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Geophysical limits to global wind power

Nature Climate Change volume 3, pages 118121 (2013) | Download Citation


There is enough power in Earth’s winds to be a primary source of near-zero-emission electric power as the global economy continues to grow through the twenty-first century. Historically, wind turbines are placed on Earth’s surface, but high-altitude winds are usually steadier and faster than near-surface winds, resulting in higher average power densities1. Here, we use a climate model to estimate the amount of power that can be extracted from both surface and high-altitude winds, considering only geophysical limits. We find wind turbines placed on Earth’s surface could extract kinetic energy at a rate of at least 400 TW, whereas high-altitude wind power could extract more than 1,800 TW. At these high rates of extraction, there are pronounced climatic consequences. However, we find that at the level of present global primary power demand ( 18 TW; ref. 2), uniformly distributed wind turbines are unlikely to substantially affect the Earth’s climate. It is likely that wind power growth will be limited by economic or environmental factors, not global geophysical limits.

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We wish to thank L. Cao for his help in configuring and running CAM and C. Doutriaux, P. Caldwell and K. Taylor for useful discussions. This work was performed under the auspices of the US Department of Energy by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory under Contract DE-AC52-07NA27344.

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  1. Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, PO Box 808, L-103 Livermore, California 94551, USA

    • Kate Marvel
  2. Carnegie Institution Department of Global Ecology, 260 Panama Street, Stanford, California 94305, USA

    • Ben Kravitz
    •  & Ken Caldeira


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K.M. and K.C. designed the study. K.M. prepared and performed the simulations. K.M., K.C. and B.K. analysed the data. K.M. and K.C. wrote the paper with contributions from B.K.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Correspondence to Kate Marvel.

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