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How Much Wind Energy is Available in the Jet Streams?

New paper suggests previous guesses are drastic overestimates, and extracting it could cause climate shifts

2 min read
How Much Wind Energy is Available in the Jet Streams?

We’ve noted before the ongoing efforts to harness high-altitude wind power. Generally, though, the designs currently being tested and deployed on small scales don't fly high enough to take advantage of the most consistent and impressive of wind forces, the jet streams. Some scientists have touted these very high altitude wind energy sources – between 7 and 16 kilometers above the surface – as shockingly plentiful; one paper in 2009 said it contained about 100 times the total global energy demand.

A new paper, though, published last week in a journal called Earth System Dynamics, throws a bit of cold water on the jet stream as an energy source. Axel Kleidon and colleagues from the Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in Germany found instead a “peak potential for electricity production of 4.5 [terawatts].” The global energy use is in the vicinity of 17 TW per year, so we’ve clearly come down a bit from those earlier estimates.

The new paper explains why the high jet stream extractable power estimates may have been wrong:

“The contradiction originates from the erroneous assumption that the high wind speeds of the jet streams result from a strong power source. It is well known in meterology that jet streams reflect quasi-geostrophic flow, that is, the high wind speeds result from the near absence of friction and not from a strong power source.”

Not only that, but actually extracting the energy from the jet streams would result in significant alterations to the climate, the researchers wrote. This is due to an “increase of heat transport across the jet streams in the upper atmosphere,” and results could be catastrophic. As first author Lee Miller said in a press release: “Such a disruption of jet stream flow would slow down the entire climate system…. This results in drastic changes in temperature and weather.”

This all sounds dire enough, but it is notable that no one is currently prepared to extract terawatts of power from 10 miles up in the air. Schemes to actually do so would be amazingly expensive and technically challenging, as macro-engineering projects generally are. Still, some research is going forward on how to do it, as it should – any and all renewable energy ideas deserve a fair shot at the moment.

(Image of one of many airborne turbine designs via James Provost/Wikimedia Commons)

The Conversation (0)
This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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