Fact check: Harvard study misses real-world facts about wind power

Fact check: Harvard study misses real-world facts about wind power


Their method: 8 meters/second average wind speed = 8cubed = 512 energy output
More realistic: Half of turbines at 6 meters/second, half of turbines at 10 meters/second = (6cubed + 10cubed)/2 = 608 energy output

Even if the analysis in the new paper is correct and the hundreds of experts and real-world data are not, there would still be enough wind energy resources to meet all of humanity’s energy needs. Analysis by the Department of Energy and National Renewable Energy Laboratory conservatively calculates that the U.S. has enough developable, high-quality wind energy resources to meet U.S. electricity needs more than a dozen times over. Even if this conservative calculation were actually optimistic by a factor of several times over, U.S. wind energy resources would still be sufficient to meet all of our energy needs.

European countries like Denmark, Germany, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland now obtain 10-30% of their electricity from wind energy, without experiencing significant declines in wind output. Most of these countries began with wind energy resources that are 20-50% less productive than the average wind resources in the U.S., and with total wind resources that are dozens if not hundreds of times smaller than the total wind resources in the U.S. These countries currently obtain 3-8 times more of their electricity from wind than the U.S. does, and they are in the process of developing new wind projects that will push their wind use even higher.  With the far superior wind resources in the U.S., the sky is the limit.

Readers should be careful not to draw erroneous conclusions from the paper’s analysis of how massive deployments of wind turbines could slightly affect the mixing of air in the atmosphere. The paper makes it very clear that this localized movement of air “is very different than warming due to greenhouse gases, in that the warming is primarily local, depends on the stability of the atmosphere, and has a finite limit locally in magnitude due to the depth of mixing occurring.”

Most importantly, readers should not confuse the simple act of moving air around, which has no impact on the heat balance of the Earth, with global warming that is caused by the introduction of long-lasting greenhouse gases that continually alter the Earth’s energy balance. It is also important to keep in perspective that nearly all human activities, such as planting crops, building cities, managing forests, and even operating nuclear power plants, can have localized impacts on movements of air.

Regarding land use, DOE has conducted detailed analysis that found that obtaining 20% of U.S. electricity from wind energy would use less land than is currently occupied by the city of Anchorage, Alaska. In fact, the report noted that the 100,000 to 250,000 hectares of land that would be used to obtain 20% of our electricity from wind is significantly less than the 400,000 hectares of new land that is disturbed every year in the U.S. to mine coal for electricity production.

Related articles:

Study's lead author: News reports on wind and temperature 'misleading', May 1, 2012
Fact check: Flawed science journalism on wind energy, April 30, 2012
Fact check: Forbes blog notes study on wind's limits, but not detailed critique, July 14, 2011



Michael Goggin is Vice President at Grid Strategies LLC, a DC-area consulting firm working on grid and markets issues for clean energy clients including AWEA. He was previously head of Research at AWEA.

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