How a single offshore wind farm could power the globe
Wednesday, November 15, 2017
Civilization has come so far in the last 200 years — from the Industrial Revolution to the rise in mass transportation, space travel to global flights and instant exchange of information via the world wide web — but there are still advancements that are beyond our reach.
No, we are not yet capable of teleportation (though scientists are working on it). Machines don't fully think for themselves to serve the human race (but those days are quickly approaching). And we are not able to power the world with clean, renewable energy.
However, this final idea might have a little wind in its sails — so say scientists at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, California. They suggest that a massive wind farm floating in the Atlantic Ocean could capture enough energy to power the entire globe.
While wind farms are not a new idea on land — there are about 75 wind farms currently operating throughout the continental United States — offshore wind farms are more of a novel concept. The first appeared in the Denmark in 1991. Since then, Europe has become the world leader in offshore wind power.
By January 2014, 69 offshore wind farms had been constructed in Europe, and the United Kingdom had the largest capacity of offshore wind farms with 3,681 megawatts. Denmark is second with 1,271 megawatts and Belgium is third with 571 megawatts. Projections for 2020 calculate a wind farm capacity of 40 gigawatts in European waters, which would provide 4 percent of the European Union's demand for electricity.
The United States has been much slower to act. In 2016, the first offshore wind farm started operation at Block Island Wind Farm — five turbines, 30 megawatts — off the coast of Rhode Island. Other projects are under development in New Jersey, Oregon, New York, Massachusetts and Virginia.
The world has plenty of wind, and winds are 70 percent stronger over water than land. Stronger winds translate into greater power generation.
"If commercial-scale deep water wind farms became technically and economically feasible, they could potentially provide civilization-scale power,” the researchers at Carnegie Institution for Science said in a paper published recently in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
There are other challenges. For example, when turbines spin in the wind, they slow it down. According to a report by NBC News, "the resulting wind 'shadow' renders nearby turbines less efficient. Place turbines too close together, and a wind farm's energy-generating capacity can plummet by a factor of 10."
However, according to Carnegie scientists Anna Possner and Ken Caldeira drag like this might be far lower over water than over land, particularly in mid-latitude oceans in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres. The reason for this this might be explained in the Earth's seasonal tilt.
"As Earth tilts away from the sun each autumn, jet stream-like rivers of air form high in the atmosphere," they noted. "Over the open ocean, storms pull these strong winds down near the planet's surface, replenishing the wind energy captured by turbines."
The result is that a wind farm in the middle of the North Atlantic could generate at least twice as much energy as an identical wind farm in Kansas, one of the windiest states in the U.S. A wind farm roughly twice the size of Alaska could generate 18 million megawatts of electricity — meeting global demand.
An interesting concept, but the problems don't stop with a perfected turbine placed over the deep waters of one of the world's deepest seas. How would such a farm be built, how would it be governed, protected and secured against possible malicious intentions, and how would the produced power get back to shore? Plus, temperatures in the Arctic could be reduced by more than 20 degrees.
We've got time to ponder the idea. No likely solution for such is within several decades' reach. The upside, though, is while we continue to consume oil, coal and other fossil fuels, the world's energy problems might be solved by wind and water.
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