits on a mammoth block of cement. Many of the parts of a wind turbine require rare metals and minerals which need to be mined. Large wind farms require new high power transmission lines to be installed which adds to the total cost. There is also the issue of back-up power plants that need to be in operation or built for the times the wind is not blowing. Also, what is probably left out of the life-cycle cost is the decommissioning expense. Much of the wind turbine installation and operation is also subsidized, so the true costs are hidden in that manner as well.
One of the more unfortunate facets of wind farm operation is the effect on flying animals. It is now estimated (by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) that up to a half million birds, bats, and other flying animals die in the blades of wind turbines every year in the U.S., a total which might be higher because it is hard to count all the dead birds because predators eat them and or drag them off before they can be counted.
This number of birds and bats is a lot lower than deaths from other known sources, but it is still concerning. A half million birds per year might seem like a good trade-off to avoid theoretical catastrophic global warming, but I am not sure. Solar panels are a lot more friendly toward animals and birds. There are many other methods of conserving or producing energy that could lower the need for installing even more wind farms. One thing is for sure, the concern over the loss of animal life due to wind turbines pales in comparison to pressure on the fossil fuel industry. If a refinery or shipping mishap leads to the death of even one bird or fish, the companies responsible are fined, executives are often jailed or forced to appear before congressional hearings, and they are berated endlessly in the mainstream media.
There are many arguments against wind power, but I am still a general supporter of the industry at small scales, not too much bigger than what has been installed thus far. The negative aspects of large scale wind turbine operation will only become more aparent in years to come if construction continues unabated. It just seems like there has to be a better technological solution for the long term – something that scales up better with less negative side effects.
Have a good weekend! Meteorologist Justin Loew.