Will the turbines replace the coal plants? (AP photo)
By Beth Daley, Globe Staff
I hear it all the time: Get rid of the coal plants. Wind power can supply most of the world’s energy needs.
But can it?
A team at Harvard University says, at least in theory, yes. Reporting in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences the researchers, led by Michael McElroy, examined global wind resources and determined that a super-connected network of 2.5 megawatt wind turbines could meet global electricity demands – even if they only operated at 20 percent capacity.
Sectioning the globe into approximately 1,275 square mile segments, the team analyzed wind speeds every six hours and non-urban, non-forested and non-ice covered areas where turbines could realistically be built.
They determined that the contiguous U.S., for example, can get more than 16 times the energy it now consumes from an array of turbines. China could see an 18-fold increase compared to 2005 consumption. And the bulk of it would be supplied by land-based wind turbines. The rest could be gotten from offshore larger turbines with 50 miles from shore.
Wind power accounted for 42 percent of all new electricity generation in the U.S. in 2007 – and the world is expected to see a 17-fold increase in wind power generation by 2030. Still, the study notes it still makes up a tiny fraction of the world’s electricity.
That’s because wind still faces a slew of obstacles. It’s still more expensive than traditional energy sources. It is intermittent and is at its lowest often in the U.S. during the summer when we hit peak demand in part from all the air conditioners switching on. And many of the greatest wind resources are far away from where people live – meaning we need to develop more transmission lines and a smarter grid to be able to tap into the wind at the right time.
Still, the report is incredibly detailed and revealing, looking at everything from wind turbine size to spacing to blade size across the landscape. The researchers even address what some people call the Nantucket Sound problem: Some people don’t like looking at the white turbines.
For more on the study go to http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2009/06/19/0904101106.full.pdf+html
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