Powering the world with wind from the North Atlantic Ocean?
Just ask a sailor how windy it can get out on the ocean. So windy, that a wind farm out in the open North Atlantic Ocean could theoretically produce around three times more energy than a similar-sized farm on land.
In a land-based wind farm, the turbines place drag on the winds passing them, slowing down the wind speed for the next turbine in line. Out in the North Atlantic Ocean, this effect is reduced. The ocean releases large amounts of heat into the atmosphere, which drives low-pressure systems—storms and cyclones. These are very effective at transferring kinetic energy from the upper atmosphere to the lower regions, providing a more sustained source of energy to keep the wind turbines turning.
Scientists have calculated that if we built a massive farm—three million square kilometres, an area a little less than half of the area of Australia—of wind turbines in the deep waters of the North Atlantic, it could produce enough energy to power the entire world. At least in winter anyway, when there are more storms. During the summer, there would only be enough power to keep the lights on in Europe, or the United States, but not both. Still, that’s a lot of lightbulbs.
The other issue is that drawing this much energy from the global climate system would likely result in some Arctic regions cooling by as much as 13 °C. We also don’t currently have the technological capacity to capture or transfer huge amounts of energy on this scale. New developments in floating turbines, including their ability to survive storms, are needed.
But as part of a mix of renewable energy options, open-ocean wind farms clearly have a lot of potential. Geophysically, the winds of the North Atlantic Ocean have the potential to power the world. We just need to keep working to make it a technical and economic reality. We’re heading in the right direction—there is a deep-water wind farm project (New England Aqua Ventus I) in progress off the coast of Maine in the United States, and Satoil has just recently started producing energy from its floating turbines off the coast of Scotland.