When it comes to renewable energy development, the ocean is a largely untapped resource because of the sheer logistical difficulties of operating deep at sea.
A team of researchers from the Carnegie Institution for Science, however, wanted to put a number on this potential — and what they found is truly oceanic.
In fact, the team found that if wind farms were established far out in the North Atlantic, enough energy could be cultivated to supply all of humanity’s electricity needs.
That’s because wind over the ocean is 70% stronger than wind over land and wind is replenishable at sea, unlike over land.
In a report published in PNAS, the authors found that a wind farm the size of Greenland far out in the ocean could generate 18 terawatts (a trillion watts) of energy, which is currently how much humanity consumes. This level of power could mean the end of fossil-fuel dependence — forever.
However no such deepwater project has ever been completed, The Washington Post reports, because neither the technology nor infrastructure exist to capture and transport wind energy at such scale and it would be challenging to operate year-round in the ocean’s challenging conditions.
More dramatically, placing so many wind turbines in the North Atlantic could alter the planet’s climate, potentially cooling the Arctic by up 13 degrees Celsius. Scattering them throughout the world’s oceans, meanwhile, might not have that climactic effect.
But the authors suggest that even some form of offshore wind development would powerfully influence the global energy market.
“I would look at this as kind of a greenlight for that industry from a geophysical point of view,” said Ken Caldeira, who co-authored the report with Anna Possner, to The Washington Post.
“I think it lends itself to the idea that we’re going to want to use a portfolio of technologies, and not rely on this only,” he added.
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Most of the wind farms in existence today are on land but they face problems that aren’t found at sea.
As wind travels over land, it’s sapped of its force — each tree, mountain, and building is a blunting obstacle. Even passing through an on-land wind farm is an exercise in diminishment — each turbine drains the wind’s force, leaving other turbines with less to work with.
The wind doesn’t lose its force at sea, according to Caldeira, because it’s constantly replenished by wind currents higher up in the atmosphere.
“Over land, the turbines are just sort of scraping the kinetic energy out of the lowest part of the atmosphere, whereas over the ocean, it’s depleting the kinetic energy out of most of the troposphere, or the lower part of the atmosphere,” he told The Washington Post.
In recent years, countries have begun building smaller scale wind farms in shallow waters offshore.
For instance, the US’s first offshore wind farm off the coast of Rhode Island was built in 2016 and consists of just five wind turbines, compared to the country’s largest onshore farm in California, which has 4,800 turbines.
Deepwater Wind CEO Jeffery Grybowski stands on a boat during a media tour of Deepwater Wind's project off Block Island, R.I.
In recent years, major domestic and international energy players have begun bidding on large sites in US waters, spurred on by interest from local and state governments. Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, for instance, wants to build giant wind farms off the coast of Long Island over the next decade.
There are currently 13 offshore wind projects in 10 states, with a potential of almost 6,000 megawatts of capacity. Most of these farms won’t come online until after 2020, but in combination with incoming wind farms on land, they could power millions of homes.
Elsewhere in the world, the oil giant Statoil is working on developing the world’s first deepwater wind farm off the coast of Scotland, which will float in water that’s 100 meters deep.
The scale of wind power varies around the world. According to The Global Wind Energy Council, Denmark gets more than 40% of its energy from wind power, and China and the US get around 5%, which is closer to the global average.
China, however, is by far the biggest investor in wind energy. The country also happens to lead the world in offshore production — and it’s looking to increase its current total by 77% this year.
China has managed to revolutionize the solar industry with better and cheaper technology.
If it manages to do the same for wind energy, then the predictions in the Carnegie study could someday become reality.