Thought experiments are magnificent little things with huge implications. Can an earthquake shatter a planet, for example? No – but you could power the entire planet twice over if you hooked up geothermal plants to Yellowstone’s supervolcanic magma chamber, to give another.
Now, two researchers at the Department of Global Ecology at Stanford’s Carnegie Institution for Science have indulged in another science-based ponder: what’s the maximum potential for wind farms over the open oceans? Could you power the entire planet, hypothetically speaking?
As it turns out, the answer is yes. It doesn’t mean that we’re about to suddenly cover a massive chunk of ocean water in spinning turbines, but it illustrates that there’s so much untapped clean energy out there – and a good swatch of it resides atop the open ocean.
Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers pointed out that wind speeds over open oceans are around 70 percent higher than those on land, not least because there’s little to block their flow. That’s why offshore wind turbine development is growing at a considerably rapid pace.
Looking at the North Atlantic, the pair calculated that the confluence of strong, unobstructed wind currents could generate four times more power than the average large wind farm. These currents are strongest in the winter months when the gradient between the cool Arctic and the hot equatorial regions is highest.
Additionally, their calculations suggest that the surface heat flux from the ocean there – the radiation coming off the ocean as it cools, essentially – is high enough to contribute to this treasure trove of available kinetic energy.
“While no commercial-scale deep water wind farms yet exist,” the authors explained, “our results suggest that such technologies, if they became technically and economically feasible, could potentially provide civilization-scale power.”
They’re not kidding. According to their mathematical and computational modeling, a sizeable enough wind farm could completely satiate the current global energy demand all by itself.
The one catch is that the wind farm would need to be around 3 million square kilometers (about 1.2 million square miles). That’s a little more than the area of Argentina, or slightly less than that of India. Sounds huge, but that’s still less than 3 percent of the entire area of the Atlantic Ocean, so it wouldn’t really take up that much room.
A separate analysis recently suggested that if just 4 percent of the world’s electricity came from offshore wind farms, the world would drawdown 12.8 billion tonnes (14.1 billion US tons) of carbon emissions and save $275 billion. We don’t know about you, but setting sail toward a wind-powered future sounds pretty good to us.