Washington — Wind power is more than adequate to meet projected energy demands, researchers at several U.S. institutions announced this week, and the environment will not be harmed in tapping this resource.
A joint research team from the University of Delaware (UD) and Stanford University concluded that wind turbines could power half the world’s future energy demands without causing a negative effect on surface temperatures, water vapor, atmospheric circulations or other climatic factors.
“Wind power is very safe from the climate point of view,” said Cristina Archer, associate professor of geography and physical ocean science and engineering at UD.
The researchers came to this conclusion after developing the most sophisticated weather model available, according to a Stanford University press release. They also had to identify a theoretical calculation researchers are calling “saturation wind power potential.” That’s the point where the turbines erected for wind power generation consume all the wind, leaving little behind for other turbines to extract any energy and potentially interfering with the climate.
They concluded that the saturation wind power potential is greater than 250 terawatts globally, with 1 terawatt (TW) equal to 1,000,000 megawatts (MW). With turbines located only on land and coastal areas, churning at 100 meters in the air, they calculate the saturation point at 80 terawatts. The world’s current power demands are about 18 terawatts.
“The result of this study suggests that there is no fundamental barrier to obtaining many times the world power demand for all purposes in a clean-energy economy from wind,” said Mark Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford. Archer and Jacobson found that installing 4 million turbines could yield up to 7.5 TW. They also demonstrate that the distribution of wind farms at windy locations around the world would increase efficiency, minimize costs and reduce overall impacts on the environment.
The Stanford-UD collaborative work contradicts previous research from the German Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry, which found that wind had little potential to meet energy demands and could have harmful environmental effects.
The Stanford-UD group based their investigation on a design putting the turbine 100 meters above the ground. The German study based its findings on the performance of turbines on the ground.
The potential exists for wind energy turbines to harm the environment when installed at a massive scale by reducing water vapor in the air and cooling the planet, but this study projects that those negative outcomes will not occur on a lesser scale. On the contrary, the Stanford-UD researchers say that the impacts of wind extraction are less than the atmospheric damage that stems from the use of fossil fuels in power generation.
“We’re not saying ‘Put turbines everywhere,’ but we have shown that there is no fundamental barrier in obtaining half or even several times the world’s all-purpose power from the wind by 2030,” Jacobson said.
The National Science Foundation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and NASA’s high-end computing supported this research.
The Stanford-UD research is bolstered by another report coming out of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory September 10. Large-scale, high-altitude wind power generation is unlikely to substantially affect climate, according to a paper appearing in the journal Nature Climate Change.
“The future of wind energy is likely to be determined by economic, political and technical constraints rather than geophysical limits,” said Kate Marvel, lead author of the paper and a scientist in the laboratory’s program for climate model diagnosis.
Wind energy has been installed in the United States at a rapidly increasing pace in recent years. Just over 6,500 MW were installed nationwide in 2004; in 2012 wind energy provides almost 49,000 MW of power.