At the moment, wind power supplies about 4.1 percent of electric power in the United States. Still a bit player. Yet there’s a whole lot of untapped wind left in the world. Wind whipping through the Great Plains. Wind gusting off the shores. Wind circulating high up in the sky. So what would happen if we tried to harvest all of that wind?
We’d have enough energy to power the world. At least in theory. A new study published this week in Nature Climate Change finds that there’s enough wind potential both on the Earth’s surface and up in the atmosphere to power human civilization 100 times over. Right now, humans use about 18 terawatts of power worldwide. And, technically, the study found, we could extract about 400 terawatts of wind power from the Earth’s surface and 1,800 terawatts of power from the upper atmosphere.
Even the most optimistic near-term projections for wind power, however, tend to be more restrained. In 2008, the U.S. Department of Energy released a comprehensive report estimating that wind power could provide, at most, 20 percent of U.S. electricity by 2030. And for that to happen, the cost of wind power would have to keep plunging, the number of turbines built would have to steadily increase by about 14 percent each year, and utilities would have to build new transmission lines to accommodate the extra energy.