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What if we could generate all the energy required to power the whole of civilization, just using wind turbines? It might sound far-fetched but new research published this week has suggested that this scenario is not entirely unrealistic.

A new location for wind farms

It would however, require some significant changes to the location of wind farms – placing these far out in deep water areas of our oceans, as opposed to on land or relatively near to the shore.

The study, titled ‘Geophysical potential for wind energy over the open oceans’ was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Authors Anna Possner and Ken Caldeira, both of the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford University in California, suggest that: “Whilst no commercial-scale deep water wind farms yet exist, our results suggest that such technologies, if they became technically and economically feasible, could potentially provide civilization-scale power.’

Comparing theoretical wind farms on land and far out to sea and found that “on an annual mean basis, the wind power available in the North Atlantic could be sufficient to power the world.” Their calculations were based on a deep sea wind farm which covered three million square kilometres of ocean

The capacity for land-based wind turbines to generate power is limited by natural and man-made structures, such as mountains and buildings, which slow down wind speeds, leading to there being less energy available for wind turbines to collect. Having wind turbines grouped together also affects the amount of wind available, as explained by Caldeira: “If each turbine removes something like half the energy flowing through it, by the time you get to the second row, you’ve only got a quarter of the energy, and so on.”

Developing technology

The technology for deep water wind farms is certainly developing apace, but it’s still in the early stages of testing. The location of the majority of wind farms is currently limited by the depth of water in which the turbines are installed. A deep water version however, would need a different type of technology if they are to be installed in water which is often over a mile deep.

Statoil has just installed a floating wind farm off the coast of Scotland, which will vastly increase the number of potential locations for new wind farms, including deep water areas which were previously unable to be utilized.

Co-author Caldeira urged caution before taking their calculations too literally though, saying that actually attempting to obtain civilization scale power from wind alone would be “asking for trouble.” His study also states that attempting to harness this much wind power could have a huge effect on the planet as a whole, including reducing temperatures in the Arctic.

Instead, he suggests that their research can be used to build confidence for the future of deep water wind farms, saying: “The things that we’re describing are likely not going to be economic today, but once you have an industry that’s starting in that direction, should provide incentive for that industry to develop.”

Top image: A close shot of wind turbines at a wind farm (Public Domain)

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Emma Stenhouse, MSc

Emma qualified with a BSc (Hons) in Equine Science in 2003 and has had a passion for horses since a young age. She continued her academic career with an MSc in Applied Marine Science, gained in 2004. Emma’s main scientific focus was the navigational techniques of sea turtles and whether they use the acoustics of the surf-zone as a cue for nesting. She then worked for a sea turtle conservation project on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica before travelling to New Zealand where she worked as a Mari...Read More

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