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European wind farms could meet global energy demand, researchers now say

A new study estimated the untapped potential of wind energy across Europe.

Pixabay
  • A new report calculated how much electricity Europe could generate if it built onshore wind farms on all of its exploitable land.
  • The results indicated that European onshore wind farms could supply the whole world with electricity from now until 2050.
  • Wind farms come with a few complications, but the researchers noted that their study was meant to highlight the untapped potential of the renewable energy source in Europe.


In 2009, the European Environment Agency made a surprising claim: If Europe were to build all of the onshore and offshore wind farms it was capable of building, wind could power the continent many times over. In fact, the 2009 report said that wind farms could provide 20 times the electricity that's estimated to be demanded in Europe in 2020.

But it turns out the actual wind potential in Europe could be much higher. A new study found that maximizing onshore wind potential could enable Europe to generate 100 times more electricity than it currently does. That's enough to cover energy demand for the entire world from now until 2050, according to the researchers.

European aspirations for a 100 percent renewable energy grid are within our collective grasp technologically...

The study, published in the September 2019 installment of Energy Policy, found that Europe's untapped wind energy potential amounts to approximately 52.5 terawatts, or about 1 million watts for every 16 European citizens. To estimate the continent's wind potential, the researchers used information detailing each nation's infrastructure, buildings and protected areas to determine which areas wouldn't be suitable for onshore wind farms.

They also conducted a spatial analysis to identify areas with sufficient wind conditions for wind farms.

Enevoldsen et al.

"The study is not a blueprint for development but a guide for policymakers indicating the potential of how much more can be done and where the prime opportunities exist," study co-author Benjamin Sovacool, professor of energy policy at the University of Sussex, told the University of Sussex Media Centre. "Our study suggests that the horizon is bright for the onshore wind sector and that European aspirations for a 100 percent renewable energy grid are within our collective grasp technologically."

The researchers admit they were "very liberal" in identifying land on which wind farms might be built; for example, they included private land where citizens might have no interest in building wind farms.

"Obviously, we are not saying that we should install turbines in all the identified sites but the study does show the huge wind power potential right across Europe which needs to be harnessed if we're to avert a climate catastrophe," Sovacool said.

Wind energy — not always a breeze

Wind energy isn't completely free of problems. As Big Think wrote in July, wind is currently one of the cheapest forms of renewable energy, but there are several factors preventing it from becoming dominant in the U.S. Those include:

  • Wind variability: Put simply, wind turbines need consistent access to strong winds if they're to be efficient. That's a problem, considering some parts of the country — like the southeastern U.S. — see relatively slow wind speeds. "Wind power is very sensitive to the wind speed, more than you might guess," Paul Veers, chief engineer at the National Wind Technology Center at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, toldVox. However, wind variability could become less of a problem if wind power could be stored more effectively.
  • The window-shadow effect: When you add a wind turbine to a landscape, you change local wind patterns. One downside is that each additional turbine robs wind from other turbines in the wind farm. So, designers have been trying to space out wind turbines in a way that maximizes efficiency. But the problem with this sprawling solution is that it becomes increasingly expensive, both due to maintenance and land cost. Additionally, rural residents generally don't like having massive wind turbines spoiling their property values and views.
  • Local heating: Although renewable energies like wind would curb climate change over the long term, wind turbines would likely cause local heating over the short term. Why? Cold air normally stays near the ground, while warm air flows higher. But wind turbines generally disrupt that natural order, pushing warm air down. "Any big energy system has an environmental impact," Harvard engineering and physics professor David Keith told The Associated Press. "There is no free lunch. You do wind on a scale big enough [...] it'll change things." Of course, this is a temporary effect, unlike climate change.

Still, the researchers don't think these criticisms make their findings irrelevant. In the study, they addressed the intermittent nature of wind energy, and also acknowledged the impracticality of actually building dense wind farms on every exploitable piece of land.

"To both critics the response is the same," they wrote. "Realizable wind power potential studies are not to be treated as blueprints for development. Such studies help policymakers understand what is possible as a ceiling, help planners target areas of particular attraction, and help us understand where we are in terms of state of play concerning a given technology and its potential. For onshore wind power potential, our study suggests that still the horizon is bright for this particular application in the wind energy sector and that European aspirations for a 100 percent renewable energy grid are within our collective grasp technologically."

Hulu's original movie "Palm Springs" is the comedy we needed this summer

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.

Gear
  • Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
  • As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
  • The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
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Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Our ‘little brain’ turns out to be pretty big

The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.

Image source: Sereno, et al
Mind & Brain
  • A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
  • The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
  • This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.

Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

A neural crêpe

A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.

So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

Economists show how welfare programs can turn a "profit"

What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?

A homeless man faces Wall Street

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
  • It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
  • The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
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Unhappy at work? How to find meaning and maintain your mental health

Finding a balance between job satisfaction, money, and lifestyle is not easy.

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