One of the questions most often asked about wind power is ‘what happens when the wind doesn’t blow’. On a local level, this is mainly a question of grid integration, but in the big picture the wind is a vast untapped resource capable of supplying the world’s electricity needs many times over. In practical terms, in an optimum, clean energy future, wind will be an important part of a mix of renewable energy technologies, playing a more dominant role in some regions than in others. However, it is worthwhile to step back for a minute and consider the enormity of the resource.
Researchers at Stanford University’s Global Climate and Energy Project recently did an evaluation of the global potential of wind power, using five years of data from the US National Climatic Data Center and the Forecasts Systems Laboratory. They estimated that the world’s wind resources can generate more than enough power to satisfy total global energy demand. After collecting measurements from 7,500 surface and 500 balloon-launch monitoring stations to determine global wind speeds at 80 meters above ground level, they found that nearly 13% had an average wind speed above 6.9 meters per second , sufficient for economical wind power generation. Using only 20% of this potential resource for power generation, the report concluded that wind energy could satisfy the world’s electricity demand in the year 2000 seven times over.
North America was found to have the greatest wind power potential, although some of the strongest winds were observed in Northern Europe, whilst the southern tip of South America and the Australian island of Tasmania also recorded significant and sustained strong winds. To be clear, however, there are extraordinarily large untapped wind resources on all continents, and in most countries; and while this study included some island observation points, it did not include offshore resources, which are enormous.
For example, looking at the resource potential in the shallow waters on the continental shelf off the densely populated east coast of the US, from Massachusetts to North Caroline, the average potential resource was found to be approximately four times the total energy demand in what is one of the most urbanized, densely populated and highest-electricity consuming regions of the world.
A study by the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU), “World in Transition – Towards Sustainable Energy Systems” (2003) calculated that the global technical potential for energy production from both onshore and offshore wind installations was 278,000 TWh (Terawatt hours) per year. The report then assumed that only 10–15% of this potential would be realisable in a sustainable fashion, and arrived at a figure of approximately 39,000 TWh supply per year as the contribution from wind energy in the long term, which is more than double current electricity demand.
The WBGU calculations of the technical potential were based on average values of wind speeds from meteorological data collected over a 14 year period (1979–1992). They also assumed that advanced multi-megawatt wind energy converters would be used. Limitations to the potential came through excluding all urban areas and natural features such as forests, wetlands, nature reserves, glaciers and sand dunes. Agriculture, on the other hand, was not regarded as competition for wind energy in terms of land use.
- World Wind Energy Association (WWEA)
- Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC)
- IEA Wind
- WEC Survey of Energy Resources
- European Wind Energy Association (EWEA)
- American Wind Energy Association (AWEA)
- NREL Wind Energy
- EERE Wind Energy