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When Vern Vivion was still running cattle outside Rawlins in the early ‘90s, he grew skeptical about wind development on his land.
It’s not that he opposed wind, full stop. But Vivion, who died in 2014, thought turbines would have impacts on habitat that weren’t clear and hadn’t been investigated fully.
Those impacts, he believed, would mean a lot to ranchers. He thought capturing the wind would impact the grass, said his daughter, Kristy, who now manages the land with her sisters.
Nearly 30 years later, two research papers from Harvard professors make the argument that wind power does have unique impacts that need to be considered, including a ground-level warming effect around wind farms.
A full transition to wind electricity in the U.S. would warm average surface temperatures in the country by 0.24 degrees Celsius, due to the turbines churning or mixing the air at ground level and above, according to the scientists’ models [link]. And between renewable resources like wind and solar, transitioning to wind electricity would require more land than was previously anticipated [link].
Wyoming, a major producer of fossil fuel like oil and coal, is well aware that energy has trade-offs. Planned wind development has caused controversy as citizens weigh what is gained and what is lost.
The papers – published in Environmental Research Letters and Joule – conclude that while fossil fuels have more significant impacts, from climate change to pollution, renewables, too, have to be considered carefully and assumptions about their use should be replaced with thoughtful analysis.
There’s no question that renewables have fewer environmental concerns than traditional fuels like coal, said David Keith, senior author of the papers and professor of applied physics at Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
But the conversation can’t stop there, he said.
“I think for climate change we do have to get off oil and gas, but the things that we would transition to are not impact-free,” Keith said. “It’s important to understand what the consequences of very larger scale wind or solar … are.
Part of that is comparing types of renewable power.
According to Keith and other academics who collaborated on the research, the amount of power you produce relative to the land used is much lower for solar than wind. There’s less bang for the buck in wind, meaning more land is needed to obtain the amount of energy some want coming from renewable sources.
“I think that has consequences. If we are really serious about powering some significant fraction of U.S. electricity with wind, it’s going to require a bigger land footprint than people thought,” he said.
If the U.S. wanted to get half or more of its power from wind, it would take 10 to 20 percent of the interior of the U.S., he said.
“From my point of view, it’s very clear that fossil fuels have really big consequences,” he said. “In transitioning to something new, we need to think about what it is.”
Development of renewable energy sources will also require transmission to move power from the parts of the country that are windy and sunny to other regions. Transmission lines also have effects that can’t be denied, Keith said.
Wyoming’s first utility-scale solar farm is being built in southern Wyoming. But the state will also soon experience a significant increase in wind development, much of that concentrated along a blustery band of the state from Casper down towards Rawlins. The capacity of electricity represented by Wyoming wind will more than double if all the proposed farms are built.
Discussion of wind becomes rapidly political in the Cowboy State, from debate over marred sightlines to frustration with federal subsidies offered to the wind industry. Some lawmakers have stubbornly insisted on an increase in Wyoming’s unique wind tax, a $1 per megawatt-hour tax on wind power in the state, asking that the developers pay into the state in more equal measure to developers of Wyoming’s finite energy resources.
That politicization is also reflected in the national discussion, a trend that sometimes frustrates researchers like Keith. He hopes these papers are a turning point.
“As renewable energy grows up out of the cradle … it’s going to be a big industry, we have to take its impacts seriously,” he said. “We can’t just pretend they are not there.”
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