Wind Farms and the Storm Observer

Some colleagues and I have had a discussion about the merits and demerits of wind farms when storm observing, which also wandered into some concern over the impact of removing gigawatts of energy from the boundary layer. The latter is very nebulous, but photographically speaking, one thing is clear: One man’s eyesore is another’s photogenic desire. I’ve found the wind farms in some sky-scape settings to make great subjects or foregrounds (e.g., from SkyPix, Outflow Power and Solar Powered Wind Power), and fully intend to make use of them in the future as opportunity permits.

Some other storm observers have taken great shots using wind farms as foregrounds or silhouettes. Elke and I also took a bunch of mixed wind-farm pics (old style windmills in front of the giant new turbines) recently in Baca County CO, just W of US-287 (not while chasing). I’ll post those links once we get the shots processed. [Still working on images from 2008 chase vacation…]

I’m in favor of more wind farms, which is fortunate since their numbers across the Great Plains are rising no matter what we think about them. They provide relatively clean energy and an economic boost to remote and downtrodden communities. In the process of learning more about the Roscoe wind farm shown in that last link, I came across this article from NPR online, which illustrates the point well.

Many of these areas have been beaten into submission economically and welcome both the income infusion and the opportunity to contribute some cleaner energy to the power stream than what’s come out of the ground beneath. The expensive part, from various sources I’ve read, is providing the high-capacity transmission infrastructure to get this power from remote, windswept reaches of the Great Plains to somewhat nearby areas of high demand (e.g., the Metroplex, DEN, MKC, etc.).

Boone Pickens wants to set up essentially a nearly unbroken chain of wind farms from west Texas to the Canadian border. The guy’s motives are questionable and his schemes often laced with more hyperbole than legitimacy. Still, whether it’s by his doing or from an aggregated collection of lesser fat-cats, you can count on the same basic thing happening: numerous wind farms from west TX to the Dakotas within 10-15 years. The energy source exists, and as it becomes more economically feasible, will be exploited to the extent that environmental regulation, private landowners and market economics allow. And it’s going to be a lot harder to regulate something as wholly subjective and purely judgmental as “sight pollution” versus measurable, tangible, physical emissions from fossil fuels.

Like other Great Plains enthusiasts, I would like to keep the wind farms out of some areas of special scenic meaning to me as well (e.g., Flint Hills, Badlands, Wichita Mountains, national grasslands). [Incidentally, a part of the power I’m using to post this comes from that OEC wind farm N of the Wichitas, near Meers OK. That sucker slices across the northern horizon every time I’m atop Mt. Scott.]

Compromises will be necessary between competing aesthetic/economic/societal interests if this is going to work at all. But if we as a civilization decide to keep either exhausting or checking off sources like wind, coal, nuclear, oil, solar, hydro, etc., from the list, for various reasons large and small, then we might as well let the roads crumble, close down our offices, and go back to a mixed hunter-gatherer/agrarian society, and storm chasing and all BLOGs are moot matters anyway. [I am, BTW, for vastly expanded nuclear energy production in this country as well. ]

As far as the kinetic energy removed by wind turbines from the boundary layer, this needs to be analyzed better to see what, if any, physical feedbacks there are among pressure/height gradients (wind origin), forcings aloft for related isallobaric fields in the lowest ~100 m where the energy is being extracted, and the response/restoration of said gradients to that energy extraction (if any). I’ll hypothesize that it’s a negligible gnat fart of an effect given the small aggregated cross sectional area of the blades compared to any vertical cross section of the entire boundary layer across the Plains, but let’s find out if that’s valid.

Does an array of turbines extracting a few gigawatts of energy alter del-p at the surface, or isallohypsic patterns aloft by upward propagating influences of boundary layer processes? How big of a butterfly is a wind farm in Texas relative to a tornado in Kansas? We do know one thing: Ultimately, wind energy is solar in origin, and the sun’s output is independent of kinetic energy removal in the ~100 m layer above ground. Beyond that…who knows? It’s a great area for research.


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