Is it possible to have a gargantuan engineering and construction project covering large areas of the Earth that has no appreciable downside? Not to the economy, to human health, to wildlife, to worsening things in some way? In fact, that makes them much nicer? Yes, if one reads the press releases and paper behind an intriguing paper in Nature Climate Change, one that is getting considerable but not yet immense reaction in media.
The gist of conclusions published by Stanford civil engineering prof. Mark Z. Jacobson and two U. of Delaware colleagues is that if arrays of very large wind turbines – we are talking about tens to hundreds of thousands of the whirligigs in patches of ocean covering hundreds to thousands of square miles – were built off cities and other developed areas in the likely paths of eventual hurricanes, they would do all sorts of wonderful things. First, they'd disrupt fringe winds of incoming storms and set off a chain of repercussions inside a 'cane (or typhoon or cyclone) that causes its whole, windier eyewall and general violence to collapse or at least subside drastically. The turbines themselves would thus not have to face much if any hurricane-velocity winds (if this works). Second, that means the suddenly-disorganized storm would not inflict billions of dollars worth of wind, rain, and storm-surge damages on the nearby shore. Third, the avoided costs of storm repair, human health impacts from fossil fueled generators, and obviation of need for extensive armoring of the coast with sea walls, when combined with the revenue the arrays generate from electricity sales week in, week out, would more than pay for the whole deal.
Get that? The array's electrical sales, plus the service they provide in disaster avoidance, make them, at the bottom line, free. Oh, they'd be whapping the brains out of some, maybe a lot of, seabirds but some say such turbines would be easier on birds than equivalent fossil fueled electrical production. The paper (see grist below) reports that if one treats expenses and revenues as fungible across all political and economic boundaries, the net cost of electricity for regions protected by hurricane wind turbine fences would be 4 to 8.5 cents per kilowatt-hour compared to the cost of about 10 cents for equivalent fossil fuel power. Who wouldn't take that deal?
This is just too sweet. It puts one on the alert for unintended consequences.
Let's see if any reporters ask how utilities are going to get their hands on these avoided costs, as actual money, so that they don't have to put the arm on users with rates a lot higher than 4 to 8.5 cents per kwh to pay for all those turbines. A customer will only see the bill, he or she would be largely oblivious to the savings from storm damage that never happens. Governments would have to raise big bond issues or find other ways to subsidize the wind farms continuously while regarding them in part as public infrastructure protection projects – sort of like sea walls or levees. But paying to stop things that have not happened, however sensible, is not an easy political sell. Let's see how many if any reporters get at all into the practical snarls that would face a plan, say, to put 78,000 wind turbines, each 300 feet high, offshore of New Orleans.
Plus, do hurricanes do some good? Not that I easily imagine one. But if a hurricane-type storm is transformed into a more normal weather front, does that reduce total rain, redirect it? Will an upper atmosphere deprived of immense hurricane updrafts get drier, or wetter, or something if so many giga-windfarms are built worldwide offshore that total tropical storm lifetimes are cut short? Or, since they fall apart once they hit land anyway, is this pure guilt-free energy we'd be getting by prophylactically sapping the power of land-falling cyclones? What's the big picture?
With questions in mind, here are some of the stories already in. First up is the first one I noticed this morning and that led to tracking down some more:
- Scientific American – Mark Fischetti: Offshore Wind Farms Could Knock Down Hurricanes ; Lede: "Hurricanes are unstoppable, right?" Right off the reader is going to guess it's wrong, wonder why, andkeep reading. The story describes nicely the scope, and detailed calculation, the Stanford team put into the paper. Story also notes that Stanford team leader Jacobson is already a big proponent of building out wind and solar facilities on a huge enough scale to supplant all fossil fueled powerplants. This paper simply combines his interest in both green energy and hurricanes. Story also describes description of Jacobson's appearance on David Letterman last year – he was effective despite the host's effort to make jokes as the professor's expense. Fischetti interviewed Jacobson, but no sign here of asking if we'd miss the hurricanes at all. A commenter at SciAm asks a good question: If massed ranks of turbines can disembowel hurricanes, what will they do to the weather at other times? In fact, readers' comments on this story are pretty smart (or, at least, well-moderated).
- USA Today – Wendy Koch: Offshore wind farms can tame hurricanes, study finds; She calls this a ground-breaking development, perhaps not the best metaphor for platforms at sea. Koch also finds an outside expert who regards the feasibility of this strategy to be slight. Another source she consulted told her that to imagine so many turbines at sea is insane. This is desperately needed perspective.
- The Atlantic – John Metcalfe: A New Tool in the Fight Against Hurricanse: Wind Farms? ; This is a blog for an Atlantic site called "Cities," devoted apparently to urban areas and the sense of place they generate. It is amusing without making fun of the wind turbines idea for hobbling hurricanes. In fact it is rather positive. But does not advance the ball on the reporting side.
- Ars Technica – John Timmer: Massive offshore wind farms' unespected benefit: Hurricane protection / Wind speed, storm surge slashed when there are 10,000 turbines in storms' path ; Good for Timmer. Along comes this news, but he'd already heard Jacobson's general spiel at this year's AAAS meeting in Chicago. And he links to a decent, promotional video on the idea, put together by Stanford's News Service. But his piece is brief, leaves many questions unanswered.
- SFGate (SF Chronicle site) David R. Baker:Study: Offshore wind farms could tame hurricanes ; No apparent effort to report this beyond the press release ;
- Phys.Org : Offshore wind farms could tame huricanes before they reach land, study says ; This is Stanford's press release, and labeled as such by this aggregation site. It is here merely to provide the chance to wonder (again) how a site justifies this line in its "about" page's description of its service: "Phys.org publishes approximately 100 quality articles every day, offering some of the most comprehensive coverage of sci-tech developments world-wide." Coverage? Phys.Org did not lift a finger to provide this coverage. It merely provides an advertising platform on which to shovel somebody else's, filched coverage.
- The Weather Channel – Michele Berger: Wind Turbines Can Temper Hurricanes, New Research Shows ; Gathers no outside reaction to the analysis.
The upshot is that the relatively few media reporters who picked up on this intriguing thought-experiment went beyond what the press releases offered. The two who did are at the best staffed of the outlets in this roundup, Sci Am and USA Today. But this study, if it has no major holes in it, may yet play a role in more plausible, big-engineering climate change adaptation and remediation efforts. Market forces seem unlikely to see such mega windfarms built. Pungling up the front money in a liberal but market based economy will be hard. But perhaps an authoritarian state such as China, a place with green ambitions and a large manufacturing base, will give the Nature Climate Change paper's conclusions a real-world, pilot tryout. Or maybe Michael Bloomberg will just buy an array for his beloved NYCity. He's rich. He's Republican but he's nervous as can be about unchecked fossil fuel emissions. And right now he's looking for things to do.
That'd be a big story.