BACKGROUND: Wind farms are growing in popularity as an alternative energy source, but an increasing number of critics are concerned about possible negative impacts on local weather. Researchers at Duke and Princeton Universities used computer modeling to determine any possible adverse impacts of a large wind farm in the Great Plains region.
WHAT THEY FOUND: Large groups of power-generating windmills could have a small influence on a region's climate. All large wind turbines disrupt natural airflow to extract energy from wind. During the day, the effects from the disturbed airflow are negligible, since natural turbulence mixes the lower layers of the atmosphere. But the researchers found that in the predawn hours, when the atmosphere is less turbulent, a large windmill array could influence the local climate, raising temperatures by about 2 degrees Celsius (about 4 Fahrenheit) for several hours. The rotating blades could also redirect high-speed winds down to the Earth's surface, boosting evaporation of soil moisture.
WHAT IS WIND: Wind is a form of solar energy, caused by the uneven warming of the earth's surface. This is why air masses have different temperatures and pressures, and are constantly moving to find a balance. The higher the difference in pressure, the swifter the air moves and the stronger the wind. Mankind has used wind energy for thousands of years, using it to pump water, grind flour, press olives, and even to explore the world in wind-driven sailing ships.
WHAT ARE WIND FARMS: Wind farms use windmill turbines to generate electricity by converting the kinetic energy of the wind into mechanical energy. The wind's force is gathered by the long blades of the turbine, causing them to rotate (mechanical energy). This rotation starts a generator, which produces low-voltage electric energy.
BENEFITS: Wind power is a renewable energy source that requires no fuel to operate and does not produce any emissions that are harmful to the environment. Wind turbines are made of plastic and metallic materials, so they don't have any radioactive or chemical impact either. Wind farms take up much less space than conventional power plants, and they also don't produce noise pollution.
DRAWBACKS: Electricity produced from windmills generally costs more than that produced from traditional sources like natural gas and coal. At best, wind farms produce electricity at an efficiency rate of 30 percent, compared to a 70 percent efficiency rate from natural gas and coal. Wind energy is also unreliable. Electricity can't be stored: it must be produced on demand, yet wind is inherently unpredictable. Back-up generators are needed to make sure enough electricity is available to meet demand.