Wind power could generate up to 100 times global power needs before maxing out turbines

Scott Sutherland
Daily Brew
September 10, 2012

In a paper published over the weekend, a team of researchers at Stanford University has revealed that wind power could generate up to 1,800 terrawatts of power, which is 100 times the current global power requirement of 18 terrawatts.

The team, headed by Kate Marvel of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, in California, and Ken Caldeira and Ben Kravitz of Stanford's Carnegie Institution for Science's Department of Global Ecology, designed a computer model to show the maximum amount of power that we could get out of the winds. They used current knowledge of how much power ground and ocean-based wind turbines produce, as well as airborne turbines that could access the stronger winds of the stratosphere.

The amount of power that can be generated from this kind of system has a very specific limiting factor — drag.

As the blades of a turbine are turned by the wind, friction across the surface of the blades slows the wind down. Add enough wind turbines to the system and this drag will slow the winds down enough that you will reach a maximum power output. Adding any more turbines after that will actually reduce the amount of power you can get out of the system.

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With a maximum geophysical power output of 1,800 terrawatts, wind energy has the potential to power our civilization for years to come, and at very little impact to the environment. At maximum output, and a system where the turbines were spaced out sufficiently, the paper predicts only a 0.1 degree Celsius rise in global temperatures and only a 1% effect on global precipitation.

The research team only factored in the geophysical limits in their paper, but Kate Marvel is quick to point out: "The future of wind energy is likely to be determined by economic, political and technical constraints rather than geophysical limits."

[ Related: P.E.I. signs with turbine company for $60M windfarm ]