Study: Using Vast Wind Power Won’t Warp Climate

It might be stating the obvious, but scientists writing in Nature Climate Change note that if we grabbed all the wind power available on Earth and turned it into electricity, there would be “pronounced climatic consequences.”

Fortunately, according to the researchers, there is vastly more wind energy available in our atmosphere – as much as 1,873 terawatts, they say — than the current primary power demand of 18 TW. That means that “uniformly distributed wind turbines are unlikely to substantially affect the Earth’s climate” even as the turbines give us every last electron of energy we need.

altaeros energies high altitude wind turbine

image via Altaeros Energies

So have we cracked the climate conundrum? Wind power is our savior?

Not really.

The study’s authors, from the government’s Lawrence Livermore National Lab and the Cargnegie Institution Department of Global Ecology, note they don’t address the economic, political and technical constraints of wind power. So this isn’t a proposal to blanket the planet with turbines. Instead, it’s an exploration of the “geophysical limits to wind power” – how much energy can be extracted before drag renders the atmosphere motionless – and what the large-scale climate impacts would if we moved toward that limit.

The good news: At what was termed “civilization scale reliance on wind power,” uniformly distributed turbines near the Earth’s surface would lead to just a small surface warming effect, the researchers said, while whole-atmosphere extraction would have a similarly minor cooling effect. In both cases global average precipitation would decrease by around 1 percent.

The study authors — Kate Marvel, Ben Kravitz and Ken Caldeira — found that using only turbines at the surface, the limit on wind power availability is 428 TW. In the entire atmosphere – this presumes using high-altitude airborne turbines – 1,873 TW is available.

This big number explains why scientists, analysts, dreamers and schemers have for years mused upon mining Earth’s high speed winds that are out of reach of turbines on even very tall poles.

Some are looking to go just 1,000 feet up, like the Altaeros project out of Massachusetts, which has tested a prototype at 350 feet altitude. The company believes it can trim the cost of wind power by 65 percent by accessing high-altitude winds that it says blow steadier and fives times stronger than the winds that today’s tower-mounted turbines rely on.

Others are looking even farther skyward. The consultancy GL Garrad Hassan said in a 2011 report that 22 companies have developed or announced they plant to develop prototypes – kites, kytoons, aerostats, gliders, sailplanes … you name it – that could harness wind resources more than 1.2 miles about Earth’s surface.

This new study could feed these perhaps grandiose hopes, and it’s not the only word on the subject. The Marvel/Kravitz/Caldeira conclusion that there is a vast resource of wind power available — both at the surface and much higher — fits pretty well with recent research by Stanford’s Mark Jacobson. His whole-globe total is a bit less robust than the other team’s, but he still found “no fundamental barrier to obtaining half or several times the world’s all-purpose power from wind in a 2030 clean-energy economy.”

In an interview with U.S. News & World Report, Jacobson’s co-author, Christine Archer, said 4 million land-based turbines would do the trick. The difficulty in pulling this off — just imagine the land-use conflicts — is a big part of the reason some think we should like higher into the sky. And yet there are skeptics on the science of high-altitude wind: Late last year, German researchers published a piece in the journal Earth System Dynamics title, “Jet stream wind power as a renewable energy resource: little power, big impacts.”

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

  • I can tell you now that every single wind turbine contributes to warming.
    These scientists are wrong.
    Where are their figure to back up their claim?
    They have provided none.
    Where are the studies to show they do not cause warming?
    There are none.
    Yet there is a wealth of evidence showing wind turbines cause warming.
    Furthermore the basic science of what wind is says wind farms should cause warming and the evidence shows they do.
    The scientists said the warming was ‘local’ as if that did not matter!!! WTF!!!

    Course it matter? I could put a huge volcano on every square mile of the planet and say, not to worry the warming is ‘local’, These guys are either nuts bad scientists or liars. Probably all three.

    • Pete Danko

      Wind turbines simply redistribute warm air. Huge volcanoes: whole ‘nother story.

      • Look there is no such thing as local heat it is a basic property of heat that it is never local, it dissipates. Any reference to a heating effect being local shows a fundamental understanding of heat.

        For importantly wind turbines do not ‘simply redistribute heat’ at least not in the way you mean. The earth is essentially a gas cooled body, air cooled if you like, if you slow down the flow of air the earth wil get warmer, this is a no brainer, surely?
        How could anyone possible disagree with that?
        I mean if you slow the fan on your computers CPU the CPU will get warmer right? You surely can comprehend that? Then why can’t you accept that slowing the wind on the earth will similarly produce warming.?

        Slowing the wind does produce heat, at least it does on a heated surface and the earth is a surface heated by the sun.

        It’s a no brainer ti really is,

        Wind power = global warming.

  • Also there is more rubbish in this I expect your figures for the energy in the wind are wrong. A fairly recent stuff shows the energy available from the jet stream is 200 times less than previously thought. http://www.earth-syst-dynam.net/2/201/2011/esd-2-201-2011.pdf (in the first page abstract).
    So clearly these ‘climate scientists are on extremely low calibre, anyone who can get something wrong by a factor of 200 is clearly an extremely dangerous person, that fact such people have input on the future of our planet is the stuff of horror films.
    Truly disturbing. How can anyone be so retarded?
    I mean surely even you had half a brain you could see the figure are highly dubious.

  • the figures quoted are wrong and proven wrong there is 200 times less energy in the wind, any fool would know that anyway, it is inconceivable there could be so much energy there. Worse still for every joule of energy you take from the wind you will probably create 3-4 joules of heat. The best you could every hope for is no overall effect, ie wind power at it’s theoretical best would make not a jot of difference to warming, but you will never bet close to that as there are losses all the way.