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Global potential for wind-generated electricity

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By 2030 electric usage in the United States is projected to grow by more than 30%. Fossil fuels and nuclear power currently produce the lion’s share of our electricity, but in a carbon-constrained world, renewables will have a greater role to play.

A 2009 study by Harvard University and Finland’s VTT Technical Research Centre, “Global Potential for Wind-Generated Electricity,” indicates that considerable potential exists for the growth of wind power. Researchers used data from NASA and built their analysis on conservative assumptions.

The study’s key findings include:

  • Wind could supply more than 40 times current worldwide consumption of electricity, and more than five times total global use of energy in all forms.
  • In the contiguous United States, wind has the potential to supply as much as 16 times total current domestic electrical demand.
  • When required, new power transmission lines add appropriately 10% to a project’s cost, and consequently are not prohibitive.
  • Wind-energy potential falls below demand only during the summer months, when winds decrease and electrical use rises.

Keywords: carbon, global warming, greenhouse gases, renewable energy, infrastructure

    Writer: | Last updated: December 22, 2011

    Citation: Lu, Xi; et al. "Global Potential for Wind-Generated Electricity,", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, June 2009. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0904101106.

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    Analysis assignments

    Read the study-related New York Times article titled "Study Suggests Wind Power Potential Is Much Higher Than Current Estimates."

    1. Reporter's use of the study: Evaluate what the reporter chose to include and exclude from the study. Would the audience have acquired a clear understanding of the study's findings and limits from this article?
    2. Reporter's use of other material: Assess the material in the article that is not derived from the study. For example: Does the reporter place the study in the context of other research and to what effect? Does the reporter include reactions to the study from other researchers or interested parties (e.g., political groups, business leaders, or community members) and are their credentials or possible biases made clear?

    Read full study titled "Global Potential for Wind-Generated Electricity."

    1. What are the study's key technical terms? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
    2. Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
    3. What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
    4. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
    5. How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.

    Newswriting and digital reporting assignments

    1. Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
    4. Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
    5. Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
    6. Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.

    Class discussion questions

    1. What is the study’s most important finding?
    2. Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
    3. What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
    4. How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
    5. How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
    6. What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?