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Could offshore wind farms slow hurricanes before they reach land?

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Lilgrund wind farm wikimedia commons
Lilgrund wind farm wikimedia commons

Offshore wind farms are popular in Europe and gaining interest in the US, but it's unclear how the turbines will fare in a powerful hurricane. Two studies on the subject have reached seemingly contradictory conclusions. One group says wind turbines would buckle in a serious hurricane, while the other says the turbines would sap the hurricane's strength.

One study, published this week by researchers from Stanford and the University of Delaware, says current wind turbines placed offshore could actually slow down hurricanes before they hit land. Mark Z. Jacobson, a Stanford researcher who has been building a weather and pollution model for the last 24 years, says today's wind turbines can withstand winds up to 112 miles per hour, reducing a storm's peak wind speeds by up to 92 miles an hour.

One group says hurricanes will destroy wind farms, the other says wind farms will destroy hurricanes

But another study, conducted by researchers at Carnegie Mellon and published in 2012, says that hurricanes with wind speeds of at least 111 miles per hour (category 3) would destroy almost half the turbines in the four hurricane-vulnerable areas under consideration for wind farms. The Carnegie Mellon group believes it may be too expensive to construct wind turbines that could withstand hurricane-force winds by adding things like battery backup, thicker towers, and heavier motors.

The two studies may not be completely irreconcilable. Jacobson's model imagines an array of thousands of turbines, which he believes would have drastically reduced the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina. The Carnegie Mellon researchers are imagining arrays with only 50 turbines.

The answer may be theoretical at this point, but the question is not. The US Department of Energy estimates that the US can generate up to 20 percent of its energy from wind by 2030, which means more than 50 gigawatts will have to come from offshore turbines.

Correction: an earlier version of this story said the Carnegie Mellon study came out in 2014; in fact it came out in 2012 and was updated in 2014.