Are wind farms and climate change linked?

Are wind farms and climate change linked?

West coast wind farm production tied to a mysterious climate phenomena called "The Blob"

845 Mw Shepherds Flat Wind Farm near Arlington, Oregon. Credit: Steve Davidson

PHOENIX, Aug 15, 2015 – Is climate change altering west coast wind farm power production, or are west coast wind farms altering climate change? This fascinating question is raised by a new report on 2015 wind power production released Tuesday by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

The EIA reports that wind pattern changes have reduced west coast wind farm power production this year. Calculated from that EIA data, 2015 wind electricity production is 25 percent below its five-year average.

West coast wind farm power production 25 percent below 5-year average. Credit: U.S. EIA
West coast wind farm power production 25 percent below 5-year average. Credit: U.S. EIA

In January the overall wind power capacity factor for west coast wind farms was less than 10 percent. That is exceptionally low for wind farms. According to EIA records, wind power averages a capacity factor of 36 percent annually.

More revealing, the EIA report also shows that the power production losses increase the further north you go. California wind farms experienced the least amount of power production losses, Oregon the second least and Washington State had the most losses.

Capacity factor is a measure of electric power plant production. A capacity factor of 10 percent means that a power plant generates only 10 percent of its nameplate megawatt rating. For example, at 10 percent, Oregon’s giant 845 megawatt Shepherds Flat Wind Farm with 338 windmills would average just 84.5 megawatts/hour of actual electricity output last January.

The EIA reported reason for power production losses is there has been less west coast wind so far in 2015, but does not say why.

In late 2013 a Pacific upper ocean hot spot, dubbed “The Blob” by Washington State Climatologist Nicolas Bond, mysteriously appeared off the coast of Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, Canada. It’s still there. Its appearance came on the heels of constructing dozens of new wind farms with thousands of windmills near the Columbia River Gorge. The construction bonanza was funded by 2009 Recovery Act money that ran out in 2013.

It’s known that The Blob generated a static high pressure area in the spring of 2014 over the Pacific Northwest. It’s directing the jet stream further north than usual. That’s probably a direct cause of lower west coast winds, particularly through the Columbia River Gorge closest to The Blob. That’s also consistent with EIA data. Bond says The Blob has also contributed to the drought plaguing California, Oregon and Washington.

The Blob isn’t related to human-caused climate change or El Nińo. It hasn’t been around long enough to qualify as long-term climate change yet. Bond suggests that it mimics conditions that will become permanent if earth’s temperature continues to increase.

An intriguing possibility is that Columbia River Gorge windmills contributed to the formation of The Blob. The timing of the building of the windmills followed by the appearance of The Blob supports that speculation. If that is true, then The Blob will not go away anytime soon.

Reducing airflow through the gorge could have contributed to upper ocean warming off the coast. Less airflow means less wind chill effect that helps carry the upper ocean heat away. The gorge is a unique west coast geologic feature carved out by the Columbia River that funnels an ocean of ground level air back and forth through the Cascade Mountains. That’s why windmills are built there in the first place.

There is no direct empirical evidence linking windmills to The Blob. More than likely, The Blob is a natural phenomena causing electric power losses. Those losses will persist as long as The Blob remains. Upper ocean hotspots are fairly common and usually dissipate on their own.

This much though is certain, no matter what its source, climate change can have an effect on wind power. It’s happening in the U.S. Pacific Northwest.

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