Hurricane Taming: One More Reason To Love Offshore Wind Power

Nobody does more provocative, headline-grabbing renewable energy research than Stanford civil and environmental engineering professor Mark Jacobson. Last week, it was how your state can get to 100% renewables.  Now it’s how offshore wind turbines can “tame hurricanes.”

Jacobson, in a paper published today in Nature Climate Change [PDF], isn’t suggesting that offshore turbines be deployed specifically for this purpose. Rather, his point seems to be that when assessing the cost of offshore wind power, in addition to the climate and health benefits the technology yields, the turbines’ ability to reduce the risk of catastrophic hurricanes ought to be taken into account.

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The Anholt offshore wind farm (image via Siemens)

It’s just one more thing that, when the whole picture is viewed, makes seemingly expensive offshore wind power less expensive than seemingly cheap conventional power. From the paper:

Including hurricane damage avoidance, reduced pollution, health, and climate costs, but not including tax credits or subsidies, gives the net cost of offshore wind as ~4-8.5¢kWh, which compares with ~10¢kWh for new fossil fuel generation. The health and climate benefits significantly reduce wind’s net cost, and hurricane protection adds a smaller benefit (~10% for New Orleans), but at no additional cost. In sum, large arrays of offshore wind turbines seem to diminish hurricane risk cost-effectively while reducing air pollution and global warming and providing energy supply at a lower net cost than conventional fuels.

We are talking about a lot of offshore wine power here – 300-plus gigawatts of installed capacity, five times current U.S.  onshore wind capacity (we don’t have any offshore wind, though projects are inching along). But running simulations based on the Katrina and Sandy experiences, Jacobson concluded that placing turbines “immediately upstream of a city or along and expanse of coastline” could reduce peak wind speeds by up to 92 mph and the storm surge by 79 percent.

Based on all this, Jacobson says that turbines could be the cost-effective way to reduce storm risk, compared to, for instance, sea walls. “Turbines pay for themselves from the sale of electricity they produce and other non-market benefits, but sea walls have no other function than to reduce storm surge (they do not even reduce damaging hurricane wind speeds), so society bears their full cost,” wrote Jacobson and co-authors Christina Archer and Willett Kempton.

But wouldn’t the turbines get torn to shreds – we have seen turbines damaged by storms, after all. But those are relatively isolated turbines, Jacobson et al. argue. “The reduction in wind speed due to large arrays increases the probability of survival of even present turbine designs,” they say.

Note: Mark Jacobson had previewed this paper in December at the American Geophysical Union fall meeting. See the story from that meeting by Climate Central’s Bobby Magill for more on the concept.

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.