European wind could supply the whole world with electricity

Europe has more than enough room for far more wind turbines than are currently being erected. Even without disturbing people, animals and nature. A new international research project based at Aarhus BSS in Herning shows that the potential is huge. The researchers are now searching for the best locations.


If you drive along the North German highway from Hamburg to Berlin, you will pass one wind farm after the other. There they are, majestically arranged in rows with their enormous wings and looming above an otherwise flat landscape. Whether it is pretty is a matter of taste. However, there is no doubt that it is effective.

These onshore wind farms have the potential to contribute significantly to solving the tremendous challenges faced by Europe and the rest of the world in terms of phasing out coal-based energy production with a large carbon footprint. Today, this type of production accounts for over 70 per cent of the greenhouse gasses emitted in Europe. The solution could be to expand the production of green energy significantly.

In fact, the potential is huge and much greater than previously believed. This is the conclusion of a new study recently published in the recognised academic journal Energy Policy by a number of international researchers headed by Peter Enevoldsen, assistant professor at Aarhus BSS. The study is a comprehensive map of Europe with potential locations for wind turbines.

12 million new wind turbines

And wow! In theory, the European continent alone could house 11.7 million new wind turbines with a combined energy production of up to 138,000 TWh or 497 exajoules. This is just over five times more than the annual energy consumption of the US and more than the total expected global energy consumption in 2050 estimated at 430 exajoules.

What is more, this is when the researchers leave out 54 per cent of the total European area that not accessible due to socio-technical constraints such as infrastructure, built-up areas and protected nature reserves.

So what exactly are we waiting for? Let’s get started, you might well say. Our planet is gasping for air according to the many reports published these years about the massive climate challenges caused by greenhouse gases.

Surprising potential

However, you need to hold your horses, says Peter Enevoldsen, who has consulted to the wind industry for many years and works as an assistant professor at the Department of Business Development and Technology at Aarhus BSS in Herning.

“This does not mean that we are about to erect almost 12 million new wind turbines in Europe. We aren’t. The map only shows the maximum potential, and we need to consider other factors and elements in order to give a more realistic image of the potential. Factors such as economic profitability and citizen resistance, for example. And we needn’t exploit all of the huge potential either. Far less could also do the trick. If just one hundredth of the locations are suitable, the potential is still huge,” says Enevoldsen, who was also somewhat surprised by the total potential when it became evident to the researchers.

“I must admit, I had to check my calculations three times before I was completely convinced that it was true. For many years, we have been hearing the same argument in the debate about onshore wind turbines; that there is no room. It turns out that there is plenty of room. This is the main message of the study. Now we just have to find the best locations so that politicians, investors and the wind industry can plan accordingly.”

Layer by layer

Finding the best locations is exactly what the research group will be embarking on next. The model developed in the study is flexible making it possible to include a number of other variables and factors.

In its simplicity, the model consists of a number of open source data layers placed on top of a map of Europe. First, the researchers added data on how the wind behaves 100 m above ground
level in different places on the continent. Today, onshore wind turbines are typically between 80 and 125 meters tall. The map does not include areas where the geographical conditions make it both financially and operationally unsustainable to place wind turbines. These areas include the very mountainous regions in the Alps, the Pyrenees, Tyrol, the Swedish and Norwegian mountains as well as those in the UK. On top of the first layer, the researchers placed a layer of restrictions caused by infrastructure, built-up areas and protected nature reserves. Finally, they factored in a layer of various national restrictions and distance requirements.

"My dream is that we can create a map so specific that when we pinpoint an area in which to place a wind farm, there’s really not much more to it. You can start planning straight away"

Peter Enevoldsen - assistant professor, Department of Business Development and Technology, Aarhus BSS

Dynamic model

In the end, this leaves an area of 4.9 million square kilometres of potential wind turbine locations. Europe’s socio-technical wind atlas. By placing additional layers on top of this socio-technical wind atlas, the map is intended to become much more detailed in relation to identifying possible and realistic locations of onshore wind turbines in Europe.

“The model is dynamic and because we use open source data, it can be updated very quickly if something changes, which happens all the time. One example could be the demographic conditions,” Enevoldsen explains. Together with the rest of the research group, he now has to develop a similar wind atlas for the US as well as refine the European map by adding new layers.

“We will start by adding layers with economic perspectives, for example in which areas it would even be profitable to erect onshore wind turbines. In addition, we have to create a layer that analyses the so-called NIMBY effect (”Not In My Back Yard”, ed.). In fact, we already know a lot about this effect,” Enevoldsen says and continues:

“I worked on a project for one or two years, which was eventually abandoned due to completely reasonable local protests and arguments. This is expensive and something the industry would like to avoid. So we need to factor in the effect, and we already know that there is far less resistance in places where wind turbines have already been erected.”   

Optimal opportunities

The overall purpose is to develop as detailed a map of the opportunities as possible. Opportunities in which the industry is secured a healthy economy in the project, and in which planners and politicians can pinpoint suitable project locations with relative peace of mind without fearing a storm of protests.

Many emotions are in play when it comes to onshore wind turbines. This is something that Enevoldsen has experienced himself after the study was published in Energy Policy and was discussed publicly.

“I have received a lot of emails from different people that deeply disagree with me even though they have not read the academic article or the subsequent discussion. Some have even said that I should relocate and settle on the sun. But that comes with the job,” says Enevoldsen, who has a clear goal with the project.

“My dream is that we can create a map so specific that when we pinpoint an area in which to place a wind farm, there’s really not much more to it. You can start planning straight away.”

Visionary Germans

And there is a great need for such a map, according the research team, which consists of a mix of university researchers and experts from different companies in the wind industry.

“In Europe, we are no way near the green energy objectives, and onshore wind ought to be the predominant source of energy. In Denmark, we are not that ambitious either, while Germany is much more forward looking and often place onshore wind turbines along motorways. This solves two challenges: The location is perfect in terms of avoiding protests since the motorways are already there. It is also a way to prepare for the transport sector becoming increasingly dependent on electricity rather than petrol and diesel,” Enevoldsen says.

About the project

The research team consists of:

  • Assistant Professor Peter Enevoldsen, the Department of Business Development and Technology, Aarhus BSS (Denmark)
  • Finn-Hendrik Permien, Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy A/S (Danmark)
  • Ines Bakhtaoui, Imperial College Business School (UK) and Ecole Nationale Superieure des Mines de Saint-Etienne (France)
  • Anna-Katharina von Krauland, Stanford University (USA)
  • Professor Mark Z. Jacobson, Stanford University (USA)
  • Associate Professor George Xydis, Department of Business Development and Technology, Aarhus BSS (Denmark)
  • Professor Benjamin K. Sovacool, Department of Business Development and Technology, Aarhus BSS (Denmark) and University of Sussex (UK)
  • Professor Scott V. Valentine, RMIT University (Australia)
  • Daniel Luecht, Envision Energy (Germany)
  • Gregory Oxley, Envision Energy (USA)

The research project is independent of economic interests. The project is solely financed by the salary that the participants receive from their respective workplaces.

Source: How much wind power potential does Europe have? Examining European wind power potential with an enhanced socio-technical atlas