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Geophysical limits to global wind power


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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Figure 1: Global results for climate model simulations with drag added near the surface and throughout the whole atmosphere.
Figure 2: Zonal mean departures for cases extracting 428–429 TW from atmospheric winds, expressed as departures from zonal mean values in the control case.
Figure 3: Circulation changes from large-scale kinetic energy extraction.


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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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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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Correspondence to Kate Marvel.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Marvel, K., Kravitz, B. & Caldeira, K. Geophysical limits to global wind power. Nature Clim Change 3, 118–121 (2013).

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