How Wind Farms Impact Local Climate

A University of Illinois study suggests that wind farms could have an impact on another kind of farm — the old-fashioned, food-growing kind — because of their effect on local temperatures. And that realization might, in turn, lead to new thinking about where wind farms are sited.

For the first time, researchers used actual data instead of computer models to take a look at the local climate impact of wind farms. Their data set was limited — seven weeks of temperatures at the big wind farm in the San Gorgonio Pass along Interstate 10 in inland Southern California. Still, the Illinois team, lead by Somnath Baidya Roy, found that the area immediately around the turbines was slightly cooler during the day and slightly warmer at night than the surrounding region.

image via ACCIONA

Roy identified vertical mixing as the cause: At night, the turbines mixed warmer air aloft with the cooler air below, and during the day there was an opposite effect. But how that all plays out is highly dependent on the specific area, and that’s where Roy figures his research, if verified, might come into play. For instance, the impact on temperatures and thus local agriculture could be minimized if wind farms were sited in areas that weren’t just windy, but also had a naturally turbulent atmosphere.

“We want to identify the best way to sustain an explosive growth in wind energy over the long term,” Roy said in a university press release. “Wind energy is likely to be a part of the solution to the atmospheric carbon dioxide and the global warming problem.  By identifying impacts and potential mitigation strategies, this study will contribute to the long-term sustainability of wind power.”

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.