back to article Prof: Global windfarm could power entire human race

Harvard University boffins have published an analysis of how much energy the human race could possibly produce from wind power, and we thought we'd have a bit of a play around with their numbers. Career Harvard enviro-prof Michael McElroy, assisted by Xi Lu and Juha Kiviluoma (now working in Finland) published their paper …


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  1. Andy 97
    Paris Hilton

    It's nice to dream isn't it.

    Imagine asking the Iranian ruling council to put some windmills on their turf, "it will help power the world, er, and the America infidels too!

    Got to be a winner.

    Paris, because she knows a Harvard team is only interesting when they're lighting-up their wind at a party.

  2. MacroRodent Silver badge

    But wind+solar?

    Somewhere saw a claim that the world's desert areas would, if filled with solar power plants , supply all our current energy needs five times over. The following tidbit is along the same lines:

    So why not combine them? I suppose a wind farm and a solar power plant could exist in the same place. True, the wind farm towers and rotors would shadow the panels a bit, but the solar power plant would not disturb the wind farm at all. And the same power line could carry energy from both, saving infrastructure costs. World energy problem solved!

  3. Martin Gregorie

    Nice one, Lewis

    Good analysis - much needed too.

    Any chance you can do something similar for wave, tidal and direct solar? I have a strong suspicion that of those, only solar has a chance of meeting global energy requirements and, of course, will still need the Mother Of All Power Grids.

  4. John I'm only dancing

    Hot air

    Why not use all the hot air that the proponents of WInd Power put out on an annual basis. I'm sure, coupled to steam generating turbine, that one alone will produce Gigawatts of power. There are so many of the half wits that they could easily power the world.

  5. Anonymous Coward

    Another anti renewable rant from the Reg what a suprise....

    I take it the reg is sponsored by coal and nuclear then?

    I suppose if we were to use coal and nuclear the world would be completely problem free...

    Like the new icons btw.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down

    Stop it stop it stop it

    This article makes it look like you're incapable of recognising that the researchers aren't suggesting we DO build wind farms absolutely everywhere, they're just trying to put into context the amount of power that can in principle be generated with the technology. I'm sure you realise that, so in the best case this article is facetious. Classy.

    Please, reg, PLEASE stop trying to take positions on environmental things, particularly positions on things that you clearly don't understand. You're good at IT. Stick to it.

  7. Chris Morrison


    And where exactly would the steel come from to build all these windfarms on every piece of land in the world? And once you've covered all the agricultural areas with windfarms where does the food come from?

    In many places in Scotland windfarms can just about pay their way but there aint many countries that are as windy on a fairly regular basis as Scotland is. PLus we would much rather offshroe wind or tidal energy as it doesn't blight our landscape like onshore wind turbines do.

  8. Hermes

    Wind is the future (well part of it anyway)

    Good piece but it is a little biased, it ignores efficiency savings. It's also ignores the local economic benefits of large scale projects. There is no mention of electricity storage that would be a part of any major wind development either.

  9. Stef 4
    Thumb Down

    Is that all?

    So now all we need are reliable electric cars and a way of quickly recharging them as we do with ICE cars and petrol.

    Have these guys worked out what happens to the planet and its weather with that many wind turbines stealing wind-energy?

  10. Grease Monkey Silver badge

    It Worked then...

    As I understood it the paper was presented as a thought experiment (Schroedingers wind farm?), as such it seems to have provoked some thought on your part.

    The one thing I wondered was how much energy it would cost to set this all up and whether they'd worked this into their calculations.

  11. John 118


    Invest all that money for those 60 million fans into Nuclear Fusion technology. Enery problems solved.

  12. The Mole

    But I want to eat

    So we will all have power, shame that it will also be on much of the most fertile farmland and therefore we won't be able to eat.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    a turbine as big as a cathedral?

    Complaints about a report that lacks real context, then this? Brilliant. I <3 teh Reg. Comedy genius.

  14. Aristotles slow and dimwitted horse Silver badge

    <<<<---- Does that say "Badgers?"

    And does the '?' go inside the ""'s or outside?

  15. breakfast

    Blame it on the sunshine

    Would it not be smarter to use the sunshine in areas where it is available?

    I've heard from reasonably informed people that with an appropriate export grid you could get a big chunk of what Europe needs by putting loads of solar panels in the Sahara but presumably there are economic factors or other problems ( such as the people I heard it from being factually incorrect ) preventing this...

  16. Chris Collins

    @Mr ChriZ

    Having played SimCity (all versions) I ca confirm that you either cover your entire free land in shitty wind farms to just about make your power requirements, or you can plop a nuclear/couple of coal power station(s) in the corner and expand. Bonus is your pollution is then spread across your neighbours. How do you like that garbage incinerator, Llamaville?

  17. Steven Raith

    @Stop it stop it stop t

    "This article makes it look like you're incapable of recognising that the researchers aren't suggesting we DO build wind farms absolutely everywhere, they're just trying to put into context the amount of power that can in principle be generated with the technology"

    I could come up with an idea for generating electricity by forcing the poor to ride excercise bilkes 24/7 anbd put it into the context of global energy requirements, and it would deserve as much merit as this idea for being unworkable, politically and sociologically niave and generally downright stupid.

    Energy supply is a real problem, which requires a realistic solution. Not pie in the sky 'nice ideas' that simply can't be done for about seventy different reasons, and having articles like this to put reseach like this into a *realistic* context, where the real world has an affect, unlike DailyMail land where it just makes exciting headlines, is what I like about this site....

    Steven R

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Global Offshore Wind Farm Database

    This may be of interest

  19. Dr. Mouse

    Sorry but...

    "McElroy's global windfarm is going to take some time to build, as it requires the erection of massive 100m-tall turbines on every single piece of land where the load factor would be better than 20 per cent"

    Huhuhuh *giggle*

    He said erection!

  20. Matthew 17

    a common theme

    Any alternative to traditional sources of power such as fossil or fission will take up a huge amount of space and be very complicated to connect the power to the people that will use it.

    Although investigations into alternative sources of power are to be welcomed it's obvious that a viable solution is still a long way off.

  21. Anonymous Coward


    Talk about missing the fucking point.

  22. Charlie Clark Silver badge

    So what you're saying is...

    ... we need to start using less power? Nobel prize for that man!

    Hasn't Siemens just announced a deal to build combined solar/wind stuff in the Maghreb? Meanwhile work continues at the ITER project which let us know if nuclear fusion scales.

    As for providing the world's poor with the same standard of living as the world's rich - it'll be down to sauve qui peut as always, although we do have some vested interest in not letting everywhere go tits up.

  23. TeeCee Gold badge


    Try hovering your mouse pointer over each of the icons. Each one gives a little popup box, telling you what it is, and it clearly says "badgers" in there. I won't go into why Web 2.0 is made of Badgers' paws, suffice it to say that it is.

    The ? goes outside the "", cos the quoted "Badgers" isn't a question in itself.

    Your "<<<<----" needs to go in the text 'cos the icon's next to this, not next to the title.

    I get to use the pedant icon for that last.

  24. Hans

    What about the ice caps?

    Does this windfarm energy equation take into account the power needed for the massive ice machines that we are going to have to build at the poles to replace the ice caps that we have wiped out?

    Actually, there's a good lead for some enterprising lady or gent (Branson perhaps).

    Presumably the SHAPE of the polar ice caps don't matter because, as all gents will tell you, its size that matters. So if we build them upwards instead of outwards we could have fabulous ski resorts whilst we bathe in global warmth.

    Wey-hey I'm all for it.

  25. Wade Burchette

    The green myopia strikes again

    What about the adverse health effects of the spinning wind turbines? The rhythmic vibrations of wind turbines affects people nearby adversely. What about when, not if, the wind stops blowing? What about the birds who just happen to be flying near these things?

    I realize Harvard is in a world in of itself. I just wish these university professors and this "green" movement would try to live in Planet Earth for a change. Just try, please, living in the real world and not some green utopia where everything is sunshine and lollipops.

  26. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @Steven Raith

    Of course you can't make that comparison. What you talk about (a) would need more energy putting in each day than it produces and (b) wouldn't work on any scale. Wind power does pass both of these tests, and this report is clearly saying "Right, what's the upper limit of this in a simplified scenario?" and it's good information to have when you're planning international development of renewable energy.

    No-one in the world would seriously suggest that you'd want a single technology to power the entire planet, yet this glaringly obvious point seems to have been missed in the article, which in turn makes it far less realistic than the nature of the paper. THAT is what annoys me about this piece. And it's what The Reg does time and time again for some inexplicable reason (a much more cynical person than I would attribute it to their bottom line depending on it).

  27. Anonymous Coward

    The Obvious Solution

    Kill everybody then we won't need so much power. Simple.

  28. David Adams

    Already been done

    There was a story on here a while ago about a professor who was working out how much of each type of renewable energy we could actually use to generate our energy needs.

    Makes good reading.

  29. Rob Baxter

    I do recommend...

    ...that anyone interested in this topic do go and read *David* JC McKay's excellent "Sustainable Energy - without the hot air", available to read online at

  30. Anonymous Coward

    They must be bloody idiots

    Those people must be bloody idiots, what an absolutely stupid thing to even think of doing.

    I need to write a paper on some absolutely idiotic proposal and get my name in the news. I could have all the idiot greenies jumping for joy and stupid politicians making stupid laws to implement.

  31. Mike Richards


    ...has a serious energy plan actually ever suggested that the World becomes wholly dependent on wind? I'm pretty sure not, so this is just a straw dog argument.

    The research shows that there is an immense amount of wind energy out there and that we'd be stupid not to incorporate it into our energy future which should include wind, solar, geothermal, wave, tide, nuclear and yes - fossil fuels.

  32. mmiied


    we might need some

  33. Alasdair Fox

    hot wet wind

    Can't we just build the windmills over rivers and cover the turbine in solar cells, thereby giving a 3 in one wind, hydroelectric and solar generator?

    Patent pending.....

  34. Peyton

    @@Steven Raith

    "And it's what The Reg does time and time again for some inexplicable reason"

    Hmmm... Where's the Anonymous Masochist icon when you need it?

  35. Trevor 3

    @lots of people missing the sodding point

    This paper, and article about the paper is saying that *if* we covered every available surface (including Gordon Browns desk) in wind turbines we could meet the worlds energy needs.

    It doesn't say we should do it, does it?

    Did you know how much power covering the world in turbines could produce? No.

    Well now you do. Twunts.

    Obviously the future course of action will be a mix of technologies, but until we know what each one can provide, we can't make that decision.

    I am interested in this paper, and can't wait for the next one on solar power.

    Maybe we should attach generators of some sort to idiotic trolls keyboards?

  36. mmiied
    Thumb Down

    @mike richards

    I think the figgers show that there is NOT an immense amount of wind energy out there even if you use the entire world as a base think of the amount of energy if you cover the netire planet in sola panels or use all the worlds supply of unirum

  37. Yorkshirepudding

    sheldon cooper ftw

    just get him to build us a fusion reactor in between halo and visits to the comic book

    Terminator - well we wont be around to see the result anyway

  38. Tom 13

    Harvard profs you say?

    Reminds me of a physics problem I read about once. I don't recall the start of it, but the last part read "you may assume the horses are frictionless perfect spheres."

  39. Steven Jones

    It's all about population...

    The World population has come closer to quadrupling rather than merely tripling over the last 100 years. Quite simply that rate of growth is unsustainable, as is the current levels of consumption of all sorts of resources and combining that with population growth makes it that much worse.

    It's about time that politicians recognised that, and as it currently stands UN population growth forecasts and how it will tail off gradually are based more on wishful thinking. I suppose nature will osrt it out for us one way or another, but I'm hoping it won't be during my stint on Earth.

    Oh yes - and windpower is only a relatively small part of the energy equation for all the reasons given. Unless somebody can crack fusion, the only really large scale sustainable energy source available is solar (wind and wave power is just heavily diluted solar power in disguise - fossil fuels are heavily diluted stored solar energy). There are strictly limited fission resources available, even if fast breeders reactors are used, although at least we know we could build them).

  40. The Indomitable Gall

    Re:What about the ice caps?


    " Presumably the SHAPE of the polar ice caps don't matter because, as all gents will tell you, its size that matters. So if we build them upwards instead of outwards we could have fabulous ski resorts whilst we bathe in global warmth. "

    No, a much more important factor is surface area.

    Take a look at any satellite picture. Water looks black from directly above, but the ice-caps look white. The ice-caps reflect light into the sky, and similarly infra-red (heat) radiation. Water doesn't.

    A wide, thin replacement ice-cap would start a cycle of cooling, thus freezing more water and thickening itself, until it started to cause sea-levels to drop.

  41. Anonymous Coward

    So only population change over time not tech?

    You compleatly fail to take into account that where the earth human pop has trippled in 100 years the wind turbine effeciency has incressed by more than 1.000.000% in the same time frame.

  42. Liam Johnson

    Global cooling

    Did anyone even bother to estimate what would happen to the weather if we take all that energy out of the wind? Or perhaps there isn't a model which is accurate enough to do that?

    And to all those claiming "you missed the point":-

    Please name 100 other large scale renewable energy solutions so that we only have to cover 1% of the Earths surface in windfarms.

  43. James 55
    Thumb Down

    The big picture

    You don't think he is suggesting that anyone actually builds these do you El Reg? He seems to be saying more that it is possible to provide all our energy needs with wind power. Given the amount of wind on the earth and what weather and ocean systems it drives I'm sure it could.

    It is also pretty arrogant to say that anyone with less electricity than us has a shit life. In fact I'm sure many people without easy access to electricity are much happier people than the stock brokers and wankers (oops, bankers), etc in the big cities about to boil over with stress. But hey, at least we have electricity...

  44. Luther Blissett

    You want population decrease?

    I have the answer for you - bring everyone up to the living standards of the G7. The demographics are irrefutable.

  45. Jason Bloomberg

    I did not know that !

    "Even relatively restrained Europeans burn through 46 MWh/year"

    Blows the nonsense about turning your TV off and not keeping it in standby out the water doesn't it.

    Let's see : 46,000,000 - 100 ~= 46,000,000

    So let's imagine I have a thousand TV's I leave in standby : 46,000,000 - 100,000 ~= 46,000,000

  46. The Indomitable Gall
    Thumb Down

    @Liam Johnson & @Lewis Page

    You've missed the point that people who said "you've missed the point" made.

    They are suggesting that the authors of the report didn't set this out as a proposed solution to the world's problems, they simply worked the figures out for what scale of windfarm would be required to power the world.

    The paper calculates the "Global potential for wind-generated electricity", and he is using the scientific meaning of "potential", which is a scalar value rather than the tabloid meaning ("it could be done). Just because the authors do not state explicitly that the required infrastructure is absurdly complicated and impractical does not mean that they do not believe it to be so.

    However, these academics are to be applauded for doing something that is increasingly rare in the field of climate science: working out the relevant figures -- and ONLY the relevant figures -- and not trying to spin them.

    Now we know from a scientifically dispassionate and objective standpoint what it would take to power the world by wind, we can make our subsequent *political* decision based on the figures... rather than making passionate and subjective political decisions and making our figures to fit them.


    Shame on you. I thought one of your biggest bugbears was the love of spin over science. This report is pure science.

  47. James Hughes 1


    What does Lewis P want us to spend research money on?

    This one seems pretty sensible to me. Find the edge condition of the technology in order to make more educated guesses (as LP has done in his 'article', well, maybe not quite so educated) that will be of use later in more detailed research.

    As other have said - I don't think the paper actually suggest doing this, only what would be the result if we DID do it. Just like much other research.

  48. This post has been deleted by its author

  49. James Hughes 1


    Anyone know how much of that is actually electricity, because I am damn sure my leccy bill doesn't have anything like that much on it.

  50. Richard 102

    Another idea

    If we could just extract energy from university stupidity, we'd have more power available than if we tapped into the sun's fusion. I believe the old joke goes "Well, if we assume a spherical cow, ..."

  51. boothamshaw

    what will we ever do without patio heaters?

    It's not really all that bad in a lot of the developing world. Sure, watch Bob Geldorf's holiday videos, and it looks like hell on Earth. Those people are in need of far more than electricity, and no amount of wind farming is going to address their problems. For a lot of places though, the reduced standard of living implied by lower power consumption in no way reduces the human capacity for being happy, fulfilled and productive. I am not at all convinced that we need everyone to come up to Californian standards of consumption in order to be content.

    This boundary setting article is really useful, because it puts a clear limit on what can ever expect from wind power. That's helpful. Now we do the same for any other power sources we can think of and start to think about options. One of these has to be snatching the sweeties away from the Europeans and Americans before they gobble up the lot.

  52. David 45

    Wind slow-down

    Surely if myriads of turbines are absorbing all the wind energy in the world, the wind will slow down? Self defeating, y'know!

  53. Quirkafleeg

    Here, have this…

    … all you people with more than two children, increasing the population even further above what's sustainable.

    Have a grenade. Without the pin. And held onto for a few seconds first.




  54. GrantB


    Not sure where that comes from; figures I have seen suggest something like 70kWh/day - x 365 days could be closer to 25MWh per year.

    Interesting thing is that modern tech should be reducing usage; CRT's are going & being replaced with lower consumption LCD/OLED etc, incandescent bulbs by CFL, and ICE cars will be slowly replaced by more efficient cars. Even with heating, heatpumps and better insulation will reduce usage.

    From what I understand, a lot of growth of energy usage comes from population changes; but with higher standards of living comes reduced population growth and newer tech which over the long term will reduce energy usage. My theory is that with peak oil, we might also be looking at a 'peak energy usage per person'.

    Interesting that whatever way you look at it, wind, solar and geothermal all have _in theory_ have enough potential energy to meet the worlds energy needs. I suspect even nuclear plants would struggle with uranium supplies to power the entire world.

    Obviously the future worlds power supply will include wind, solar, geothermal, nuclear and hydro; just like it does now. Hopefully far less and/or cleaner coal and oil plants. Personally I think Wind makes a lot of sense with small island nations with lots of offshore potential, that currently burn oil in generators. Solar must have huge potential; imagine some break-through where a PV cell could generate power for less than a few cents per kWh; you would see them everywhere very quickly, with other sources of power being used mostly to smooth loads.

  55. adrian sietsma

    @Jason Bloomberg

    "Let's see : 46,000,000 - 100 ~= 46,000,000"

    That would be the 1-hour year maybe ? You are only out by approx. 3 orders of magnitude.

    100W * 24 Hrs * 365 days = 876,000 Watt Hours ~= 0.9 MWh

    0.9/46 ~= 2 %

    And there's the IT (or at least arithmetic) angle.

  56. Neoc

    No long-range thinking

    My biggest problem with Wind-based (and tide-based) farms is that their proponents forget that you don't get something for nothing. Or to put it another way, the electrical energy you are getting from the turbine comes from robbing the wind of some of its kinetic energy.

    So can someone tell me what the result of a world-wide deployment of even 20% effective wind turbines do to the wind patterns? And the resulting hit on the climate?

    I do wish these people would start thinking in longer, wider ranges.

  57. Liam Johnson

    @The Indomitable Gall

    No, I understood the point very well thankyou. You seem not to have read my post, since it doesn't fit with your world view. The paper is about setting an upper limit - all very clear.

    The various "missed the point" comments seem to be implying that wind farms will make an impact as part of a larger plan. This is of course bollocks as the paper explains you would have to cover the entire planet with wind farms to cover our projected energy needs, IF we scale back a bit.

    Hence my question. If you decide you only want to cover 1% of the available surface with wind farms, and that is rather a big area already, what are you proposing for the other 99% of our energy needs?

  58. The First Dave


    Assuming we did build all of these turbines, what would the effect be on our climate? One turbine might not slow the wind down much, but several million would surely start to have a noticable effect?

  59. scatter

    Why the assumption of American energy consumption?

    I don’t get this haughty renewables/sustainability/green bashing that goes on in The Register. What’s your agenda? Or is it simply oh so fashionable and yawn-inducing libertarian contrarianism? Either way it’s wide of the mark most of the time.

    “If everyone on Earth aspires one day to live at the sort of level Americans do now”

    You’re conflating energy consumption with quality of life. They are not the same thing and your analysis is flawed and discredited by the assumption that in order for the world to have a high quality of life we’ll have to raise average energy consumption to that of the US.

    Sure there is a very strong correlation between quality of life and energy consumption *at the moment* but to assume that these measures won’t decouple in the coming decades is absolutely wrong. 2kW as a global average is much more credible and most importantly sustainable. This equates to 18MWh per person per year, 20% of US consumption, attainable by the West and a huge boost to the developing world.

  60. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Why people built homes on the water and other stuff

    Power consumption might become the reason for where you live.

    The closer you live, the cheaper the power.

    Can you say "Las Vegas" in Oklahoma or Nebraska?

    The balance of this question is whether or not people who invest

    profits from current energy products (oil) are willing to be involved.

    Do they really care whether its oil or wind as long as they control

    the profits.

    If I have to hear one more time about some "amazing gargantuan" oil

    rig being built who knows where for some billions of dollars after

    including all costs with new science, I don't know why this can't be done.

    We've gone wimpy about controlling our own destiny.

    Yes, politicians will cry because they will have to find new places to

    reap dollars. (They already complain about how much it costs just

    to run and be one.)

    And 'Oh Nooo'. Infrastructure to pay for. There's another new one.

    Like the stuff we got now is perfect.

    Survival by fear and flight is out.

    Besides, who are these guys with this report anyway? Oops, they're

    scientist whose work gets a revue. Feasible? They just trying to

    create a whole big enough for our brains to walk though.

    Yea, yea. I know, there is no way anybody is gonna back this.

    what about the money. Can you say Bernie Madoff.

    Seams to be plenty somewhere. Just gotta find it.

    Maybe investors are actually ready to invest in something,

    not something for nothing.

  61. Anonymous Coward

    What about

    Conservation of Energy? AKA You can't get something for nothing.

    So the Sahara desert gets every bit of wind and sun removed and consequent energy transported to other parts of the world which are cold. Could this be the Mother of all climate change?

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