Myth-busting claims that wind farm cause global warming

All energy technologies have nuances and drawbacks. New research published in Nature Climate Change found that wind farms are no exception.

Specifically, the study found that large tracts of wind turbines in remote areas of Texas appear to be increasing local surface temperatures. The results of this study have been misconstrued by certain media outlets as ironic evidence that a supposedly "green" technology is contributing to global warming, despite the lack of any supporting evidence.

Here are the facts: The team of researchers, led by SUNY Albany environmental scientist Liming Zhou, analyzed surface temperature data of Texan wind farms – the data courtesy of NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites. Zhou and his colleagues found that the immediate surroundings of the wind farms rose an average of 0.72 degrees Celsius between 2003 and 2011. The effect was most prominent at night. Some of the team has speculated that this localized warming trend could be an effect of the turbines pulling down warm air from higher altitudes at night, when the air above the land would otherwise be cooler.

In a recent University at Albany press release, Zhou warned that "the estimated warming trends only apply to the study region and to the study period, and thus should not be interpolated linearly into other regions (e.g., globally) or over longer periods (e.g., for another 20 years)," he said. "For a given wind farm, once there are no new wind turbines added, the warming effect may reach a stable level."

Yet exaggerated interpolation seems to be stock-in-trade for many of the media outlets covering this story. Take, for example, FOX News’ headline: Wind farms are warming the Earth, or that of Forbes: Wind Farms Cause Global Warming! or that of the Inquistr’s: Wind Farms May Contribute to Global Warming, or that of Newser: Latest Global Warming Culprit: Wind Farms. It should be noted that nearly all of these stories contradict their own headlines by explaining that the observed effect was local.

This new study doesn’t necessarily illustrate a causal link between wind turbines and localized warming, let alone temperature change on a global scale. The authors of the Nature paper were the first to admit that further science is needed to determine that exact nature of this link.

If it were true that the spinning blades of wind turbines increased the overall temperature of the planet, as opposed to simply redistributing thermal energy, we would have to rewrite some basic laws of physics, particularly the 2nd law of thermodynamics. This is an important distinction from the burning of fossil fuels, which produces gas that increases how much of the sun’s energy the Earth retains. In this respect, this process contributes to a globally warming climate because the source of energy (the sun) is apart from the system that is warmed (the Earth.)

Rather than inform the public’s perception on climate change, exaggerated coverage of this study has merely justified the common distrust scientists have for journalists.

The reality is that any alternative energy source is going to present problems. Over the past two years, there has been scientific investigation of whether wind turbines can affect the health of proximal residents, though the legitimacy of "Wind Turbine Syndrome", as it was called, was widely questioned. Natural gas has its problems with fracking, nuclear energy with radiation, and even solar cells with electronic waste. This recent study was merely exploring a similar issue in wind energy, but only so that we might effectively deal with it.

Trevor Quirk,