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Wind Power Has its Limits, But It’s Not the Sky

From the climate’s point of view, wind turbines are a great way to generate electricity. The energy source is absolutely free, and turning breezes into kilowatts releases precisely zero heat-trapping greenhouse gases. Sure, it takes energy to build and transport and assemble turbines — some of it, undoubtedly, derived from fossil fuels — but once that giant pinwheel is up and turning, emissions drop off the map. The other thing people like about wind power is that it’s essentially limitless.

Limitless, that is, unless you’re a scientist who thinks hard about such things. Three of those scientists have been thinking hard about the limits of wind power — and their thoughts have turned into a paper just published in Nature Climate Change.

In principle, they argue, the very existence of wind turbines could slow the planet’s winds to the point where they couldn’t generate any more energy. In practice, fortunately, that’s not likely to happen anytime soon.

The analysis considers both conventional, ground-based wind turbines and futuristic flying turbines that could take advantage of the steadier, stronger winds that blow at high altitudes. In both cases, a big enough fleet would slow the wind and limit the total energy available for electricity making.

For the flying windmills, that limit would be 1,800 terawatts, or 1.8 billion watts — 100 times more electricity than the entire planet currently uses. The ground-based turbines would top out at a mere 400 terawatts, or 20-ish times current demand.

“It is likely,” write the authors drily, “that wind power growth will be limited by economic or environmental factors, not global geophysical limits.”

That’s not to say that switching entirely to wind power would have no effect on the atmosphere. The climate models the scientists used show that a worldwide wind-based energy economy could decrease global precipitation slightly, by altering weather patterns.

On balance, however, the conclusion is pretty straightforward: we can build as many wind turbines as we could possibly want, and the Earth will be able to handle it just fine.

« Charged


By Syd Baumel (Winnipeg/MB/R3M1A9)
on September 17th, 2012

“For the flying windmills, that limit would be 1,800 terawatts, or 1.8 billion watts ”” 100 times more electricity than the entire planet currently uses.”

Oops. If the limit is just 1.8 billion watts, we’re already in trouble. 1.8 billion watts = 1.8 gigawatts. There are a thousand gigawatts in one terrawatt. So the limit - assuming the 1,800 terawatts figure is correct - is actually 1.8 billion watts times one million ... I think. Anyway, the limit is WAY bigger than 1.8 billion watts.

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By James Newberry (New Haven, CT 06515)
on November 7th, 2012

I believe it should be1.8 quadrillion watts, rather than “billion.” Also, this is about 100 times the rate of world Energy Use, rather than “electricity.”

The market for cleantech is wide open, if we can get those pesky entrenched obstacles (aka in-vested interests) out of the way.

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By Rachelle (Colorado Springs)
on December 5th, 2012

In every source of energy that we can think of someone has to find something wrong with it. But as the scientist say is if we build a lot of them we can mess up how much wind we get. But that is why we think of other options so that we don’t do such a thing. We can build solar farms which will not use the wind or we can also build hydropower. This way we don’t just use one source of energy. With the numbers scientists keep throwing out about how much these wind turbines can produce; I don’t understand why people haven’t jumped on the opportunity to get started. If it can help stop greenhouse gases and produce more energy than we actually use it seems like a win to me.

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By KevinTran (NewYork)
on December 29th, 2012

Nice post!

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By Jack Corry
on July 22nd, 2013

If we list the serious environmental problems created by windpower, running out of wind is a total non-starter. The idea that windpower is essentially limitless is equally ridiculous.

When will we take off the blinders and total up the devastating environmental costs of draping a vast web of gargantuan windmills across a natural landscape, all to capture a diffuse, intermittent and high cost form of energy?

I was a strong advocate for wind back in the 1970’s—it seems like clean, non-polluting energy…until we scratch a bit below the surface and see the eroding, dispersed network of dirt service roads, the extensive power collection grid required, the early failure of the equipment, the failure to meet projected outputs, the base load problem, the aesthetic issues, the noise pollution, the wildlife impacts, the stream sedimentation, the adverse life cycle energy analysis, the high, non-competitive cost of the energy produced, the opportunity costs for not investing in better alternatives, etc. Where, I ask, is the environmental or economic justification for all this havoc done in the name of “saving the planet”.

It is time for thinking environmentalists to step forward and unseat the groupthink bobble-heads who adulate feel-good energy fantasies promoted by General Electric, T. Boone Pickens and their fellow travelers.


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By kermit
on September 25th, 2013

Hi, Jack. I wonder what you think the practical limits of wind are? “Eroding, dispersed, network of dirt roads” - really? The horrible, no good dirt roads in a rural environment, the same ones leading to radio antennas, ranches, state parks, and so on? They’re really not bad for roads with little traffic and not covering long distances. The “extensive grid required” is but a small fraction of the grid we already have to distribute power. Stringing together a few dozen turbines is not a problem. The noise is less than traffic on a typical rural road; most wind farms are on mountain ridges around here in the northwest, or I suppose on farmland in the midwest. As for aesthetic issues, anybody reading this is welcome to google “coal plant” and “images” for comparison.

Havoc? Heh. Wind turbines are quiet, clean, efficient. and graceful. Around here, we have rainbows, unicorns and bunnies dancing about their bases. Really, it’s hard to imagine anything less troublesome or intrusive unless it’s solar panels. It would have hurt my brain trying to associate those “problems” with wind turbines.

The real problem, of course, is that wind (and solar) are distributed power sources, not only physically but more importantly economically, and certain vested interests cannot control it. How’s a fiercely competitive rich man supposed to get richer when nearly startup operation can prove viable?

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