Emissions may cause global north-to-south shift in wind power

In the next century, wind resources may decrease in many regions of the Northern Hemisphere and could sharply increase in some hotspot regions down south, according to a study by University of Colorado Boulder researchers. The first-of-its-kind study predicting how global wind power may shift with climate change appears in Nature Geoscience.

While not all climate models agree on what the future will bring, substantial changes may be in store, especially a prominent asymmetry in wind power potential across the globe. If carbon dioxide emissions continue at high levels, wind power resources may decrease in the Northern Hemisphere’s mid-latitudes.

“There’s been a lot of research looking at the potential climate impact of energy production transformations—like shifting away from fossil fuels toward renewables,” said Lead Author Kris Karnauskas, CIRES Fellow and Assistant Professor in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences (ATOC)  at CU Boulder. “But not as much focuses on the impact of climate change on energy production by weather-dependent renewables, like wind energy.”

Wind powers only about 3.7% of worldwide energy consumption, but global wind power capacity is increasing rapidly—about 20% a year. Karnauskas and colleagues Julie Lundquist and Lei Zhang, also in ATOC, wanted to better understand likely shifts in production, so they turned to an international set of climate model outputs to assess changes in wind energy resources across the globe. The team then used a “power curve” from the wind energy industry to convert predictions of global winds, density and temperature into an estimate of wind energy production potential.

While not all of the climate models agreed on what the future will bring, substantial changes may be in store, especially a prominent asymmetry in wind power potential across the globe. If carbon dioxide emissions continue at high levels, wind power resources may decrease in the Northern Hemisphere’s mid-latitudes, and an increase in the Southern Hemisphere and tropics by 2100.

Strangely, the team also found that if emission levels are mitigated, dropping lower in coming decades, they see only a reduction of wind power in the north—it may not be countered with an increase of power in the south.

Renewable energy decision makers typically plan and install wind farms in areas with consistently strong winds today. For example, the prairies of the American Midwest—persistently windy today and in recent decades—are dotted with tens of thousands of turbines. While the new assessment finds wind power production in these regions over the next twenty years will be similar to that of today, it could drop by the end of the century.

By contrast, potential wind energy production in northeastern Australia could see dramatic increases.

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