Will Hurricane Isaac Destroy Wind Turbines?

Here in the Southeast, hurricanes are no strangers to our coastlines. Just 20 years ago this year, Hurricane Andrew hit Florida with devastating force. Despite the risks posed by hurricanes, many people feel like the benefits of living in warm subtropical areas is worth the risk of losing it all in a huge hurricane. Businesses are no different.

But for some reason, one industry has drawn exceptional media coverage over its interest in the Southeast: the wind industry. Just about anytime someone mentions a wind farm development in Florida, or off the coast of North Carolina or Texas, one of the first questions posed is, “What about hurricanes?” With Hurricane Isaac looking to bear down on Florida, now seems like a good time to answer the question.

No, Hurricane Isaac will not destroy wind turbines. First, there aren’t any wind farms built in Florida (yet). Even if there were, wind turbines specifically designed to withstand hurricanes are commercially available. Based on the current projections, the first wind farm for Hurricane Isaac to encounter may be the Buffalo Mountain wind farm in Tennessee – about 400 miles due north from the Gulf of Mexico. If Isaac does make it that far inland, it’ll likely just be a windy rain storm. (For an actual hurricane strike on wind farms, check our our previous blog series on Hurricane Irene from last year).

But what about future wind farms? How will hurricanes impact those installations?

Wind turbines are readily designed to withstand extreme winds – even up to Category 3 hurricanes. But last year, a study released in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science by some Carnegie Mellon researchers estimated that half of offshore wind turbines would be destroyed by hurricanes off the coast of Texas.

Unfortunately, both the media and the researchers got the information wrong. We highlighted some of the problems of the study in a previous blog post, but it has now come to light that the researchers severely overstated the risk of hurricanes to wind farms.

Dr. Mark Powell, an atmospheric scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Hurricane Research Division in Florida, submitted a letter to the National Academies of Science critiquing the Carnegie Mellon paper. Dr. Powell found that the Carnegie Mellon paper overestimated the risk to wind farms from hurricanes by more than an order of magnitude.

On the Hurricane Research Division’s blog, Dr. Powell wrote:

“An error and several poor assumptions in the original approach were found. In a new analysis of the same hypothetical wind farm, we found an average loss of 2 turbines per 20-year period, compared to 24 using their methods. In their response to the letter, the revised approach downgrades the risk from a 41% to a 2% chance of losing 10 or more turbines over a 20-year period. This is over an order of magnitude downgrade in the risk, but still relies on a flawed approach using fits to statistical extreme value distributions. We recommend the use of industry-standard risk models similar to those used to estimate risk in the residential insurance market in Florida.”

The Carnegie Mellon researchers conceded in a response to Dr. Powell that they overestimated the risk.  It’s important to note here that both the original study and the correction still presume that the wind turbine’s already built-in survival mechanisms, like active yawing (which turns the turbine into the wind), were turned off, potentially making these figures overestimates and unrealistic.

Unfortunately, chances are that Dr. Powell’s research is unlikely to receive as much fanfare as the original publication, which is a real shame. The hurricane risks have been overstated for offshore wind farms, especially here in the Southeast. If this myth continues to be perpetuated, it’ll be even more difficult for our region to move away from risky energy technologies and towards safer, sustainable energy choices. The question remains, if a hurricane were to destroy a power plant, which would you rather have — a pollution-free wind farm or an offshore oil rig, a coal, nuclear, or natural gas plant?

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“The question remains, if a hurricane were to destroy a power plant, which would you rather have — a pollution-free wind farm or an offshore oil rig, a coal, nuclear, or natural gas plant?”
My answer is both an offshore oil rig AND a wind-farm. Distorting reality to force the question between the two doesn’t solve any problems, and only serves to divide people upon opposite battle lines. First, the wind farm is not pollution FREE-that’s just a catch phrase to make it seem like those pretty white wind mills that generate electricity are pure and noble, while the messy black oil from that yucky old nasty oil rig are all just gross and evil, defiling mother earth. Neither of these perceptions are based in reality- the oil rig is not as nasty to our living environment as has been spun by folks lobbying for their favored industry to be funded on the taxpayers’ individual backs or lobbying for their pet cause. Nothing can change the absolute fact that there are some objects that require energy that cannot be converted to use the energy that is produced by a wind farm. Airplanes, OTR trucks, Ships and 99.99% of all watercraft, in addition to Locomotives cannot and will not ever be converted to use the electricity produced by a wind farm. Ever.I dare anyone to try, maybe they’ll get determined enough to do just that, but I won’t hold my breath.The pristine white and holier-than-thou wind farm requires every single one of those things to go from an idea in someone’s head through the entire process and finally to become a reality. While that yucky old oil rig has become something that the original wildcatters from 100 years ago would scarcely recognize in its cleanliness, tidiness and, as they say these days, environmental responsibility. So much so that all of these out-dated regulations about where you can explore, drill and produce that yucky petroleum (that you, my friend have used over a dozen times by the time you get in your car to go to work) have ignored the fact that there is hardly any lasting effect upon a rigs surroundings and forced us all into a prematurely extreme offshore search for the energy that we need to maintain our modern civilization, our level of lifestyle, and dare I say, our safety, security and freedom to live as free people in this country.Please do your due diligence and look into these things from both or many sides or aspects and consider the consequences of blindly following the rest of the lemmings in any group. Thank you for the opportunity to share my opinion; not all sites or people will allow that in this day of Orwellian doublespeak and PC browbeating.

Comment by Daryl Fuller on August 24, 2012 3:22 pm

[...] Will Hurricane Isaac Destroy Wind Turbines?Clean Energy News (blog)No, Hurricane Isaac will not destroy wind turbines. First, there aren't any wind farms built in Florida (yet). Even if there were, wind turbines specifically designed to withstand hurricanes are commercially available. Based on the current projections …As Florida faces Isaac, Hurricane Andrew's legacy lingersSarasota Herald-TribuneAre you and your pets prepared as Tropical Storm Isaac approaches Tampa Bay?Examiner.comHomestead Honored As a “StormReady” CityNBC 6 Miamiall 265 news articles [...]

Pingback by Gulf Coast Rising News | Will Hurricane Isaac Destroy Wind Turbines? – Clean Energy News (blog) on August 25, 2012 2:59 am

Will North Carolina get a lot of rain and wind?

Comment by Nicole on August 25, 2012 12:59 pm

Hello Daryl,
Thank you for your comment. My point is that folks may be concerned about wind turbines toppling over from a hurricane; yet, society as a whole hardly has given a second thought about inherently more dangerous technologies (nuclear, coal plants, oil rigs, etc.) and the impacts of hurricanes on those. I don’t know about you, but I believe in American ingenuity. If we want to run our cars off electricity from wind farms, we’ll figure out a way to do it. We can’t drill our way to energy independence; fortunately ingenuity is a renewable resource.

Comment by Simon Mahan on August 27, 2012 10:25 am

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Pingback by Mark Powell’s work on the impact of hurricanes on offshore wind farms highlighted by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy « Hurricane Research Division on August 27, 2012 2:15 pm

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