The use of alternative energy is growing every year, with wind and solar leading the way for much of the world's investments. As we turn to renewable power for many of our energy needs, however, it's important to make sure we understand all the potential side effects involved.
Wind energy, for example, grew by 20 percent during 2012. That's a significant leap for a technology that's becoming cheaper and more cost effective every year, but new research also suggests wind turbines, especially when clustered together on a wind farm, can affect the environment in negative ways.
The wind that turbines push around can either make the surrounding environment more habitable or less, according to the Guardian. The information comes from a new study by the Swiss technology institute École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, led by Fernando Portée-Agel, which found that wind farms could create changes in temperature and humidity.
Researchers discovered that "downdrafts and updrafts from turbines often superimpose, especially when wind turbines are placed in neat rows," which "affects the way that heat and moisture are lost from the land."
This can potentially be a good thing, especially if the drafts drop the temperature during the hot summer months and enable crops to grow unharmed, but it also can have some negative consequences. If the air flow dries up the soil, not only will crops die, but various species of animals may discover their habitat ruined and find themselves homeless.
Suggested solutions to the problem include placing wind turbines in a staggered layout and creating irrigation systems to ensure the land doesn't dry out. In economic terms, that means more costs for wind farm development, but the benefits seem obvious if it means potentially increasing a farm's ability to grow crops.
This isn't the first time wind farms have been investigated for harmful side effects. The turbines have been known to kill thousands of bats and birds, sparking some backlash from certain sectors of the green movement and even causing one U.S. Senator to cite 440,000 bird deaths as a reason to withhold wind energy subsidies. Politifact looked into this claim and said the number was probably lower than that, and also noted that collisions with buildings kill 976 million birds every year.
Either way you slice it, a lot of birds die due to manmade constructions every year. It's unlikely that these findings will deter the construction of wind farms in the coming years, but the more we know about the deployment of wind energy, the more we can do in the future to prevent or minimize damage.