Would Global Warming Enhance or Inhibit Wind Energy Production?

Biglow Canyon Wind Farm under construction in Sherman County, Oregon
Climate change models predict favorable weather for wind energy.
(cc) Dave Worth

How will climate change — typically associated with rising global temperatures — affect wind energy production? A recent study focusing on conditions in the United States suggests the net effect will be positive, with areas seeing an increase in wind density outnumbering those with lower wind densities.

The study, by two Indiana University scientists and funded by the National Science Foundation, was published earlier this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Early Edition.

Why is this important? Governments have committed to increasing renewable energy production and achieving these goals will require considerable investment. Thus it’s critical for government and industry to have accurate information about the long-term viability of wind as a power source before deciding to expand its use. But as Rebecca Barthelmie, a professor of Atmospheric Science at Indiana University, Bloomington, and coauthor of the study, noted, “There are a lot of myths out there about the stability of wind patterns.”

By correlating multiple regional climate models, Barthelmie and Principal Investigator Sara Pryor, Indiana University’s provost professor of Atmospheric Science, examined the impact of warmer atmospheric temperatures across America’s lower 48 states. They found that such changes will do little to reduce the amount of available wind or impair wind consistency — wind speeds for each hour of the day — across major wind corridors that are ideal for wind energy production.

The study also indicates that those areas that may see less wind are typically already unsuitable for large-scale wind energy production. Pryor explained, “Areas where the model predicts decreases in wind density are quite limited. Many of the areas where wind density is predicted to decrease are off limits for wind farms anyway.”

More than offsetting these expected decreases, other regions could experience increased wind density, providing greater opportunities for wind energy production. These include areas atop the Great Lakes, southwestern Ohio, eastern New Mexico, southern Texas, as well as large sections of several Mexican states, including Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas, Chihuahua, and Durango.

Pryor noted, “The greatest consistencies in wind density we found were over the Great Plains, which are already being used to harness wind, and over the Great Lakes, which the U.S. and Canada are looking at right now.”

Pryor and Barthelmie examined three different regional climate models for wind density, typically used to identify optimal sites for wind energy developments. The models were based on an assumption of a U.S. climate warming of 2 degrees Celsius relative to the end of the 20th century. These predictions were then compared with actual observations of wind density from 1979 to 2000. The researchers found that predicted values correspond closely with observed data. “There was quite a bit of variability in predicted wind densities, but interestingly, that variability was very similar to the variability we observe in actual wind patterns,” Pryor said.

Overall, how much change can we expect? According to Antoinette WinklerPrins, a Geography and Spatial Sciences Program director at National Science Foundation, not much. “The models tested show that current wind patterns across the US are not expected to change significantly over the next 50 years since the predicted climate variability in this time period is still within the historical envelope of climate variability.”

For the wind energy industry, this is good news. WinklerPrins noted, “The impact on future wind energy production is positive as current wind patterns are expected to stay as they are. This means that wind energy production can continue to occur in places that are currently being targeted for that production.”

At present, only about 2 percent of America’s energy comes from wind. However, it should be possible to increase that to 20 percent by 2030, as many policymakers have pledged to do … if the weather forecast holds true.

Read Wind Energy Systems: Control Engineering Design from Amazon.