People think of wind as an energy source with few limits, offering an unending power source with distinct capacity advantages over sources that deplete, such as fossil fuel.
Yet, new research in mesoscale atmospheric modeling by UNC Charlotte's Amanda Adams and Harvard University's David Keith, published Monday in the journal Environmental Research Letters, suggests that the power capacity of large-scale wind farms may have been significantly overestimated.
Large-scale wind farms, as many as hundreds of turbines mounted on tall towers and connected to the electrical grid, capture the kinetic energy of the wind. Each wind turbine creates a "wind shadow" behind it, in which the turning blades slow the air. In an effort to reduce the impact of the wind shadows, wind farms space the turbines apart, while still locating as many turbines as they can on the land.
Current estimates of the global wind power resource over land range from 56 to 400 terawatts. Most of these estimates assume implicitly that the turbines extracting the wind energy have little impact on the atmosphere and, therefore, little effect on the energy production.
The new research says that scientists have underestimated the impact that large numbers of wind turbines have on energy production within large farms. Estimates of wind capacity that ignore the effect of wind turbine drag on local winds have assumed that wind power production of 2 and 4 watts per square meter could be sustained over large areas.
The new modeling results suggest that the generating capacity is more likely limited to about 1 watt per square meter at wind farms that are larger than 100 square kilometers.
"It's easy to mistake the term renewable with the term unlimited when discussing energy," said Adams, an assistant professor of geography and earth sciences in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences. "Just because you can keep generating new energy from a source does not mean you can generate energy in an unlimited amount."
The research suggests the potential for wind energy could be significantly less than previously thought.
"It's important to take into account all factors impacting the wind energy, so we can assess the capacity of this critical power resource," Adams stated. "One of the inherent challenges is how harvesting the resource changes it, making it difficult to accurately calculate how much energy can be produced. The modeling we have done provides information that can help in the understanding of our ability to count on renewable energy sources."
The research also considers the impact of wind energy production on temperatures and by extension possibly climate. Wind farms change the natural wind shear and produce various scales of turbulence. Higher potential temperatures are mixed downward due to this turbulence and result in low level warming, the research indicates.
"Our research suggests that how densely the turbines are placed affects not only energy production but also environmental impacts," Adams said. "We see this impact on average temperatures not only at large-scale farms, but also in small-density wind farms. Some things to consider are the magnitude of temperature changes and also the size of the area affected. We think these findings indicate that additional research is needed in these areas."
The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada funded the research.