Wind turbines have long been a respected source of renewable energy generation, but now it appears the structures, placed offshore, could provide a much needed safety feature – hurricane protection – according to a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change. The study found that offshore wind turbines can actually help tame hurricanes, reducing wind speeds up to 92 mph and limiting the storm surge up to 79 percent.
Mark Jacobson, an engineering professor at Stanford University and lead author of the study, said the results aren't actually that surprising. Wind turbines generate power by taking energy from the wind, so it makes perfect sense that the structures could slow down strong winds.
Jacobson's team developed complex modeling to see the impact of placing tens of thousands of turbines offshore and found some interesting results.
· A set of 78,000 wind turbines outside of New Orleans could have slowed Hurricane Katrina's wind speed down by 78 mph and reduced its storm surge by 79 percent. That kind of reduction could have saved lives and millions of dollars spent to repair the damaged city.
· The same number of wind turbines placed just outside of New York could have seriously mitigated the effects of Superstorm Sandy. The modeling shows that offshore wind turbines could have slowed the storm’s wind by up to 86 mph and minimized its storm surge 34 percent.
With this information it appears wind farms may be a better investment for coastal cities than sea walls. Although turbines are expensive to construct, offshore wind has the potential to provide more than 4 million megawatts of renewable energy to the grid – four times the nation's current renewable energy capacity. Eventually these structures will pay for themselves in energy savings. Taking that into account, the hurricane protection provided by these devices is completely free.
Despite the many benefits of offshore wind energy, there aren't currently any operational wind farms off the coasts in the United States. There are a handful of projects underway along the East Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico, but not one of these sites is adding power to the grid.
That's because it can take more than 10 years to launch a wind farm. In addition to the costs associated with placing turbines offshore, companies face opposition from residents who don't want the massive structures interfering with ocean views. An even bigger barrier is the government. Companies have to get both state and federal approval and undergo an environmental evaluation before construction can begin.
As far as this study's predictions go, the massive wind farms aren't likely to come to fruition. Some say installing enough wind turbines to significantly alleviate damage from hurricanes is just not practical. The two largest offshore wind farms, pending in New England and Texas, will hold no more than 200 turbines when completed – far less than the 78,000 turbines Jacobson models in his study. But it's still an interesting concept that wind turbines can provide not only power, but protection.