4 Million Wind Turbines Could Support About Half of 2030 Energy Demand

A new study suggests there's more potential in wind power than previously thought.

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Wind energy could provide up to half the world's power supply with little environmental impact, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Delaware and Stanford University.

The study debunks previous assessments that suggested wind wouldn't be a feasible way to power much of the world's grid due to environmental and power output concerns. According to the University of Delaware's Cristina Archer, about 4 million turbines could provide the world with 7.5 terawatts of energy annually, about half of the estimated power necessary to run earth's power grids in 2030.

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"We've seen some papers out there that have been somewhat annoying or confusing because they had very low estimates of the total potential of wind energy," Archer says. "We decided to run our own model and we found wind is very abundant—we feel very strong these previous studies were incorrect."

Archer and coauthor Mark Jacobson, of Stanford, ran several different models—including one in which virtually the entire earth was covered in turbines, to determine that earth could support enough turbines to satisfy about half of the global power demand.

According to Archer, about 4 million turbines would be an optimal number—once more turbines are added, each individual turbine begins to generate less energy. Previous studies suggested that adding more turbines would create diminishing returns to a point where wind power wasn't worth utilizing.

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"Four million turbines is a lot, but it's not impossible. We have to decide whether we want to do it. The benefits are immense—we'd have a clean economy and we'd be getting rid of pollution," Archer says. "If society wants to do it, the technology is there—it's not like we have to invent cold fusion from scratch."

In the United States, about 3 percent of all energy is generated with wind turbines, but the Department of Energy released a report in 2008 suggesting that by 2030, about 20 percent of America's energy could be generated by wind.

On Monday, Reuters reported that China plans to order its electrical companies to source up to 15 percent of all of its power using wind turbines.

Archer says that while wind energy could one day provide the world with much of its energy, wind's drawbacks will keep it from becoming the earth's primary power source.

"Wind is no constant—sometimes it blows, sometimes it doesn't," she says. "There are reasonable concerns about wind power, and we're not saying it should be the only energy source."

Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at jkoebler@usnews.com