Solar geoengineering (SG) has the potential to restore average surface temperatures by increasing planetary albedo, but this could reduce precipitation. Thus, although SG might reduce globally aggregated risks, it may increase climate risks for some regions. Here, using the high-resolution forecast-oriented low ocean resolution (HiFLOR) model—which resolves tropical cyclones and has an improved representation of present-day precipitation extremes—alongside 12 models from the Geoengineering Model Intercomparison Project (GeoMIP), we analyse the fraction of locations that see their local climate change exacerbated or moderated by SG. Rather than restoring temperatures, we assume that SG is applied to halve the warming produced by doubling CO2 (half-SG). In HiFLOR, half-SG offsets most of the CO2-induced increase of simulated tropical cyclone intensity. Moreover, none of temperature, water availability, extreme temperature or extreme precipitation are exacerbated under half-SG when averaged over any Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Extremes (SREX) region. Indeed, for both extreme precipitation and water availability, less than 0.4% of the ice-free land surface sees exacerbation. Thus, while concerns about the inequality of solar geoengineering impacts are appropriate, the quantitative extent of inequality may be overstated.
Power density is the rate of energy generation per unit of land surface area occupied by an energy system. The power density of low-carbon energy sources will play an important role in mediating the environmental consequences of energy system decarbonization as the world transitions away from high power-density fossil fuels. All else equal, lower power densities mean larger land and environmental footprints. The power density of solar and wind power remain surprisingly uncertain: estimates of realizable generation rates per unit area for wind and solar power span 0.3–47Wem−2 and 10–120Wem−2 respectively. We refine this range using US data from 1990–2016. We estimate wind power density from primary data, and solar power density from primary plant-level data and prior datasets on capacity density. The mean power density of 411 onshore wind power plants in 2016 was 0.50Wem−2. Wind plants with the largest areas have the lowest power densities. Wind power capacity factors are increasing, but that increase is associated with a decrease in capacity densities, so power densities are stable or declining. If wind power expands away from the best locations and the areas of wind power plants keep increasing, it seems likely that wind’s power density will decrease as total wind generation increases. The mean 2016 power density of 1150 solar power plants was 5.4Wem−2. Solar capacity factors and (likely) power densities are increasing with time driven, in part, by improved panel efficiencies. Wind power has a 10-fold lower power density than solar, but wind power installations directly occupy much less of the land within their boundaries. The environmental and social consequences of these divergent land occupancy patterns need further study.
We find that generating today’s US electricity demand (0.5 TWe) with wind power would warm Continental US surface temperatures by 0.24C. Warming arises, in part, from turbines redistributing heat by mixing the boundary layer. Modeled diurnal and seasonal temperature differences are roughly consistent with recent observations of warming at wind farms, reflecting a coherent mechanistic understanding for how wind turbines alter climate. The warming effect is: small compared with projections of 21st century warming, approximately equivalent to the reduced warming achieved by decarbonizing global electricity generation, and large compared with the reduced warming achieved by decarbonizing US electricity with wind. For the same generation rate, the climatic impacts from solar photovoltaic systems are about ten times smaller than wind systems. Wind’s overall environmental impacts are surely less than fossil energy. Yet, as the energy system is decarbonized, decisions between wind and solar should be informed by estimates of their climate impacts.