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Wind Could Power 30 Percent of Global Electricity Production By 2050

Kate Zerrenner headshotWords by Kate Zerrenner
Energy & Environment
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Wind energy will supply 30 percent of all global electricity production by 2050, with 12 percent coming from offshore wind and 18 percent from onshore wind, Norwegian risk management provider DNV GL predicts in a new report

Wind power has become a major contributor to the clean energy transition in the U.S. and across the globe, and the industry has made significant advances both in technology and in bringing costs down.

Wind and solar are both on their way toward grid parity with fossil fuels, meaning they will be able to generate power at a leveled cost of electricity that is equal to or less than the price of power from the electric grid, which is dominated by fossil fuel-generated electricity. In other words: Wind and solar will cost the same or less than coal and natural gas—as early as the mid 2020s in some countries. 

An added perk: Water savings from wind energy 

Bringing wind energy’s costs down has a direct benefit to both human and environmental health. Wind energy does not produce greenhouse gas emissions when generating electricity and it uses no water, a significant benefit over the very thirsty fossil fuel and nuclear energy sectors.

Wherever wind (or solar) can be deployed and coal and natural gas can be ramped down, water needed for generating electricity can be used for other needs, such as municipal drinking water or maintaining environmental flows in bodies of water to protect ecosystems. In many places, where climate change means increased water stress, this is an important factor to consider.

As the technology matures, costs have come down and more offshore wind is being deployed worldwide. The support in the U.S. seems to be growing slowly but surely. Further, the biggest markets developing are in places like the west coast of the United States, Spain, France, Asian countries like Japan, and island communities, all of which are facing increasing stressful water quantity issues.

Wind turbines and extreme weather

There is a concern about offshore wind in the face of climate change—namely, how well turbines can withstand extreme weather.

Wind speeds are considerably faster offshore than onshore, and recent hurricanes have seen winds up to 185 miles per hour. Models have shown that offshore turbines may not be able to withstand hurricane winds, and recent experience demonstrates that the more extreme hurricanes of the past few years have battered turbines—for example, in Puerto Rico during Hurricane Maria.

Still, more resilient energy systems are needed overall. Even if a turbine survives a storm and the traditional grid still goes down, there will be nothing for the turbine to connect to in order to provide usable energy. Thinking about the system as a whole is imperative.

However, the industry knows this challenge exists and is rising to meet it. The U.S. Department of Energy is funding research and development into improved turbine technology that can withstand the high wind speeds. And DNV GL's report points to a recent industry collaboration called Alleviating Cyclone and Earthquake Challenges for Wind Farms (ACE) that will define safety levels for wind farms and create best practices for the entire offshore wind industry. A further plot twist, however, is that offshore wind turbines might actually reduce precipitation from hurricanes on land. 

In its report, Offshore Wind: The Power to Progress, DNV GL notes that the U.S. alone has an offshore wind potential of 2,000 gigawatts, which is double the nation’s current electricity use.

Industry is already addressing the technology needs of wind to withstand extreme weather, and as more wind energy is generated—both onshore and offshore—it can help to reduce water stress and carbon-altering emissions. Offshore installations might just be the latest wind in clean energy’s sails.

Image credit: Flickr/United Nations Photo

Kate Zerrenner headshotKate Zerrenner

Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.

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