Could Offshore Wind Farms Calm Hurricanes Before They Hit Land?

By Josh Lieberman on February 26, 2014 10:37 AM EST

wind farm
Massive offshore wind farms could reduce a hurricane's strength before it hits land, as well as generate electricity. (Photo: Reuters)

What would happen in a battle between an offshore wind farm and an approaching hurricane? According to a study led by Stanford University engineer Mark Jacobson, the result would be a hurricane heavily weakened before it hit land, saving lives and untold dollars in damages. Jacobson ran computer simulations based on three hurricanes--Sandy and Isaac from 2012, and Katrina from 2005--and found that offshore wind farms could significantly reduce wind speeds and storm surges.

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"We found that when wind turbines are present, they slow down the outer rotation winds of a hurricane," Jacobson said. "This feeds back to decrease wave height, which reduces movement of air toward the center of the hurricane, increasing the central pressure, which in turn slows the winds of the entire hurricane and dissipates it faster."

As you might imagine, we're talking about a lot of wind turbines here: in Jacobson's Katrina model, his offshore wind farm included 78,000 wind turbines, placed off the coast of New Orleans. That sounds like an insane amount of anything, let alone massive wind turbines, but the simulation did showed profound effects, with wind speed reductions of between 80 and 98 MPH and storm surges decreased by 79 percent.

Jacobson said there are a few reasons why such an ambitious plan shouldn't be dismissed as pie-in-the-sky. For one thing, the reduction in financial damages from hurricanes would be massive (to say nothing of, you know, human lives). Hurricane Sandy caused about $50 billion in damages; adjusted for 2012 dollars, Hurricane Katrina cost about $128 billion. Reduced wind speeds and storm surges could bring down the damages significantly.

Jacobson doesn't estimate the actual cost of building 78,000 offshore wind turbines, but he looks at it another way: "The cost would be zero," he said. "The turbines pay for themselves through the revenue from generating electricity. The storm surge and wind protection are free--a bonus."

Add in the air pollution reductions and energy stability benefits of wind farms, and it starts to sound like a decent deal, especially when you consider that alternative hurricane-repelling plans include building massive seawalls around cities, which cost between $10 and $40 billion and won't reduce wind speeds (or generate electricity).

Not everyone is buying idea of building 78,000 offshore wind turbines, naturally. "It's not practical--78,000 turbines," Dominique Roddier, an engineer who's working on a floating wind turbine design herself, told USA Today. "That's an insane number of wind turbines. You can't build that many." In the United States, the two largest pending offshore wind farms (one in New England, the other in Texas) will have, at most, 200 turbines.

In October 2013, Jacobson appeared on Letterman to discuss the plan. Letterman seemed intrigued, but it isn't clear whether Jacobson won over any eagles or bats. The answer is probably a resounding no.

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