When it comes to harnessing renewable energy from the wind, the European Union is not even close to reaching its full potential, according to a new study.
If a wind turbine is installed at any suitable location on earth, research shows that it can provide more than 100 times the wind power currently produced offshore. With more than 11 million additional turbines estimated, it will be enough to power the entire world from now until 2050.
"Obviously, we are not talking about installing turbines at all identified sites," said Benjamin Sovakul, an energy policy expert at the University of Sussex.
"But the study shows there is tremendous wind power potential across Europe that should be used if we are to avoid climate disaster."
Today, the EU is a leader in wind energy production, and together its offshore and offshore turbines make up nearly one-third of the world's total wind capacity. The European Commission has promised that at least 100,000 more wind turbines will be updated or added by 2050.
But new findings are pushing the potential ceiling much higher, even when wind farms are off.
Going nation-by-nation and using an advanced system of wind atlases, researchers tried to answer one critical question: How much wind power potential does Europe have?
Taking into account infrastructure, built-up areas and protected areas, the authors found suitable land with favorable wind speeds in 46% of Europe's territory. That's nearly 5 million square kilometers, and nearly 500 exhumations of power – about 70 more exhumations than the world will need in 2050.
To be clear, this assessment is extensive. The survey did not consider site-specific restrictions, public acceptance or whether the land is privately owned; only highlighted areas suitable for current wind technology. As such, the authors say it is only a policy guide, not a development plan.
However, compared to previous estimates, this is one of the most detailed insights into Europe's future wind potential. Using advanced GIS data at the national and sub-national levels, the authors excluded other estimates of water. For example, in 2009, the European Environment Agency calculated the potential of a windshield three times smaller.
In addition to improved resolution, such a huge discrepancy may have to do with different definitions of "suitable land" or new technology. In the ten years since the publication of the previous report, wind power capacity has tripled in the United States, reducing prices and improving the efficiency of wind turbines.
A different study, published just last month by German researchers, estimates that wind farms can only be built on about a quarter of Europe's land. This is more similar to previous estimates, but with the new turbine technology in mind, researchers have calculated a much larger wind energy output.
In the end, these studies are hypothetical and each comes with its own limitations. However, despite the European Union's recent interest in wind energy, it is clear that there is much more room for growth.
"Critics will no doubt argue that naturally occurring intermittent wind power makes sea wind energy inadequate to meet global demand," said Peter Enevoldsen, a wind researcher at Aarhus University.
"But even without counting on the development of wind turbine technology in the coming decades, wind power is the cheapest mature source of renewable energy."
The findings are published in Energy policy.