There's enough wind to generate all of the power needs of everyone on the planet, the theory goes, but, you know, it's flighty - here today, gone tomorrow, as they say, which is not the way you want your electricity delivered.
Now researchers from the University of Delaware and New York's Stony Brook University think they have figured out a way around this problem - by thinking bigger.
Delaware's Willett Kempton and colleagues took a look at the problem not from the conventional point of view, from the ground up at a particular location, but from the atmosphere down, analyzing the behavior of wind at what meteorologists call the "synoptic scale" - all along the Atlantic Coast at the same time. Viewed from this perspective, the problem of unreliability goes away, they report, because while it comes and goes locally, at this larger scale, the wind never really stops blowing.
The researchers studied five years of wind observations during different seasons from 11 monitoring stations along the coast and developed a hypothetical "Atlantic Transmission Grid" that would string together a thin line of off-shore windmills along the Eastern Seaboard from Maine to Miami.
Their results show daily weather data along this experimental Atlantic Transmission Grid "yields uninterrupted power output." Such a grid would connect five-megawatt off-shore turbines such as these (pictured) off the coast of Belgium.
Taking these meteorological findings into account, people looking for places to locate wind turbines should change their thinking, Kempton wrote in the current issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "Whereas today's developers prospect for the windiest single site, we would advocate a broader analysis-to optimize grid power output by coordinated meteorological and load analysis of an entire region."
"A north-south transmission geometry fits nicely with the storm track that shifts northward or southward along the U.S. East Coast on a weekly or seasonal time scale," said co-author Brian Colle of Stony Brook. "Because then at any one time a high or low pressure system is likely to be producing wind (and thus power) somewhere along the coast."
IMAGE: Courtesy of Hans Hillewaert