When it comes to exploiting renewable wind power, the EU is not even close to reaching its full potential, according to a new study.
If a wind turbine was placed in all suitable land areas, research shows could provide more than 100 times the wind energy currently produced on land. Designed for more than 11 million additional turbines, it would be enough to power the world between now and 2050.
"Of course, we are not saying that we should install turbines in all the identified sites," said Benjamin Sovacool, an energy policy expert at the University of Sussex.
"But the study shows the enormous wind power potentially across Europe that must be exploited if we are to avert a climate disaster."
Today, the EU is a leader in wind power generation, and together turbines on land and offshore make up almost a third of the world's total wind capacity. The European Commission has promised that by 2050 at least 1
But the new discoveries push the potential ceiling much higher, even when excluding offshore wind farms.
Going nation by nation, and using an advanced system of wind atlases, scientists attempted to answer one critical question: How much wind power potential does Europe have?
Taking into account infrastructure, built areas and protected areas, the authors found suitable land areas with favorable conditions wind speeds in 46 percent of Europe's territory. It's nearly 5 million square miles, and nearly 500 exajoules of power – about 70 more exajoules than the world needs in 2050.
To be clear, this estimate is far-reaching. The research did not look at site-specific restrictions, public acceptance or whether the land was privately owned; it only highlighted the areas suitable for today's wind technology. As such, the authors say it is just a guide to politics, not a plan for development.
However, compared to previous estimates, this is one of the most detailed insights into Europe's future wind potential yet. Using advanced GIS data at the national and sub-national levels, the authors have blown other estimates out of the water. In 2009, for example, the European Environment Agency calculated a wind potential on land three times less.
Apart from improved resolution, such a large discrepancy may have to do with different definitions of "suitable countries" or new technologies. In the ten years since the previous report was published, wind power capacity has tripled across the United States as prices fall and wind power efficiency improves.
Another study, published only last month by German scientists, estimates that wind farms can only be built on about a quarter of Europe's land. This is more similar to previous estimates, but by considering new turbine technology, scientists have calculated a much larger wind power generation.
Finally, these studies are all hypothetical, and they come with their limitations. Despite the EU's recent interest in wind power, it is clear that there is much more room for growth.
"Critics will undoubtedly argue that the naturally intermittent supply of wind makes wind power on land unfit to meet global demand," says Peter Enevoldsen, a researcher on wind power at Aarhus University.
"But even without explaining the development of wind turbine technology in the coming decades, onshore wind power is the cheapest mature source of renewable energy."
The findings have been published in Energy Policy .