Do wind turbines cause climate change?

  • By: Preetam
  • Date: December 4, 2021
  • Time to read: 4 min.

Well, do they? 

When trying to understand this question, we need to realize that we get nothing for free in this life, and there can be no energy generated without some kind of by-product. 

It is safe to say, though, that the current coal energy systems we are using are having a significant and long-lasting effect on the warming of our planet. 

Are the by-products of wind power worse than the by-products of coal energy?  No, they most certainly are not. But wind power is not without impact, and neither are any other forms of “green” energy. 

Where does this idea come from? 

(Hint: Misinterpretation of a science paper) 

Lee M. Millar and David W. Keith published a paper in 2018 in the journal Joule titled Climatic Impacts of Wind Power.  In this paper, the two scientists looked at what would happen if the entire continental US was run on wind power. 

Their findings?

Millar and Keith estimated an increase in surface area temperatures of 0.24°C. This, truthfully, does not look good for the turbines. 

Many green-energy nay-sayers use this study to bolster their lobbying for fossil fuels. Their claim that wind turbines are more dangerous than conventional fossil fuels is misinformed, perhaps intentionally, missing a few important facts. 

Fact one: Wind Farms do not actually raise the temperature of the earth. 

0.24°C. The unit on the lips of all those touting the dangers of wind power. 

And truthfully, it does seem extreme. 

However, this unit refers to an increase in the wind turbine’s surface temperature and not an average increase in the atmosphere. 

How does this happen? 

Well, it’s a well-established fact that hot air rises, right? 

When wind turbines are present, the hot air that would typically rise off the earth is displaced by the turbine’s blades and brought back down to the earth’s surface. 

This constant cycling of atmospheric heat is what is responsible for this ominous 0.24°C

But this heat was around anyway! 

Wind turbines only move the heat already present around a bit, and it settles lower to the ground. 

Fact two: Wind Farms do not contribute to the Greenhouse Effect. 

The Greenhouse Effect is a natural process by which heat is trapped in the atmosphere as it tries to leave. This trapping of heat is caused by Greenhouse gases like methane and carbon dioxide, among other things like water vapor. 

This absorbs heat then warms the earth. (Hence the name, global warming) 

Carbon Dioxide and methane exist in the atmosphere naturally, and that’s great to know. 

But, human influences (coal power plants, combustion engines, bovine agriculture) have increased the levels of these gases in the atmosphere to dangerous levels over the last 100 years. 

We are seeing unprecedented increases in temperature because of this. 

Wind turbines, though, use no internal combustion to function. 

By their very name, we learn that they harness the power of the wind to generate power. And it is on this point; they shine through as a powerful green alternative to coal power plants. 

A wind turbine moves air around, but it does not release any gases into the atmosphere. 

Fact three: Wind farms will not contribute to the long-term warming of the planet. 

Let’s take another look at that 0.24°C temperature increase everyone is frightened by. 

This is an immediate and short-term temperature increase that was based on models whereby wind farms would power the entire continental USA. 

There are two points to unpack here. 

Point one: The immediate and short-term temperature increase. 

If wind farms were suddenly turned off, the displaced air causing the temperature increase would settle, the hot air would rise, and the temperature increase would dissipate. There are no cumulative effects of a wind turbine. 

As simple as that. 

By contrast, the effects of greenhouse gases are both cumulative and take thousands of years to repair. 

The release of carbon dioxide does lasting damage to the atmosphere, and it is reaching a tipping point for our planet. 

Point two: The US cannot be powered solely by wind power. 

There is just no physical way to power the entire continental US by wind farms alone. And there shouldn’t need to be. 

The best bet the earth has is if there is a collection of different sustainable energy systems all contributing to the grid. 

Fact four: Wind turbines do have some ecological impacts 

Nothing in life comes for free, even green energy. 

While Wind farms may not contribute to increasing the greenhouse effect, it does come with a few caveats. 

Flying animals

Wind Farms are not friends to them. Giant spinning blades and the displacement of air leave many bird and bat species in a dangerous space. 

There are also potential impacts on the migratory paths of other animals. 

These factors, coupled with the fact that turbines are made using potentially unsustainable materials, paint a fuller picture of the impacts of Wind Farms on our environment. 

In summary: 

It is safe to say that Wind farms are a cleaner and greener form of energy to fossil fuel power plants. 

But they do not come without some impacts, although these pale in comparison to our current energy solutions’ detrimental effects on Planet Earth.

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