Wind power makes the ground warmer even as it cools the planet

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The solution to climate change is, at least conceptually, simple. Activities that add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere—chiefly the use of fossil fuels—need to be changed or eliminated. Of course, not every alternative to fossil fuels will be equally beneficial. Technologies have to be evaluated for costs and benefits. One thing we know about wind turbines, for example, is that they can alter local temperatures by increasing the mixing of air at and above the surface.

Setting aside inevitable but ignorant claims that “wind turbines are just as bad as coal plants” (they aren’t by a longshot), it does make sense to think seriously about the effect turbines have on local temperature. Harvard’s Lee Miller and David Keith set out to fill some holes in our knowledge by simulating a less-than-implausible scenario in which the US produces all its electricity with wind power. At this scale, they wondered, what does the trade-off between fossil fuels and wind power look like?

High-wind scenario

To find out, Miller and Keith turned to a high-resolution climate model of the continental United States. In the middle third of the country—where winds are higher—they placed enough virtual wind turbines to produce almost half a terawatt of electricity. This would meet 100 percent of current US demand.

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