Published on Sunday in the journal Nature Climate Change, the study says the Earth’s winds contain so much energy they could be “a primary source of near-zero-emission electric power as the global economy continues to grow” between now and 2100.
Researched by three Californian scientists, the study estimates the amount of power that can be extracted from both surface and high-altitude winds.
“Historically, wind turbines are placed on Earth’s surface, but high-altitude winds are usually steadier and faster than near-surface winds, resulting in higher average power densities,” said the study, called Geophysical limits to global wind power.
“We find wind turbines placed on Earth’s surface could extract kinetic energy at a rate of at least 400 [terawatts] TW, whereas high-altitude wind power could extract more than 1,800 TW.”
Noting the current level of global primary power demand is about 18 TW, the report concluded that “it seems that the future of wind energy will be determined by economic, political and technical constraints, rather than global geophysical limits.”
Garnering much media attention, the new study is bound to be of interest to engineers since wind turbines installed near to the ground are already a mature technology but high-altitude wind energy is still a major challenge as is how to get the power to the ground.
One of the study co-authors, Ken Caldeira, was quoted by Associated Press as saying that money, not potential wind energy limits, is the issue.
“It’s really a question about economics and engineering and not a question of fundamental resource availability,” Caldeira said.
In a subsequent interview, Steve Sawyer, Secretary General of the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC), said he welcomed the study findings but wasn’t overly surprised since other research data has also shown global wind power has immense untapped potential.
“The [wind] resource is not the limitation,” Sawyer said. “It’s more a question of economics and power system design and there’s a growing consensus that wind will be a major power source in the future energy mix.”
GWEC reported that there was 238 GW of installed global wind power capacity by the end of 2011. Of that, the EU had a total installed capacity of almost 94 GW.
Meanwhile, the European Commission expects wind energy to be the leading electricity generating technology by 2050, providing 32% to 49% of Europe’s electricity.