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Could High-Altitude Wind Turbines Change Global Climate?

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altaeros_wind_turbineHigh-altitude wind turbines could possibly change world’s climate, but only after they have supplied a hundred times the energy we currently need- according to scientists.

Every once in a while, scientists publish the strangest of things that often makes others sit and wonder how on Earth could anyone think of such idea. In anyway, any scientifically proven information has a value for the future development of the world, and even if we do not fully appreciate it now, it could one day contribute to the biggest advances in science and technology.

So here is one such research – published in Nature Climate Change by climate scientists from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, California. The team that consists of Kate Marvel, Ben Kravitz and Ken Caldeira, simulated various scenarios using climate models to establish whether high-altitude wind turbines could alter (negatively) the global climate by harvesting wind energy.

Apparently, the answer is yes. But, before we all go shooting at Google’s company Makani Power, makers of airborne wind turbines, and the MIT’s spin-off Altaeros with their high-altitude BAT Turbine,  let’s look at the numbers and details.

High-altitude wind turbines are much more efficient than these placed safely on the ground, purely because the winds high up in the sky are much stronger and much more constant. As stated by the researchers, ground-based wind turbines (that are already in place) have the capacity to harvest kinetic energy at a rate of close to 400 TW. High-altitude wind power has the potential to generate around 1,800 TW (if all infrastructure is sent up in the air and everything).

But currently, the global power demand is just over 18 TW, which is 50 times less than what wind farms alone can generate at present.  Nevertheless, the scientists wanted to see how much wind power should be harvested before it has any influence on the climate, and they particularly focused on high-altitude winds, setting only geophysical limits.

They used complicated climate models and simulated the most unbelievable and unimaginable scenario, where all of these 1,800TW of wind energy waiting to be captured by high-altitude wind turbines, is harvested. They concluded that we should not capture it all. Otherwise, surface temperatures might increase by 0.2K (0.1 C) and precipitation by 1%. Of course, even the authors admit that such scenario is quite unrealistic, because economic and environmental factors will stop the growth of wind power way earlier.

In any case, this is an advice for the future. If ever high-altitude wind turbines take over the entire production of power, and their capacity reaches that crucial 1,800TW, people better stop.

Image (c) Altaeros

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