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Near-surface and high-altitude winds abundant; the key is siting – studies

Potential energy from the wind – both from near the surface and in high altitudes – is more than enough to meet the current and future total global power demand.

These are the findings of two studies released today, one from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Carnegie Institute, and the other from Stanford University and the University of Delaware.

Stanford’s study, led by their School of Engineering in collaboration with the University of Delaware, focused on identifying the world’s maximum wind power potential, taking in account the saturation wind power potential – the point where adding more turbines would fail to increase energy output.

The saturation wind power potential is reached when too many turbines in an area leave too little wind left behind to extract, reducing the amount of energy available for others and even interfering with the climate.

Upon reaching the saturation wind power potential, the amount of power that can be generated globally is more than 250 terawatts over land and water; 80 terawatts over land and along the coasts, and 380 terawatts six miles up in the atmosphere from high-altitude wind.

According the study results, installing 4 million turbines could yield up to 7.5 TW – more than enough to power world demand in 2030. Ideally these turbines would be spread out in high-wind sites across the globe, with half of the figure on sites over water.

The researchers concluded that wind power can easily supply us with all our energy needs but careful siting is still needed to minimize costs and the overall impacts of global wind infrastructure on the environment.

The Lawrence Livermore and Carnegie study looked at the global potential as a whole and came up with a more generous estimate of around 400 TW of power from surface winds and 1,800 TW from high altitude winds.

The study also cited the need for proper siting of wind projects, noting that the potential climate effects of wind harvesting – decreasing wind speeds and a reduction in the amount of water vapor – and found that these would be minimal as long as turbines were spread out.

At the level of global demand, they concluded, wind turbines might affect surface temperatures by only about 0.1 degree Celsius and affect precipitation by about 1 percent.

High-altitude winds can provide more energy as they are faster and steadier; however, the challenge would be developing technologies to effectively harness these winds.

Near Zero, a nonprofit organization based in Stanford believes that high-altitude wind energy harvesting could scale up fairly quickly, given significant government support for research and development.

The group has released the findings of an informal discussion and formal survey on high-altitude wind energy devices and the challenges it faces before it becomes commercially competitive.

The results suggest that during the initial stage of the high-altitude wind sector would need government funding for R & D to the tune of at least $10 million per year to reach a significant scale. A funding of $100 million per year would further accelerate the deployment of high-altitude wind generators. (Katrice R. Jalbuena)

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