Wind Turbines Could Theoretically Power the Entire World, and Then Some

By Eliza Strickland | June 24, 2009 9:15 am

wind turbinesSleek, streamlined wind turbines have become the icons of the green movement, but for all the growth in wind power — it accounted for 42% of all new electricity generation added to the U.S. grid last year — wind still makes up less than 3% of America’s total electricity generation [Time]. Its marginal role has led many to wonder whether the technology is worth investing in, and whether wind power is capable of supplying enough electricity to meet our needs. To answer those questions, researchers analyzed wind patterns around the world and found that wind power could theoretically supply the entire world with energy, and then some.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, isn’t being presented as a realistic plan to achieve a renewable energy nirvana; it’s simply an attempt to provide a sense of what’s possible [Ars Technica]. But the researchers’ reckoning of what’s possible is quite impressive: maxing out deployment of current-generation technology could produce five times the total energy used in the world today, and 40 times the electricity [Ars Technica].

The research group first sectioned the globe into areas of about 1,300 square miles each, and then analyzed NASA data about wind speeds in the non-urban, non-forested and non-ice covered areas where turbines could realistically be built [Boston Globe]. They assumed the use of 2.5 megawatt turbines on land and larger 3.6 megawatt turbines off shore, and conservatively estimated that the wind would blow hard enough for the turbines to reach their maximum capacity only 20 percent of the time. Under these constraints they still found that in the United States, scattering turbines across the Great Plains would produce more than 16 times the energy the nation now consumes, and off shore turbines could add considerably to that tally.

While the study is a helpful thought experiment, no one expects the world to adopt wind power on such a large scale. That’s because wind still faces a slew of obstacles. It’s still more expensive than traditional energy sources. It is intermittent and is at its lowest often in the U.S. during the summer when we hit peak demand in part from all the air conditioners switching on. And many of the greatest wind resources are far away from where people live – meaning we need to develop more transmission lines and a smarter grid to be able to tap into the wind at the right time [Boston Globe]. Finally, researchers note that building a massive number of wind turbines could disrupt wind patterns in ways that are impossible to predict.

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Image: flickr / the russians are here

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment
  • Shaithis

    Theoretically, however more likely it won’t. Efficiencies are no where near where the need to be for this to work.

  • Jumblepudding

    “maxing out” the technology we already have? Are we talking about turbines on every square inch of available land? I would agree that having that many turbines could alter wind patterns, and perhaps this would prove not to be as promising as we once hoped, as turbines in formerly windy areas would have their generating potential stolen by turbines a hundred miles away diverting and weakening the wind. The best approach seems to be gradually adding turbines in high yield areas in order to determine what impact it has, and relying on up-to-date information on the generating potential for future sites . baby steps are better than none at all.

  • Shaithis

    I agree with Jumble.

  • UMMM

    Really? The title of this article implies that the writer has not done enough research. Wind is a politically driven green power source and not a viable option. Wind can never account for any percentage of the overall load without some back-up source ready to step in at a moments notice, which would then negate the entire purpose of the wind power source all together. What you must come to understand is that there is a delicate and dynamic balance between power generated and power consumed. The moment this balance is lost, even by several hundred kilowatts (a small amount relative to a standard sized grid) the system can start experiencing major instabilities which could very quickly lead to outages, if not immediately rectified. So, if there is an excess of generation from wind turbines, you can simply not take what you don’t need. however if there is not enough generated, which would be common in summer months when wind speeds are low but power consumption is at its highest, there would be no way to get more power from an entirely wind based system, and there would be no choice but to cut power to selective areas or risk melting billions of dollars worth of equipment. Now, for individual homes, turbines may be viable, since you can store energy in batteries when there is an excess, however on a national scale, storage is not an option, power must be generated as it is needed. So, while I personally support green power very much. I would like to see time and money put into green power sources that are actually viable today’s society. Nature is not reliable enough especially with regard to wind. What happens when the wind just stops blowing for a few days, It is not unheard of or completely out of the question. Plus, in all these articles, did anyone happen to look at how much it would cost to design and build a wind based system on this scale? I don’t think I would like to pay that much for a system that is completely reliant on a source that is beyond any measure of control. Have a nice day.

  • infrared

    I’m Pretty sure solar could power the whole world, if every square inch was covered in a solar panel. I’m fairly certain that our energy needs are going to grow exponentially, like they always have, so it might be able to do it now, but wait a few years.

  • Pwr Enger

    Yes there may be plenty of areas to stick millions of wind farms, but we’ve gotta get that power to the populated areas; and consistently! Greater than 20% yes, but at least in the US lets cross that bridge when we get there. Who knows what great technologies will exist when we do.

    Take a look at this map, SC currently has no chance of having anymore than marginal wind coverage on the coast.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:United_States_Wind_Resources_and_Transmission_Lines_map.jpg

    Ooh and that study cited requires 13% of the world’s land to be covered by wind farms!!

  • Pu-239

    Nuclear is the only viable option to produce the amount of energy produced by fossil fuels. Solar is out of the question. There aren’t enough locations to harvest solar energies, especially near heavily populated areas. Geothermal could maybe be used for heating purposes but not for energy. Hydro has been maxed out in most places. Like everyone else has said wind couldn’t even come close to doing the job.

    As for safety, some one name a utility that is more regulated than nuclear.

    If we start to reprocess the waste it could cut down on the amount and add more fuel to burn.

  • Paul

    Just to address some of the points raised in the 4th post by UMMM. I realise that the article was talking about 100% penetration of wind energy and I agree that wind energy, with current electrical storage (chemical, mechanical or hydro) is not likely to achieve above 15-20% integration without some alteration of they way in which we manage our grids. However, there were a couple of value judgements and points about wind energy in general that, in my opinion, were not fair:

    1. Really? The title of this article implies that the writer has not done enough research.
    This seems unfair, the title includes the word ‘theoretically’, and mentions several times that it’s not likely that wind energy will achieve this penetration, and it probably wont – that’s why the author uses the word ‘theoretically’. I believe it will be a mix of many different green technologies.

    2. Wind is a politically driven green power source.
    To clarify, wind energy is being developed, and has been developed in many countries that have no legal obligation or economic incentives to do so (read: no political will). Unlike oil, coal and nuclear generation in which externalities (and public subsidies) are never considered (such as health care for miners, risk of nuclear plant malfunction, nuclear plant decommissioning and damage to the environment) wind energy, is being developed regardless, displaying an economic robustness on it’s own merits.

    3. Wind can never account for any percentage of the overall load
    Wind turbines generate electricity for 70-85% of the time, See: http://www.bwea.com/energy/rely.html for more information. In Denmark there have been periods where wind energy has represented the entire load and more. In New Zealand wind energy regularly displaces the need to run thermal at a displacement commensurate with it’s penetration.

    4. I would like to see time and money put into green power sources that are actually viable today’s society.
    It is a sure bet that a future, green grid will take many different forms of electricity generation in smaller 10-15% penetrations for each type (tidal/wave/solar etc.). At the moment, wind energy, hydro and geothermal are the only economically competitive, carbon free, nuclear free sources of energy and not everyone has rivers and geothermal activity in their back gardens. We have to start somewhere and we have to go with mechanically mature and economically mature/maturing green generation forms.

    Thanks,
    Paul

  • amphiox

    #4. UMMM
    Is there any iron-clad scientific law that says this must always be so? If not then it would seem self-evident that we should be working on developing technology that will decouple generation from demand, and store excess production for later use.

  • YouRang

    Here’s a freebie for someone who wants to make a name for himself and who has a pilot’s license. I’ve wanted to achieve the long distance unpowered heavier than air flight by kite power (so to speak). Two sailplanes at different altitudes. One at lower altitude with lower wind speed supplies the drag and lift. The other in front (the kite)–a plane facing backwards) at higher altitude (and higher wind speed) supplies the propulsion and lift. Until today I hadn’t considered the possibility of the plane facing backwards; and so I was never sure if a kite with a pilot can fly with the wind. Although in principle, one could slingshot up and down (alternating drag and lift components), I think that would require a heavier line which probably would put the fourth component of the force equation (the weight) out of limits.

  • http://www.killertechnologies.blogspot.com/ Jennifer

    sometimes i was thinking is we use a solar energy, we can save more in using electricity power sources.its mean we can safe more money. using a sources from nature like sun to generate solar is more appropriate rather than using gas from and digging from earth.

  • YouRang

    Also the fear about wind turbines eating up the wind might be backwards. Although wind turbines do require a usage of energy to work, they also have a cross section greater than their own physical cross section. IOW there is the possibility that a wind turbine can be designed to bring down higher winds from higher altitudes. In fact it’s more than a possibility, it’s a certainty. The only question would be: Would such a design be cost effective?

  • Harry Zilber

    UMMM implied in his posting that green wind energy isn’t viable due to a lack of energy storage. Far from true. There are, in fact, numerous types of energy storage techniques and schemes available which can divert excess electrical energy into various other forms of stored energy for recovery when needed, thus making it ‘dispatchable’. At present, these range from pumping compressed air into sealed underground mines, charging special purpose electrochemical media (mega-batteries if you will) and a host of other methods that are well documented.

    Of course the construction, maintenance and operation of those battery stations or storage sites need to be factored into the cost of providing green energy, but any rational examination will also show that when you factor in the hidden costs not currently assigned to coal and other hydrocarbon energy production (e.g.: global warming, hidden health-care costs, acid rain and other forms of pollution, etc….) green energy still comes out far in the lead. Hydrocarbon-based energy production and use has essentially been subsidized by various types of government policies for many years.

    What’s needed now is leadership at the highest levels to aggressively push non-hydrocarbon energy production into high gear, in part to replace existing power plants that are major contributors to global warming and also to provide for future increased electrical needs from new consuming devices such as battery driven electrical cars (e.g. the Chevrolet Volt and the Tesla Sedan). These goals, as daunting as they may be, can be readily accomplished if Obama and his counterparts world-wide appoint new cabinet-level Secretaries who’s agenda would cover both the elimination of polluting industries and the promotion of green energy.

  • Nuclear

    NUCLEAR POWER!!!!
    Efficiency, reliable, and safe.
    This green energy is so much bull****.
    do some research and youll find out the truth

  • http://www.windenergy-the-truth.com/ Alexander66

    Wind power is not a solution. The whole truth about wind turbines is never told by lobbyists and governments.
    How could the very weak and extremely unreliable initial energy source of a wind turbine ever produce a steady power of any significance?
    Please think!
    And read: “Wind energy- the whole truth” at: Wind energy- the whole truth
    .

    And for green jobs creation in relation to renewable energy read:

    Study of the effects on employment of public aid to renewable energy sources.

  • brittany adams

    WOW…you guys really helped me out. i nedded help on my science project and you guys gave me good imformation. keep up the good work.!!!

  • http://none Val Martin

    Hi: I realy want to know how you can store enough electricity to run a medium sized city for a day.. I believe it cannot be done. Lead acid batteries t run Dublin would be massive and harmful gasses would be released on charging. A bettery to run Dublin for a day would contain 100,000 tons of lead and 300,000 litres of Sulphuric acid. Total 400,000 toms. Thats not to count the gasses. I say you cannot store electricity in large amounts even for a day

  • u

    why

  • manotick

    The problem we face is getting from here to there in a low carbon energy efficient environment. Clearly wind and solar help, but they will never be the main source of electricity that we can depend on 27/7/365. Some areas are lucky to have hydro. Those that don’t require some other source which on a global basis is primarily natural gas, coal or fission-based nuclear.

    We are trying to either (a) phase out coal because of its high CO2 emissions or (b) make it clean by developing carbon capture and sequestering systems. So far we do not have (b) and no one knows with any certainty whether we ever will. If we do find such a safe and reliable system, then we can all go back to sleep.

    Natural gas also emits C02 but not as much as coal so it is a better choice. But we will have to use tar sands or shale gas which raises other environmental issues.

    Fission nuclear has the waste problem which hopefully be sorted out….but we haven’t yet as no one wants it in their backyard. Just ask Senator Reid in Nevada.

    There is hope for another source of electrical power…….hopefully as early as mid- century…and that is nuclear fusion. It is safe, clean, reliable and does not have the waste problem of fission nuclear. It can power the planet for centuries using only water. Right now there are a couple of major experiments going on with it…ITER in France which is expected to start up as an experimental reactor in 2018 and the National Ignition Facility
    in California. Scientists are watching these experiments very closely. If successful, we may well have solved our “electricity crisis.”

    So are goal is to find the cheapest green technologies to get us to a fusion world…if that is possible.

  • http://N/a Val Martin

    Hi>

    You can store energy. The most useful is to pump water from one resevour to a higher one. The advantage is that the intensity of the outflow which drives a turbine is roughly the same from full to near empty. The problem is that all the molevules of water must be pumped up while only about one third can be made work on the way down. In practice for every unit put in only about a quarter is got back out. Good sites are rare and volume is low. Pumping air into caves suffers from the problem of sealing the caves which will fill up with water over time. Air will escape. The second problem is that the intensity of the air presure decreases as the cave empties. Also air is a very un-dense (forgive grammer) medium and trapping its power is difficult. The problem with all storage is volume. Massive amount of ground is needed. People are tricked into thinking positive about easy clean energy. Remember wind power was around for many thousands of years before modern thermal engines and it was there when electricity became popular but was never used to generate power except for novelty schemes. I ‘m sorry to say, that the notion that mother nature is willing and ready to provide us with sufficeint clean renewable energy is fancyful. She has no intention of doing so. We must consider also that if we succeed in harnessing wind, wave, tidal and anything else that moves, we will slow down that medium, as it slows down it will impart less power. Just like if you overload a donkey, hes going to slow down. Something which is never mentioned by the green lobby is going back to sailing ships for see transport, that would cut carbon emmissions at a flash. No bet that brings a touch of reality to you.

    Val

  • http://N/a Val Martin

    Just on Nuclear.

    The Magnox plant in combria England was intended to produce 120 tons of re-cycled nuclear fuel per year. It only even succeeded in producing 6 tones.

    I dont know about fusion. But there is a huge problem with neclear waste. Many do not agree. But the stores are there with a half life time of 500,000,000 years or so. (subject to correction) Low level waste is the worst. It would seem prausable that some high level waste could be launched into space and cast into the sun. It is a ready made nuclear waste disposal unit and completely green. I would think the danger of getting up there would be a problem. My knowledge of nuclear is limited because I cannot experiment, its easy to make generation models with alternators, water turbines and small wind turbines. So more up to speed with them.

    V

  • mike figgen

    Please do not fall into the trap of thinking that wind power is 100% clean energy. Every watt of energy taken out of the wind inevitably slows that wind down, and as we know, nature is always right in the end. As you slow the wind down, you reduce the rainfall downwind and increase it around the windfarm. This changes the climate, something proponents claim to be preventing!
    Man has an unbroken record of always doing the wrong thing to his environment, and yet we always seem to think that finally, this year, we know everything! And yet in 2015 we will realise all the errors we made in 2010. Look at the research done on wind loss around wind farms or, even simpler, carefully watch a windfarm if and when the wind is blowing along the line (rather than across it). You will clearly see that each mill turns slightly slower than its upwind neighbour. Get active, do something before it’s too late. the wind power lobbys, as in all such cases, have their own research and counter arguments hard at work, but don’t be fooled by wolves in green clothing!
    Professor Mike Figgen, Paris

  • http://none Val Martin

    The accurate way to measure the contribution of wind turbines is capacity credit (firm capacity in USA) Its the amount of convenional plant that can be shut down and replaced by wind without endangering supply. To calculate:

    Total wind in system (say 2,000 mw) – Equal amount of conventional plant needed to back up wind = capacity credit for wind only. To find the total saving in the entire sytem, multiply this by the % wind penetration.

    Example: Windyland: wind 2,000 – 1500 needed to keep running = 500/ wind (2,000) = 25% If wind forms 10% then 25% x 10% = 2.5%.

    The figure is about 1.6 for Europe, which means that there is a saving of 1.6% on emmissons in Denmark and Germany. Wind energy Association often give the contribution for wind @ the actual outut (load factor). They appar to get paid for the total output while consummers pay for the thermal plant to back it up.

  • http://envirogreentechnologies.blogspot.com windenergy today

    We need to be certain, that as we attempt to save the environment, we don’t do it at the expense of the environment. (birds and bats with turbine blades) Safety and deterrent factors must be considered and included in all designs.

  • Geek

    I’m creating a website with all the facts and figures and I’ve done the calculations. The world would need to be covered 3200 times in order for wind to power the whole world.

    The global consumption is >20,000TW and at the moment wind accounts for about 0.16TW (depending on where you get your info.)

    the website should be up in a few weeks its http://www.thought4energy.com

  • http://www.egenergy.com/ Power factor correction

    For me (without doing any of the sums) reducing our power requirements through efficiencies; and more energy coming from renewable and low-carbon sources is the way to go.

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