Could wind turbines power four times the worlds energy?

 1st Feb 2013


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Wind turbines on land and offshore could readily and easily provide more than four times the power that the world as a whole currently uses. The world could physically extract roughly 100 times more power than presently employed¯and the climatic consequences remain minimal. So why haven’t the governments of the world sought to make the change?

Two sophisticated computer models have measured that there are few limits to the winds potential.  "there are physical limits to the amount of power that can be harvested from winds, these limits are well above total global energy demand," explains climate-modeler Kate Marvel of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, who led the analysis published September 9 in Nature Climate Change. Current global demand is roughly 18 terawatts. This may seem a lot, but if it is possible to capture this energy by harvesting the wind, then why should we settle for anything other than this?

Greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation has always been a problem. A growing number of wind farms are cropping up from the U.S. to China¯more than 239 gigawatts worth of wind turbines have been installed globally. The ultimate limit of wind power’s potential influence remains unclear and undetermined. One major irony is that any effort to harvest wind power ends up having an impact on the wind itself, reducing its speed¯as well as influencing both local weather and global climate. This complication has been researched and pondered over since Wind energy first was implicated. When wind is harnessed it actually loses energy because of the resistance to the giant arms of the turbines, scientists around the world are continually working on ways to prevent energy loss and increase energy capture.

Environmental scientists Cristina Archer of the University of Delaware and Mark Jacobson of Stanford University have been using a  global meteorological and sunlight-chemistry computer model paired with power generation information from turbine manufacturers, analyzed when wind turbines might reach a saturation point¯the point at which the addition of more turbines would reduce the amount of power generated, rather than increase it. This is a stalemate fact. The common argument is to build as many wind turbines as possible, but in actual fact once a certain amount of wind turbines are built, the less wind energy is captuered. At 100 meters up¯roughly the hub height of a modern large-scale wind turbine on land¯that saturation point would allow more than 250 terawatts of power to be generated, according to the results published online in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on September 10. "We calculated how much electrical energy can be generated from the atmosphere," Archer explains, noting that four million turbines spread around the globe could easily and sustainably produce 7.5 terawatts of power, or nearly half of all power used today.

What are the limits of wind power?

After examining the geophysical limits of wind power, Marvel and her colleagues could measure how much energy can be extracted from global winds without major impacts. Surface winds below 395 meters, which eventually disperse anyway, could provide at least 400 terawatts of power, however those at higher altitudes could offer more than 1,800 terawatts based on atmospheric physics.

Using a computer model specially designed to simulate the global climate over one hundred years to find out what impact such power extraction might have. If we humans could figure out how to extract all that power, it could have a major impact on the global environment. Earths temperatures could rise by as much as one degree Celsius and rainfall could decrease by roughly 10 percent. Of course, that's more than 100 times more energy than presently consumed by the entirety of human race. This means the actual impacts of wind power would be far less than previously thought.  "At the scale of civilization, the climate consequences of widely distributed wind turbines are negligible," says climate-modeler Ken Caldeira of Carnegie Institution's Department of Ecology at Stanford, a co-author with Marvel.

Wind energy is a hard nut to crack. With a lot of issues that still need to be researched and ironed out before any practical actions are taken, it seems that an organised global effort to build wind farms across the planet is still a far off thought. Wind and many other types of renewable energy are there for us to harness, but making the switch over to relying on renewable energy could take many years.  It would cause a global change in the economy ­ especially the issue of employment, but with the human race facing challenges and surpassing them quicker than ever, there is no issue too large.   

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Notes For Editors
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