Wind may have provided only 3% of U.S. power last year. But there’s more where that came from--a lot more. In fact, according to two new studies of global wind resources, there’s enough wind out there to power our planet hundreds of times over. In theory, that is.
Publishing in Nature Climate Change, researchers found that there’s a potential 400 terawatts for turbines placed on the Earth’s surface, but as much as 1,800 TW at high altitude, where winds are "steadier and faster." Currently, global power demand is about 18 TW.
The study looks at the "geophysical limits" of wind, rather than all the economic and regulatory issues involved. Putting up thousands of turbines in itself creates a drag on capacity, and potentially alters the climate. But, contradicting other studies, the researchers say we could exploit 2,000-plus TW, with minimal impact on temperatures and precipitation.
Another study says the wind "saturation potential" is 250 TW at 100 meters above ground, and 380 KW at 10 kilometers up. "There is no fundamental barrier to obtaining half (approximately 5.75 TW) or several times the world’s all-purpose power from wind in a 2030 clean-energy economy," the study says.
Jacobson and Archer say we could install 4 million turbines--half on land, and half at sea--without any negative effects on global wind patterns, and generate at least 7.5 TW. The turbines on land alone would take up 1% of the Earth’s surface.
It’s arguable how useful such studies are without considering important factors like costs, grid readiness, or other realities. But the research does reinforce the resources available at heights well above today’s turbines, and, in turn, the potential importance of all kinds of atmospheric wings, kites, balloons, and airborne wind turbines now being developed.
A more practical study of future wind capacity by the International Energy Agency reckons we could have 2.01 TW by 2050. But that work, from 2009, just looked at today’s onshore and offshore turbines, and not at flying ones. The future of wind turbines may not be in the air at all.