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Joule · 2018

Climatic Impacts of Wind Power

Lee M. Miller and David W. Keith

We find that generating today’s US electricity demand (0.5 TWₑ) with wind power would warm Continental US surface temperatures by 0.24℃. Warming arises, in part, from turbines redistributing heat by mixing the boundary layer. Modeled diurnal and seasonal temperature differences are roughly consistent with recent observations of warming at wind farms, reflecting a coherent mechanistic understanding for how wind turbines alter climate. The warming effect is: small compared with projections of 21st century warming, approximately equivalent to the reduced warming achieved by decarbonizing global electricity generation, and large compared with the reduced warming achieved by decarbonizing US electricity with wind. For the same generation rate, the climatic impacts from solar photovoltaic systems are about ten times smaller than wind systems. Wind’s overall environmental impacts are surely less than fossil energy. Yet, as the energy system is decarbonized, decisions between wind and solar should be informed by estimates of their climate impacts.

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