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Warming temperatures to weaken wind in northern hemisphere: study

Warming temperatures caused by climate change are set to weaken wind energy in the northern hemisphere, a study shows, lessening the amount of wind power produced for wind farms.

Key points:

  • Atmosphere instability which creates wind changing in northern hemisphere
  • North-east Australia could become an attractive investment for energy companies
  • At present there is only one operational wind farm in Queensland

However the southern hemisphere would see a boost in wind, which could potentially turn north-eastern Australia into an attractive investment for energy companies.

Professor Kris Karnauskas, from the University of Colorado's Oceans and Climate Lab, worked on the study published in the journal Nature Geoscience, which took a global view on wind energy.

"Wind usually derives its energy from an instability in the atmosphere, and in the northern hemisphere a major source of that instability is the equator to pole temperature difference," he said.

"We all know that the tropics are warmer than the arctic, but because the artic is warming at a much faster rate than the rest of the world — including the tropics and the latitudes — that temperature gradient is lessening.

"That is a well known phenomenon called polar amplification, or artic amplification."

The research was the first global study to project the impact of temperature rises on wind energy.

It found in the southern hemisphere the difference between the average land and sea temperature was increasing, which would push greater wind production.

"As we know most of the southern hemisphere is dominated by ocean, relative to the northern hemisphere," Professor Karnauskas said.

So in South America, the southern half of Africa and Australia, greenhouse gas warming was expected to increase the temperature over land faster than over the ocean.

"The land-sea temperature difference in the southern hemisphere is actually increasing because the land is warming up so rapidly relative to the ocean," he said.

"So the winds are able to derive greater energy from that temperature difference or instability."

US could face drop in wind energy

For Australia, Professor Karnauskas said he expected there would be a boom in wind energy for the north-east of the country.

"This information may prove key in allocating resources and planning, for example where and when to build new farms and how to deal with differed maintenance with older wind farms," he said.

"And helping to fine-tune the blend of renewables supporting the every growing regional energy consumption.

"It doesn't mean that wind energy should take the place of any other part of the portfolio that's in a strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions."

Professor Karnauskas' study reported the central United States could face a 10 per cent drop in available wind energy by 2050.

And by the year 2100, that could be up to 40 per cent.

The idea that the Trump administration could use the report to push for a drop in wind energy investment was something Professor Karnauskas said he was nervous about.

"Wind power is and should remain considered as an important part of the portfolio of renewable investments as part of the broader strategy to reduce carbon emissions," he said.

'We've got the wind, but not the investment'

Andrew Bray, from the advocacy group Australian Wind Alliance, said he doubted a predicted boost in available wind energy in Queensland would make much of a difference in the level of wind farm investment.

He said there was already enough wind to go around.

"There's incredible wind resources all across Australia," he said.

"We recently had some research done which estimated that we could power Australia's entire energy needs 12 times over just with the wind resources in eastern Australia.

"So we've got a lot of places we can put wind turbines."

At the moment in Queensland there is only one operational wind farm, although more projects are expected to break ground in the next few years.

Christian Peake, who works for the consultancy firm DNV GL which provides wind modelling data to wind farm companies, said there were some "pretty significant developments that we know of [in Queensland]".

"Some of them are getting close to construction and some of them are earlier on. I think people are looking at that region," he said.

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