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

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

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

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Learn the Netflix model of high-performing teams

Erin Meyer explains the keeper test and how it can make or break a team.

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  • There are numerous strategies for building and maintaining a high-performing team, but unfortunately they are not plug-and-play. What works for some companies will not necessarily work for others. Erin Meyer, co-author of No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, shares one alternative employed by one of the largest tech and media services companies in the world.
  • Instead of the 'Rank and Yank' method once used by GE, Meyer explains how Netflix managers use the 'keeper test' to determine if employees are crucial pieces of the larger team and are worth fighting to keep.
  • "An individual performance problem is a systemic problem that impacts the entire team," she says. This is a valuable lesson that could determine whether the team fails or whether an organization advances to the next level.
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Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
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