A Surge of Misinformation on Wind Farms and Hurricanes

This blog entry was written by Allie Brown, former Clean Energy Advocacy Manager at SACE.

Guest Blog | July 31, 2013 | Climate Change, Energy Policy, Extreme Weather, Wind

The recent launch of the first offshore wind turbine in the U.S. is another step closer towards creating a strong offshore wind industry that can provide reliable, clean, and cost-effective electricity. Yet, concerns are often raised about the strength of wind turbines in extreme weather, particularly hurricanes.

Courtesy: HC Sorensen, Middelgrunden Wind Turbine Cooperative

A recent study from Carnegie Mellon University suggests that offshore wind turbines could be at serious risk during hurricane season.  The New York Times, USA Today, and Popular Mechanics all featured this study with all the fervor of sensational journalism, strongly questioning America’s investment in offshore wind energy.

But sometimes it’s not always clear which way the wind is blowing.

A webinar on July 17th provided by Wind Powering America offered a very different perspective on the Carnegie Mellon study. The webinar featured Dr. Mark Powell, an atmospheric scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Dr. Powell, along with his colleague Steven Cocke, discovered multiple flaws in the Carnegie Mellon study and published a comment on the paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The Carnegie Mellon study used an extreme value based model that predicted every storm would hit Galveston at peak intensity. The study appeared to only use worst-case scenario data, while the chance of peak winds hitting a wind farm are actually very slim. By altering the modeling, Dr. Powell and Dr. Cocke found that only 2 turbines (compared to 24 turbines) in 20 years would be impacted by extreme weather. Their new model alters the perception of wind turbine resiliency to extreme weather events. However, Dr. Powell and Dr. Cocke’s published comments in PNAS did not receive nearly the media frenzy that the flawed Carnegie Mellon study did.

This doesn’t mean that hurricanes pose no threat to wind farms. Even though wind turbines are designed to withstand serious weather (up to a Category 3 hurricane), super typhoons in Asia have had some serious impacts on wind farms onshore in China and Japan. Dr. Powell stressed that more accurate data in real life situations is necessary in order to better evaluate and design wind turbines for extreme weather. While previous data on hurricanes has been collected further offshore, Dr. Powell is working with the Department of Energy and NOAA to collect data closer to the coast in shallower water where offshore wind farms would be located.

As better data is collected, the American wind industry will be able to assess the true impact of hurricanes near the coast and design wind farms that are more resilient to extreme weather conditions.

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