Open-sea wind farms could power humanity, but there's a catch

MARIE HEUCLIN via Getty Images

Researchers published a report this week that claims there is so much wind energy potential over the oceans that it could be used to generate "civilization scale power".

The two authors of the study Anna Possnera and Ken Caldeira, from the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, California, said that the new research is a kind of green light for the wind energy industry from a geophysical point of view.

But extracting efficient energy from wind involves more than putting turbines in the path of gale-force winds. Meaning they can only extract as much energy comes down to the level of the wind turbine from the upper levels of the atmosphere.

A study suggests that wind farms in open ocean environments may be able to sustain higher electricity generation rates than wind farms on land.

As expected, the results showed a significant gap between land-based and sea-based wind energy. This limit occurs, because on land many natural and human structures are present which creates friction and this eventually slows down the wind speed.

Which raises the question, would wind farms over the ocean suffer these same constraints or would the atmosphere be able to move more energy downward over the ocean?

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Other studies have estimated that there is a maximum rate of electricity generation for land-based wind farms, and have concluded that this maximum rate of energy extraction is limited by the rate at which energy is moved down from faster, higher up winds. In doing so, they established that the speed of the wind over the open ocean is some 70 percent higher than that on land. This is largely due to the fact that large amounts of heat pour out of the North Atlantic Ocean and into the overlying atmosphere, especially during the winter.

"We found that giant ocean-based wind farms are able to tap into the energy of the winds throughout much of the atmosphere, whereas wind farms onshore remain constrained by the near-surface wind resources", said Possner.

Interestingly, their research found that the tremendous amount of energy generated in their models was incredibly seasonal.

This property of open ocean wind means operators could pack turbines closer together and generate more than 6W/mon average, the simulations found.

While open water wind turbines are still very much in their infancy, there is hope that this research will provide strong incentives for companies to start developing the technology at a faster rate.

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