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Thousands of Offshore Turbines May Reduce Hurricane Storm Surge

In addition to replacing fossil fuels by creating clean electricity, offshore wind turbines could help alleviate storm surges and wind speeds caused by hurricanes effectively saving billions of dollars in damages and lives each year, according to a Stanford University engineering professor.

Mark Z. Jacobson co-authored an article published in February in Nature Climate Today describing how hurricane damage could be drastically reduced while providing clean energy year-round through a computer model simulation.

"I built this model 25 years ago," Jacobson said, adding it was not until he was researching the impact of Superstorm Sandy in 2012 that he decided to gear his computer model toward hurricanes.

The article was co-authored by Cristina L. Archer and Willet Kempton of the University of Delaware.

After asking himself what the effect of hurricane-force winds on wind turbines would be, he decided to figure out what the energy extraction would be.

Most turbines are engineered to withstand Category 2 and 3 storms, he said, with wind speeds approaching 129 mph.

The way the turbines would effectively reduce wind speed and storm surges is due to the amount of them working together, he said.

"If you have a lot of them, they feed back into the central pressure of the hurricane," he said, adding that this feedback drastically reduces the storm's wind speed. Meteorologist Dan Kottlowski said he thinks Jacobson's idea is sound.

"I think it's possible," he said. "I can't dispute that it sounds like a really good idea."

Kottlowski said he questions the assumptions the computer model is making concerning the weakening and intensifying regarding the hurricane because there is still research being conducted on understanding hurricane intensity.

"We don't quite understand all there is to understand in the science as to why a hurricane weakens or intensifies," he said.

Currently no offshore wind farms exist in the United States, but plans to construct turbines off the East Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico near Texas are underway, Jacobson said. Once the regulations involving their construction pass, he said there will be a sustainable future for offshore wind energy production.

In New York City, building sea walls to prevent the amount of damages sustained by Hurricane Sandy would cost $30 billion, Jacobson said.

"You could take that same $30 billion and you would get your money back," he said. "Not only would the turbines pay for themselves and produce electricity, they would also reduce the storm surge and wind speeds of a hurricane."

In order to have a noticeable effect in wind speed and storm surge reduction, Jacobson said at least a few thousand turbines would be needed.

"We used 78,000 turbines and saw an 80-percent reduction in storm surge," he said, referring to a computer simulation for Hurricane Katrina. "You would see approximately 56-percent reduction with 40,000, and with 20,000 maybe a 20- to 30-percent reduction."

Jacobson, who also conducted a simulation for Hurricane Isaac, added that even one lone wind turbine would have an effect, but nothing noticeable in terms of preventing damaging winds and storm surge.

While the model may not be feasible for private companies, Jacobson said it is an economically stable model since the electricity production provided by a wind farm of thousands of turbines would pay for themselves.

"I think they'd have to start small," Jacobson said. "I don't think that's something a company could do, but it's something the government or even the state could invest in."

Kottlowski said offshore wind turbines in the North Sea located 12 miles offshore near Scandinavia and Germany have been a success and he would be interested in understanding how feasible it would be to maintain an array of thousands of turbines.

"I'm a skeptic as far as maintenance, but those turbines in the North Sea are working and they're proving they generate electricity," he said. "Building an array of 78,000 turbines would be quite an engineering feat."

Kottlowski added that the North Sea is one of the stormiest places on Earth.

"If they can put them there, I have no doubt they could put them just about anywhere," he said.

By 2050, Jacobson said he can envision more than 150,000 offshore turbines along the East Coast and Gulf Coast.

"You'd also be replacing fossil fuels and you're reducing air pollutants," he said.