US wind power strategy won't be stymied by warming climate

By Martin Leggett - 03 May 2011 16:21:0 GMT
US wind power strategy won't be stymied by warming climate

With the greening of the US economy absolutely essential for any hope of heading off global warming at the pass, wind power is going to have to play a much bigger role in the country's power generation. But what happens when global warming and wind power mix - is it possible that climate change will take the breeze out of the sails of wind power, as it changes the patterns of weather in the US? Thankfully not, if a new paper published in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is on the right track.

A pair of Indiana University scientists have stepped into an increasingly important arena - that of the limits-testing of renewable energy sources - to see how regional climate change maps onto wind power generation. And they found that - for the US at least- global warming is unlikely to spring surprises that could sap the energy flowing from wind farms. It is believed this is the first long-range study into the viability of wind power under anticipated changes from global warming.

It has been known for some time that wind patterns are very likely to change as the planet warms. There will be shifts in patterns of wind strength, with some areas of the US getting more blowy, and others less so. But until now, detailed mapping of the windy losers and winners hasn't been done.

In order to create such a map, the two atmospheric scientists - Rebecca Barthelmie and Sara Pryor - tested three state-of-the-art regional climate models, covering the continental US and northern Mexico. The wind outputs of these, for the current climate, was back-checked against real US wind data, with the Canadian Regional Climate Model (CRCM) coming out on top.

Then all 3 models were put through their paces, modeling climate change over the next 3-5 decades. They were hooked to the outputs from global climate models, which handle the evolution of the atmosphere and oceans under rising greenhouse gases. The global warming scenario chosen was a moderate one of 2 degrees Celsius. Then the changes in predicted wind density were mapped out, and compared to current, and likely future, locations of wind farms.

It was found that most areas showed no significant changes in wind density. But two areas stood out as seeming likely to be on the receiving end of strengthening wind blasts - the northern Great Lakes area, and much of northern Mexico. Parts of New Mexico, Ohio, and Texas also benefited from greater wind densities.

That's good news for plans to lift wind power from 2% to 20% of US power output. Pryor observed that ''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.''

So whatever else global warming will bring trailing in its wake, at least it won't be killing a potential deliverance off, in the shape of wind power in the continental US.