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Published on September 10th, 2012 | by James Ayre


Wind Energy Could Meet Global Demand 20–100 Times Over, New Study Finds

September 10th, 2012 by  

All of the world’s energy needs could be provided for solely by wind power, according to new research from the Carnegie Institute and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.


The winds are capable of providing more than enough energy to meet all of the world’s demands. The potential of atmospheric turbines is a part of that, capable of converting the much faster and steadier high-altitude winds into electricity (rather than ground- and ocean-based units).

The new research from the Carnegie Institute investigates what the actual limits of wind power are; how much could potentially be harvested; and what the effects of such large-scale, high-altitude wind power would be — could they affect the whole climate themselves?

The research was led by Kate Marvel of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, who had begun this research while working at Carnegie. The research team quantified the possible amount of power that could be generated using both surface and atmospheric winds with the aid of computer models. They defined the surface winds as the ones that could be exploited by towers (possibly higher than those currently available) on land or at sea, while the high-altitude winds were considered to be those that would only be accessible by using technology that merges turbines and kites. The only factors considered in the study were the geophysical limitations of these techniques, no economic or technical difficulties were factored in.

“Turbines create drag, or resistance, which removes momentum from the winds and tends to slow them. As the number of wind turbines increase, the amount of energy that is extracted increases. But at some point, the winds would be slowed so much that adding more turbines will not generate more electricity. This study focused on finding the point at which energy extraction is highest,” a news release on the study reported.

“Using models, the team was able to determine that more than 400 terrawatts of power could be extracted from surface winds and more than 1,800 terrawatts could be generated by winds extracted throughout the atmosphere.”

Present civilization needs around 18 TW of power. Even if limited to only near-surface winds, enough power could be generated to create 20 times more electricity than the current global power use. When you factor in high-altitude wind turbines, you could potentially generate more than 100 times the current global power demand, just by using wind, nothing else.

Interestingly, the researchers found that “at maximum levels of power extraction, there would be substantial climate effects to wind harvesting. But the climate effects of extracting wind energy at the level of current global demand would be small, as long as the turbines were spread out and not clustered in just a few regions.”

If all of our energy was provided by wind power, the wind turbines would change surface temperatures by around 0.1 degree Celsius and alter precipitation levels by around 1%. The researchers think that these would not be substantial environmental impacts.

“Looking at the big picture, it is more likely that economic, technological or political factors will determine the growth of wind power around the world, rather than geophysical limitations,” Caldeira said.

The research was just published on September 9th in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Source: Carnegie Institution
Image Credits: Sky Windpower; Wind Sunset via Wikimedia Commons

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About the Author

's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy. You can follow his work on Google+.

  • Pingback: When it Comes to Creating Jobs, It’s Hard to Beat a Wind Farm()

  • About 8000 t of uranium per year could be extracted as byproduct of processing of phosphates. This alone translates into about 25 TW of primary power if used in breeders.
    Use of highly efficient Gen V gas-core reactors could make this into equivalent of 50 TW by present technology. And let the winds freely blow.

    • Bob_Wallace

      And let the winds freely blow radiation from the next reactor that Homer drives onto the rocks?

      I’ve got a better idea.

      Renewable energy. Cheaper, faster to install, and safer.

      • What radiation? I followed the numbers, not hype. Pure fiction. In all nuclear “disasters” (in reality minor second page industrial accidents) for each one or none killed by radiation, hundreds were killed by panic-mongers. Who is criminal, the one who strikes a match in full theater, or the one who starts screaming “Fire!”?
        For the rest, I wish you good luck with you homespun electricity. Start sewing you clothes, growing your vegetables, milking your cow, shoeing your horse, hunting your game and gathering your food.

    • Luke

      Why oh why, whenever I peruse comments on energy sites, does some idiot always try and play up the benefits of some new unproven, unrealistic, expensive, apparently magical and revolutionary nuclear power plant design.

      You wanna’ know F*ing why these nuclear power plants aren’t being built or developed? BECAUSE IT DOESN’T WORK!

      • Bob_Wallace

        Oh, but it does!

        I saw a video on U-Boob!!!!

      • It works. It works in China, in France, in Korea. With zero deaths in 50+ y. Only idiots couldn’t see the obvious, with their obsolete minds.

        • Bob_Wallace

          That’s a dishonest claim, predrag. No one died at Chernobyl? Immediate death is the only safety measure that should be considered?

          What you apparently cannot see is that new nuclear plants are so expensive to build and finance that they cannot produce electricity at a price which is competitive in the free market.

          Nuclear plants are not being built because there are cheaper, faster and safer ways to generate electricity. “Idiots” with “obsolete” minds can do simple arithmetic. Can you?

          • Lapsus calami, I meant zero deaths in the West. If nukes were strangled in the US, they simply shared the fate of eCar and tramcars, courtesy of Big Oil. In China they are expected to beat advanced coal plants even in terms of capital investment. China plans to install about 100 GW in the next 10y, equal to total US nuc capacity. Chinese are not fools, they listen to experts, not to crazed media controlled by advertisers. The popularity of the whole green nonsense is not hard to explain: it’s very efficient in blocking of the only technology that could realisticaly replace fossils.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Sorry, predrag, but you are poorly informed and apparently filled with anti-facts.

            Can you simply acknowledge that nuclear energy does bring with
            it significant safety issues? If it didn’t then you wouldn’t need to twist stuff around in an attempt to deny it.

            Are you aware that the US now gets 4% of its electricity from wind and the percentage coming from nuclear has not increased in over 20 years?

            And why is that? Simple. Wind is extremely cheaper than is new nuclear and wind does not have the siting problems of nuclear. People have no objection to living a few miles away from a wind farm. They are willing to go to the streets to keep a nuclear reactor out of their neighborhood.

          • That only proves that people are idiots and that Queen Anne is dead. Going to streets, what an argument! In Russia serfs mutined against introduction of potato. It’s not in Bible, it’s Satan’s work, they will lost their immortal souls. They adore Madonna, they watch soap operas, they lynch, they bomb Hanoy, they cry over Lennon, they burn witches, they protest against nukes. Yes, we the people! Wise as ever.

          • we’re stupid about some things and we ‘get’ some things.

            why does nuclear have so many safety requirements? really, are even the experts fooled?

            why is nuclear so expensive? why do the costs consistently double, triple or worse from the original quotes?

            why will private industry not put their money into them? why must government do the heavy lifting to get a nuke built?

            why would we not use the wind and the sun when they do the job better?

        • Luke

          I’m sorry, but did you just completely skip over the whole Chernobyl & Fukushima thing?

      • Ha. believe me, i know what you mean, they get old.

        and seems like every time we get even a mild reddit wave, they quadruple. seems the crew over there is a converted team of nukies. what a shame.

        • Bob_Wallace

          I quit trying to use digg long ago because the site got taken over by a bunch of libertarians and they destroyed usefulness by promoting their stuff and killing news they didn’t like.

          • yeah, reddit’s much better, but always depends on the subreddit. a subreddit can definitely be taken over like that.

  • dcard88

    Not much different than Solar, which can also easily generate over 100 times our needs.

    • Bob_Wallace

      We’re friggin’ energy rich!

      Now, hows about we speed up harvesting more of this clean energy and kick fossil fuels to the curb?

    • Easily? To generate 20 TW at 20% efficiency, you must cover about 400.000 km2 with PV. It’s the whole Germany and then some. At only 10 kg/m2 it’s 4 billions of tons.
      Alternatively, you could build 10 000 big nukes covering 400 km2 and using 5x less steel. This holds for Gen III. Gen IV and V could reduce this figures by whole order of magnitude.

      • dcard88

        OK, so 150 million km available so we need to use .2 % of land space for solar. Subtract moutains leaves about 100 million so around .4% of land needed, or 2% of deserts (21 million km2). Most of the weight of current panels is sand so only about 2kg per panel of metal so about 400 million tons of steel so nucs use twice as much steel and will increase in cost by a factor of 100% per decade. Solar panels will be less expensive as time goes on. Yes EASILY. Wont happen overnight but we just need to get on a path to get it done by 2050ish.

  • Anne

    civilization needs around 18 TW of power. Even if limited to only
    near-surface winds, enough power could be generated to create 20 times
    more electricity than the current global power use.”

    I am sorry, but that is patently wrong.

    I assume that ‘power use’ means ‘electricity use’. Annual electricity consumption is 22,000 TWh (look it up in BP statistical review). Divided by 8760 hours, that is an average of ~2.5 TW.

    The 18 TW figure is total PRIMARY energy use or mainly the energy content of fossil fuels. It is the hobby of the energy industry to equal all kWh’s. Well, I have news for you: some kWh’s are more equal than others.

    Wind turbines produce high value electricity, which can be used about 4x as efficient (in electric cars and heat pumps) than common fossil fuels, whose energy is measured in low value heat.

    A large part of that fossil energy is used to generate electricity. Obviously it is wrong to measure the amount of renewable electricity we need by the heat value of the fossil fuels going into the power plant (= primary energy). Instead you should look at electricity coming out. Or do we really need renewable waste heat too? You know, these fish like the warm water so much.

    Please, don’t paint a pessimistic picture by wrongly throwing all forms of energy on one heap and ignoring the vast efficiency gains from switching from heat energy to electric energy.

    • Thor Russell

      You are right, but unfortunately energy usage is going to increase this century as developing countries develop. So planning for 18TW is not such a bad idea.

      • Bob_Wallace

        This is from Jacobson and Delucchi, 2009 so numbers might be a bit higher now.

        “Today the maximum power consumed worldwide at any given moment is about 12.5 trillion watts (terawatts, or TW), according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The agency projects that in 2030 the world will require 16.9 TW of power as global population and living standards rise, with about 2.8 TW in the U.S.”

        If you haven’t read their article in which they identify energy needs and how it can be supplied from renewable source I’d recommend spending a few minutes.

        It’s a little dated three years later. We now know that lithium and rare earth minerals are not likely to be a problem. Solar prices have fallen significantly and efficiencies have increased. Output capacity for wind turbines has risen from ~30% to around 50%.

        Oh, and we didn’t get seriously started in 2010 so we aren’t likely to make it by 2030….

      • Anne

        Bob, your are feeding the confusion and doing the development of renewable energy not any favours.

        Using TW makes people think you are talking about ELECTRICITY and that we need to generate 18 TW of ELECTRICITY, which by no means is true. This confusion is widely exploited by the pro-fossil lobbyists to ‘prove’ the hopelessness of renewable energy.

        It is not hopeless, Bob.

        • Bob_Wallace

          Anne – I do not understand this comment. My comment uses the word “energy”, not “electricity”.

          Jacobson and Delucchi address the world’s need for energy, including heat and transportation along with electricity. They lay out a more complete sourcing of where we can harvest that energy, where we could obtain it and roughly what it would cost to do so.

          The source article talks about energy and power. In my reading of the source article I do not see the word “electricity” except in referring to the form of energy turbines output.

          Did you misread “power” as “electricity”?

  • Anne

    “400 terrawatts of power”

    Terrawatts = ‘Earh watts’. I like that!

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