Each wind turbine creates behind it a “wind shadow” in which the air has been slowed down by drag on the turbine’s blades. The ideal wind farm strikes a balance, packing as many turbines onto the land as possible, while also spacing them enough to reduce the impact of these wind shadows. But as wind farms grow larger, they start to interact, and the regional-scale wind patterns matter more.
Keith’s research has shown that the generating capacity of very large wind power installations (larger than 100 square kilometers) may peak at between 0.5 and 1 watts per square meter. Previous estimates, which ignored the turbines’ slowing effect on the wind, had put that figure at between 2 and 7 watts per square meter.
“If wind power’s going to make a contribution to global energy requirements that’s serious, 10 or 20 percent or more, then it really has to contribute on the scale of terawatts in the next half-century or less,” says Keith.
If we were to cover the entire Earth with wind farms, he notes, “the system could potentially generate enormous amounts of power, well in excess of 100 terawatts, but at that point my guess, based on our climate modeling, is that the effect of that on global winds, and therefore on climate, would be severe—perhaps bigger than the impact of doubling CO2.”
“Our findings don’t mean that we shouldn’t pursue wind power—wind is much better for the environment than conventional coal—but these geophysical limits may be meaningful if we really want to scale wind power up to supply a third, let’s say, of our primary energy,” Keith adds.
It’s worth asking about the scalability of each potential energy source—whether it can supply, say, 3 terawatts, which would be 10 percent of our global energy need, or whether it’s more like 0.3 terawatts and 1 percent.”
“Wind power is in a middle ground,” he says. “It is still one of the most scalable renewables, but our research suggests that we will need to pay attention to its limits and climatic impacts if we try to scale it beyond a few terawatts.”