US Wind Potential Estimate More Than Triples

wind-farmThis month brought another exciting piece of news for those of us hoping the US will transition to renewable energy in the years ahead. Not only did the US add a record amount of wind capacity in 2009, but new data show that the potential supply of wind power is almost infinite relative to our electricity consumption. The US government agency that deals with renewables, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), finally updated their study of onshore wind resources (since the last comprehensive study in 1993). They now estimate that wind power can provide nine times the amount of electricity we currently use in the United States.

Wind Tech Advances Quicker Than Fossil Energy Tech

Many fossil energy advocates who ignore the harmful global warming effects of burning oil and natural gas pretend like technological change will allow us to increase our use of these fuels forever. But the reality is that US oil reserves and production have fallen more than 15% and 20%, respectively, since the early 1990s. And at some point within the next decade or so a similar trend will likely constrain the natural gas market even though EIA estimates of its reserves have climbed ~50% since 1993. Over the same time period, the estimate of wind power potential has climbed more than 3.5 times what the Pacific Northwest Laboratory estimated in 1993. This shows that wind technology during the period has advanced much quicker than exploration and production technology for oil and natural gas. A major improvement comes from taller wind turbines today, since wind is stronger at 80 meters than at 50 meters above the ground.

The Biggest Changes

The main sources of growth for US wind power potential came in the Great Plains, which was already known to be the heart of our resource. Texas, long the largest wind power producing state, is now estimated to be the top state for wind potential after passing the Dakotas and Kansas. In fact, it is estimated that Texas can produce from wind 15X the amount of power it consumes from all electric sources today. Another twenty states can also produce so much wind power that they could become major exporters of this electricity to other states around the country. The estimate excluded wind potential in parks, urban areas and over water — so this is a major underestimate once you consider the offshore wind potential we have off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Even so, the 37,000 TWh per year (~365 quadrillion Btus) listed in their onshore wind power estimate is more energy than that contained in our oil and natural gas reserves combined.

Solar Energy Potential Even Larger

The estimate of solar energy potential is more than 100X that of wind power, at over 2,000 TW. So, the issue for renewable energy isn’t any lack of supply. The challenge is for us is to continue cost reductions for wind and solar to make them cheaper than their fossil energy competitors. The year 2010 could be a breakthrough period in that regard as prices for wind turbines and solar modules fall toward grid parity.

Renewables Dominance Will Take Over a Decade

Even when wind and solar are more economical, it will take some time for them to grow from their current base of ~2% of US electricity. Manufacturers of solar modules and wind turbines will have to ramp up global production capacity from current levels of ~10 GW and ~40 GW, respectively, to at least 50 GW each before these sources of electricity can take significant market share from natural gas, oil, and coal. And we will need to continue to improve energy storage capabilities and economics along with our development of a smart grid that can adjust to the intermittency of wind and sunshine for this transition to renewables to take place smoothly over the next 10-25 years.

Now we know there is plenty of renewable energy available to keep us warm, lighted, and wired throughout the 21st century once we have moved on from our dependence on fossil fuels. Let’s make 2010 a huge step in this monumental project!

Onwards in the Sustainable Energy Transition-

Dennis Markatos-Soriano

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