Meanwhile in the Future: We Have Changed the Climate with Wind Turbines

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According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, about 2.3 percent of America’s power is generated by wind. But wind power is becoming wildly popular all over the world. What would happen if a company put up so many wind turbines that they actually changed the climate on Earth? That’s the subject of this week’s podcast.

Wind turbines are being built all over the world, and China is particularly ambitious with their wind farms—according to the BBC the country plans to build enough turbines to pull 200,000 megawatts. To put that into perspective, according to the Global Wind Energy Council, in 2014 all the wind-power harnessing devices in the world could generate 369,597 megawatts.

All of this is dwarfed by global power consumption, which is about 18 terawatts, or, 18,000,000 megawatts. In other words, humans use about 50 times the total wind power capacity of all the wind turbines in the entire world.


This is all to say that we use a lot of power, and could probably harness a lot more of it using wind turbines. Which brings us back to the question we started with: What if we changed the climate with wind turbines? I know this sounds totally crazy, but I swear to you this is something that scientists have actually looked into. So naturally, I talked to one of those scientists.


NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and Columbia University researcher Kate Marvel and her team used climate models to look at just how much wind energy we would have to take out of the atmosphere before we’d start to have problems. The good news: it’s A LOT of wind. About 1,800 terawatts. And, to remind you, global power consumption is 18 terawatts. So the chances that we’re taking 100 times the amount of energy we need using just wind turbines is very, very slim. But that’s okay, because the point of this podcast is to talk about weird scenarios. So let’s keep moving.

In order to get that amount of energy, we’re not talking about the land-based pin-wheel turbines you’re probably familiar with. We’re talking about turbines that go up into the atmosphere, to harness the winds up here. There are a handful of companies that are working on these kinds of atmospheric turbines, including places like Makani Power, which was acquired by Google in 2013, and Altaeros Energies which debuted the BAT Turbine last year.

These are all still very much in the proof-of-concept phase, but the ideas are out there. And if an evil mega-corporation wanted to enact some kind of strange, evil plan and suck the wind out of the atmosphere, they could, in theory, do that. Maybe.


To find out what that would be like on Earth, listen to the podcast, where Marvel explains what happens next.

Illustration by Jim Cooke, photo via Shutterstock