According to new research from the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford University, one massive, floating windfarm could provide enough energy to meet all the world’s power needs.

“If commercial-scale deep water wind farms became technically and economically feasible, they could potentially provide civilization-scale power,” researchers wrote, in a paper published recently in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Engineers have long sought to solve the challenge of wind “shadows,” in which the spinning of turbines actually slows wind, reducing power-generating capacity of nearby turbines by as much as a factor of 10. This means turbines cannot normally be placed too close together, which puts considerable demand on space.

The researchers at Carnegie suspected that this “shadow effect” might be highly reduced over water, especially at mid-latitudes in both hemispheres. Each year as the Earth tilts further from the sun, channels of moving air form in the upper layers of the atmosphere. In open oceans, storms pull these winds closer to the surface, which can replace wind speed lost to turbines.

Scientists also already know that wind speeds are up to 70 percent higher over water than on land.

These effects, while small, accumulate to make a big difference. The research estimates that a wind farm in the North Atlantic could generate as much as twice the energy of an identical wind farm in Kansas. A farm the size of Alaska could generate 18 million megawatts, enough to meet the all of the world’s energy demand.

Unsurprisingly, the practical obstacles to building such a wind farm are significant, starting with mid-ocean weather that could interfere with construction, and the problem of transmitting the power back to land. On a larger scale, such a wind farm could also reduce energy generated by wind power in the UK and Western Europe, and reduce temperatures in the Arctic by over 20 degrees – which could yield unforeseen consequences.

However, such a project would be decades away in any case, which means there is still time to address such problems.

For now, the world’s first floating wind farm will begin operating this month off the coast of Scotland, able to power about 20,000 homes. Until now, wind farms have relied on turbines connected directly to the ocean floor, greatly limiting their placement. Along with prices reaching a point to compete with other power sources, wind power is now seeing a brighter future. Ultimately, these developments could mark the first steps toward a giant wind farm that could power the entire world.

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