In-depth


Carbon emissions will affect wind power

12 December 2017 | updated 12 December 2017

Boulder, CO – Continued emissions are expected to cause a global north-to-south shift in wind power by the end of this century, causing challenges to the rapidly growing wind energy industry.

The global wind power industry should expect to be affected by climate change. In the next century, wind resources may decrease in some regions of the Northern Hemisphere and sharply increase in some hotspot regions in the south, according to a study by the University of Colorado Boulder.  

“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. “But not as much focuses on the impact of climate change on energy production by weather-dependent renewables, like wind energy.”

Rapidly growing industry

Wind powers only about 3.7 per cent of worldwide energy consumption today, but global wind power capacity is increasing rapidly by some 20 per cent per year. To better understand how this industry will be affected by climate change, the researchers 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.

Strong asymmetry between north and south

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 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.

Build with long-term trends in mind 

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.

In addition to North America, the team identified possible wind power reductions in Japan, Mongolia and the Mediterranean by the end of the century. This may be bad news for the Japanese, who are rapidly accelerating their wind power development.

By contrast, potential wind energy production in the Southern Hemisphere, particularly in Brazil, West Africa, South Africa and Australia, could see dramatic increases.

“Europe is a big question mark,” added Karnauskas. “We have no idea what we'll see there. That’s almost scary, given that Europe is producing a lot of wind energy already.” 

Roadmap for future research

In a warming world, harnessing more wind power in coming decades could be critical for countries trying to meet emission reduction standards set by the Paris Climate Agreement. The team’s results may help inform decision-makers across the globe determining where to deploy this technology.

“The climate models are too uncertain about what will happen in highly productive wind energy regions, like Europe, the Central United States, and Inner Mongolia,” said Lundquist. “We need to use different tools to try to forecast the future—this global study gives us a roadmap for where we should focus next with higher-resolution tools.”