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March 16, 2010

An Update on the Wind Energy Resource

By: Aaron Datesman

It turns out that the Department of Energy just wrapped up the first review of US wind energy resources conducted since 1993.

The new study.....finds that the contiguous 48 states have the potential to generate up to 37 million gigawatt hours annually. By contrast, total U.S. electricity generation from all sources was roughly 4 million gigawatt hours in 2009. The estimates show the total energy yield that could be generated using current wind turbine technology on the nation's windy lands.

This does mean what it seems to mean - that the available resource of non-polluting renewable energy dwarfs (by nearly a factor of ten) the demand for energy (considering only electrical energy in this case). Although conversion, distribution, storage, and transport are all hard problems, the scale of the resource is so great that we ought to be discussing powering the US entirely by wind energy.

The map below illustrates the US wind resource. The primary difference between this survey and the 1993 survey is the height of the wind turbine towers, which have increased from 50 meters in 1993 to 80 meters (as tall as a 26-story building) today.


— Aaron Datesman

Posted at March 16, 2010 12:13 AM

hehe you said 'gigawatts'

Posted by: almostinfamous at March 16, 2010 01:12 AM

It might seem silly but we also have 90% of the Canadian wind resource available also. Plus off shore and the great lakes.

Posted by: peter john at March 16, 2010 03:19 AM

so many turbines it might affect the weather! heady stuff.

Posted by: hapa at March 16, 2010 08:15 AM

Concerning wind power I recommend the coverage on ET.

Posted by: generic at March 16, 2010 08:45 AM

rather than fixing up the grid & putting up wind turbines, hideously ugly things according to the vineyard crowd at the kennedy compound, far worse than an elegant oil derrick,

let's invade iran & take their oil.

only one of those options gives the thrill of smashing something.

w/the added benefit of maintaining current monopolies on energy production.

Posted by: anonymous at March 16, 2010 09:07 AM

This makes even more obvious how vast the potential for energy from direct sunlight is, considering that it is the ultimate source of all the kinetic energy carried by the wind.

Posted by: SunMesa at March 16, 2010 12:04 PM

Invading Iran and taking their oil also is the option which requires and justifies keeping the largest military budget in the world.

Speaking of invading Iran, did you see the article about the pile of smart bombs and bunker busters that were just shipped to Diego Garcia?

via Cryptogon:

Posted by: steve the artguy at March 16, 2010 02:20 PM

I have zero problem believing that map is accurate. I spent part of my childhood in North Dakota and the wind just blew all the time--so hard it shook the house and rattled the windows. Too bad ND is so far from any population center.

Posted by: techno at March 16, 2010 03:58 PM

Before getting too excited, consider the meaning of the word resource. This is just the hypothetical amount of energy that exists, not that for which is it is actually feasible to harness. The amount of wind energy that lies in areas which could feasibly provide it--using current or near-future technology--is much, much lower. According to the American Wind Energy Association (, that figure is closer to 20%. And if the people selling it say that it's 20%, you can guess that in reality it is actually lower. Our energy crisis is much too close to have wind ride in as the white knight and pluck us from a disaster. If we find a solution to providing the nation's energy in a sustainable way, it will undoubtedly include wind, but not as the fundamental component. That will be something with better proven reserves (meaning accessible resource), like solar or dry-rock geothermal.

Posted by: Gordon Browning at March 16, 2010 08:41 PM

Before getting too excited

I'm going to rain on your raining on my parade, because that cites a 1991 study. I think.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at March 16, 2010 09:24 PM

@Gordon -

I can't defend methodology I haven't examined, and might not be technically competent to examine what was done, but the DOE statement is this:

The estimates show the total energy yield that could be generated using current wind turbine technology on the nation's windy lands. (The estimates show what is possible, not what will actually be developed.)

Hence it seems to be DOE's view that the exploitable wind resource far exceeds national consumption of electrical energy.

Jon's observation that the AWEA site you link to cites a 1991 study is correct. Estimates of the resource depend very strongly on wind turbine height - both because the wind is stronger and more regular at greater heights, AND because the available power scales as the turbine blade size to the third power.

Because the turbines have grown dramatically in size, estimates from 20 years ago are scarcely useful.

I got interested in electrical engineering many years ago specifically because of solar power. I would therefore like to be a booster of PV. However, my belief is that wind has a much better future than solar (pending advances in catalysis or, perhaps, organic semiconductors).

Posted by: Aaron Datesman at March 16, 2010 10:15 PM

I stand corrected. I'm very skeptical of this new study though, as my old professor was an associate director at NREL, and he thought that wind power should be abandoned entirely because it distracted from solar, and that it would at it's maximum never account for more than a fraction of total energy production at any point in the future. Obviously that's a radical opinion to many in the energy community, but I'm sure we looked at studies regarding wind resource potential that were published within the last 5 years at least. I'll try to find something more credible.

Posted by: Gordon Browning at March 17, 2010 12:30 AM

solar can get much better, wind is another bridge fuel, assuming we accelerate to avoid the manufacturing crunch from expensive oil

Posted by: hapa at March 17, 2010 01:20 AM

A mix of solar and wind is best even now. Concentrating Solar Power - Thermal (CSP) which uses focusing mirrors to boil water (or drive some other fluid) cost only about three times as much as wind. But to store wind you have to store the electricity, either in a battery or by making hydrogen (or a few other means that are geographically limited and have big environmental problems of their own.) Wheras with CSP you can store the heat directly at about a tenth of the cost of storing electricity, the simply use that stored heat to boil water later. Also solar occurs in the day. The wind blows hardest (on average) at night. The sun is strongest in summer, weakest in winter. Wind blows more strong in winter than summer. Sun and wind are complementary. A grid that has both is stronger than a grid with just one.

I'm going to put up a mixed post soon on a 'thinking big' plan that would generate 75% of our electricity from sun and wind by 2020, and also lower total emissions by 57% from 2008 (which is still over half from 1990). It is taking longer than expected, but I think will be worth reading when it is up. I tried to post this before, but it was eaten. So if you see two versions of this, you will know why.

Posted by: Gar Lipow at March 17, 2010 02:58 AM

Solar power is, at present, most practically extracted using thermal methods. The most appealing system I have seen is in production in Las Vegas: an array of long, flat mirrors on single-axis swivels focusing on a pipe above. The mirrors are aligned north-south, and track the sun. Since the mirrors are flat, and each control actuator operates a huge area, they're cheap. They can be turned under for cleaning from below, and for protection from storm weather when needed.

I don't see any reason to restrict development to wind or to solar. Each works best in different places. Solar thermal is most cost-effectively employed, at the moment, to pre-heat air and/or fuel entering conventional generating plants. Making conventional plants cheaper to operate has unappealing macroeconomic consequences, but offsets more carbon sooner than would building separate generators.

Posted by: Nathan Myers at March 17, 2010 08:21 PM

Just make sure that all the wind advocates are real careful about T. Boone Pickens privatizing our water. Those purple/red/orange sections are right under the Ogalala aquifer, and T. Boone Pickens almost got his way in 2008 for draining that aquifer and selling it away for whatever price he felt like he could set.

Posted by: Katie at March 19, 2010 10:13 AM