60-Second Science

Wind's Power Potential Quantified

In a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers calculate that U.S. wind turbines could produce 16 times the electricity we now use. Karen Hopkin reports

[The following is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

Last month, President Obama pledged nearly half a billion dollars toward the development of solar and geothermal energies. But what about wind? A team of scientists estimates that wind turbines in the continental U.S. could produce 16 times more electricity than we currently use. They present their data in the current Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

We all know that wind can be harnessed to do work. But this power source can be a bit fickle: today it might gust, while tomorrow could bring barely a breeze. So how much can we count on the movement of air to meet all our energy needs? The scientists used data from satellites, balloons, and aircrafts, to estimate wind speeds around the planet. They excluded cities, forests, and ice-covered areas, which would all be hard to harvest.

Crunching the numbers, they concluded that a global network of land-based turbines could make 40 times more electricity than the world currently consumes—even if they only operated at 20 percent of their capacity.

People may balk at the sight of a sea of wind turbines. And flying wildlife may be bollixed by the blades. But wind power’s benefits may blow away its problems.

—Karen Hopkin

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