It’s at least technically possible to produce all the electricity the United States currently uses in the Lower 48 from wind energy, says a new analysis out today from the U.S. government that triples the previous estimate of the upper bound on U.S. wind power.
Now, I’m no expert on wind energy, and I should state right at the outset that there a lot of qualifiers to this sweeping statement (not to mention plenty of environmental and aesthetic trade-offs to be considered). But this sure looks to me like a big honkin’ deal.
In Dateline Earth’s never-ending quest for the one hundred 1-percent solutions to global warming, this has to loom large. Just realizing a fraction of the nation’s potential wind energy could knock off quite a few of those 1-percent chunks.
The study says if you put turbines up in all the windiest places in the country — everywhere reasonable; the estimate excludes cities, wilderness areas and open water — the Lower 48 could produce up to 37 million gigawatt hours every year. Compare that to total U.S. electricity generation in 2009: 4 million gigawatt hours.
Yes! Wind has the potential to generate nine time times more juice than we need to run our homes and businesses. Why, if just one-quarter the available area was actually used for wind power, we’re probably talking about enough electricity to power a bunch of our cars and trucks, too, if not all of them.
(Is your state a candidate for a lot of wind power? Check the study and click on the map of your state to find out. The orange, purple and red areas are hot for wind development; the greens and yellows not so much.)
The study was released by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and contractor AWS Truewind. The one-paragraph press release I received this morning — sadly, like so many press releases nowadays — carried no contact information. And after a couple of phone calls to NREL and its parent agency, the U.S. Department of Energy, I haven’t located anyone to answer more questions. But, hey, this is a blog post, not a major investigation, so let’s just talk about the, as Paul Harvey might say, other side of the story:
- Well, first of all, no one expects for wind turbines to be built everywhere they can be. Not even remotely close. The 25 percent figure I mused about above would make anti-wind-energy activists swoon with disgust. This study is predicated on turbines that tower 260 feet into the air or so — getting pretty close to as tall as Seattle’s Space Needle. It’s really windy up there. But can you imagine the landscape covered in anything that tall? These turbines would be quite a bit taller than most currently in use.
- Another consideration: Where the wind is. As you can see, it’s almost all in “flyover country,” as my Midwest friends call their region. Most of the population lives far away. The East in particularly is all greens and yellows. You’d need a huge grid enhancement. There might be cheaper and better ways to do our laundry and keep our food cold.
- Yet another problem, of course, is that we don’t know how to store electricity very well, and the wind doesn’t blow all the time. In particular, from what I hear, it’s more likely to settle down at night — which is when we need the voltage.
Yes, there will be many, many reasons we cannot reach nine times our current production with wind, that 37 million gigawatt hours per year identified as the maximum in today’s report. But according to the best story I’ve seen on this so far, in Wired (figures, huh?), wind is currently generating just 52,000 gWh/year. So we’re talking about a potential three orders of magnitude larger than our current production.
Practically speaking, this is most important for folks in the wind industry, a tool they can use to scout the landscape. For the rest of us, resist the temptation to think of this as a silver bullet.
Rather, consider that wind could be part of a barrage of what I recently heard referred to as “silver buckshot” that could still bag the greenhouse-gas-free energy target we’re after.
— Robert McClure