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Can offshore wind farms also reduce damage from hurricanes?

Study shows offshore wind farms not only generate clean energy, they reduce hurricanes' wrath.
Study shows offshore wind farms not only generate clean energy, they reduce hurricanes' wrath.
David Hecker/Getty Images

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) says that offshore wind farms can generate four times as much electricity as all the power plants in the nation — without the air pollution and greenhouse gas emitted by burning fossil fuels. As remarkable as that is, there may be another reason for the United States to build offshore wind farms: they reduce the damage from hurricanes.

A ground-breaking study says that construction of offshore wind farms can actually tame hurricanes. Mark Jacobson, an engineering professor at Stanford University completed a study last September, and published it online in Nature Climate Change magazine last week. The study concludes that installation of wind turbines offshore could reduce wind speed from hurricanes up 56-92 MPH, and reduce storm surge between 6 percent and 79 percent.

Jacobsen’s study finds that benefits occur whether turbine arrays are placed immediately upstream of a city or along an expanse of coastline. The reduction in wind speed would increase the probability of even currently designed turbines. Better yet, the net cost of using turbine arrays is estimated to be less than the net cost of today of using fossil fuel to generate electricity, and less than the net cost of sea walls used solely to avoid storm surge damage.

Net costs in the study are defined as costs of capital construction, cost of money, operational costs less cost reduction from electricity generation, and the cost savings in healthcare, climate, and hurricane damage avoidance.

Jacobsen and his team used complex modeling to simulate the impact that tens of thousands of wind turbines would have had on three hurricanes: Sandy and Isaac, which struck New York and New Orleans, respectively, in 2012 and Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005.

An array of 78,000 wind turbines — each 50 feet tall — off New Orleans could have slowed Katrina's wind speeds up to 78 mph and cut its storm surge up to 79%. An even larger phalanx off the East Coast could have reduced Sandy's winds up to 87 mph and its storm surge up to 34%. These farms minimize a city's storm surge most when located directly upwind. The savings to property owners, local governments, insurance companies, and taxpayers would have paid for the wind farm.

The problem is 78,000 wind turbines is more than exist in any single wind farm in the world. Furthermore, it would be impossible in the short or mid-term to even build 78,000 turbines.

Jacobsen counters that by saying that even smaller wind farms can still reduce a hurricane’s wrath, just to a lesser extent. And smaller wind farms would be less costly than sea walls, which also reduce a hurricane’s damage only slightly.

There currently are no offshore wind farms in the U.S. although eleven are under construction. Wind farms are providing clean energy in many other nations, however, without incident. One reason for this is that our lobbyist-owned Congress believes in off- shore oil drilling, but not offshore wind generation. The laws, regulations, permitting processes, and the tax subsidy system is totally geared to encourage off shore oil wells — even post-BP — and the huge profits they produce. They are stacked against wind farms, however.

Building offshore wind farms is a win win proposition. They will reduce damage from storms, and they reduce the use of fossil fuels and the carbon pollution they generate. And we would not need to spend billions of dollars to clean up spills and compensate lost income to fishermen every time there is an offshore oil spill. Furthermore, wind turbines do not damage the natural ecosystem like building sea walls, which destroy nature’s buffer zone to hurricanes.

It is not reasonable to expect massive wind farms will pop up overnight. Given the fact that they provide clean energy and mitigate some of the damage from the ever more destructive hurricanes — made more destructive because of carbon pollution ironically — we should double down on our efforts to build them in a way that lessens their impact on fish and fowl. We do not have time for the status quo.

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