Energy for the Planet: Open Ocean Wind Turbines Could Provide Enough Electricity to Power the Entire World

A crew boat passes through Horns Rev 2, the world's largest wind farm, 30 kilometers (19 miles) off the west coast of Denmark near Esbjerg, on September 15, 2009. Bob Strong/Reuters

There is so much magnificence in the ocean, including, apparently, untapped kinetic energy. It turns out that wind turbines over open ocean could generate three times as much power—that's right: three times as much—as placing them on land. This was the major finding of a new study Monday in PNAS authored by Anna Possner and Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institute and Stanford.

Using a computer-based climate model, the two compared the output of an actual windfarm in Kansas with a theoretical windfarm of the same size built on the North Atlantic ocean.

The researchers outline several reasons to explain the huge gap between land and sea.

For one, wind speeds over the ocean's surface are "70% higher than on land." As Bryony DuPont, a professor of engineering at Oregon State, tells Newsweek, compared to land, the surface of the ocean is extremely smooth with almost no topographical variation. And, absent all the interference of anything from skyscrapers to cornfields, DuPont says, turbines placed on the open ocean would have uninterrupted access to wind.

"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," Caldeira told The Washington Post.

There are of course practical challenges to implementing this theoretical finding: Wind strength varies season by season. As the authors note, "While in the winter, North Atlantic wind farms could provide sufficient energy to meet all of civilization's current needs, in the summer such wind farms could merely generate enough power to cover the electricity demand of Europe, or possibly the United States alone."

And, the Post notes, no existing technology can capture the energy over the ocean and efficiently transfer it to land.

As the researchers write, "While no commercial-scale deep water wind farms yet exist, our results suggest that such technologies, if they became technically and economically feasible, could potentially provide civilization-scale power."

But this isn't a zero-sum game. As DuPont tells Newsweek, "No one is suggesting we move to civilization-scale offshore wind power; rather it is diversifying power production that is really key." In other words, this is just one of many outlets from which countries could efficiently draw power. "There are immense challenges in undertaking offshore energy development, but that doesn't mean these systems are infeasible," DuPont added.

Even if it's only a guiding possibility for smaller incremental, steps, the researchers's words still fascinate: "On an annual mean basis, the wind power available in the North Atlantic could be sufficient to power the world."