The estimate of potential US wind power has for a long time been based on 20-year-old research whose cautious assumptions about future technical progress have been outstripped by events. A 1991 study I cited in a 2007 post set the economic wind power potential of the 48 contiguous states at 3.7 terawatts, or 1.1 terawatts continuous equivalent based on a 30% load factor. A conservative new study from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, based on raising the height of towers from 50 to the current standard 80 meters, increases the estimate to 10.5 terawatts installed or 3 terawatts continuous equivalent. It does not assume any breakthroughs such as kite ladders. [Update: there’s even more energy at 100m or 150m, which can be captured by bigger conventional rotors, but it becomes impracticable to move the blades by road; at sea, you float them out, so offshore turbines can be bigger. The 80m band is sensible onshore.]
Here is a screengrab of their map (the original is interactive and lets you get more detail by state) :
NERL updated map of US wind resource at 80m height
All areas from from orange to purple are good for wind. Roughly speaking, anywhere on the Great Plains, a third of the continental United States, the siting problem for a wind turbine can be solved by walking out of the front door.
The NREL actually counted potential output in annual terawatt-hours. Though the continuous equivalent could be misleading – no source of energy is actually available without interruption, and wind is more variable than most – it is the more relevant number for a thought experiment. 3 terawatts continuous is over six times current US electricity consumption, which I make out to be 440 GW continuous equivalent (3,872 GW-hours/year / 8760 hours).
At which point some armchair genius will point out that wind power is intermittent, as if the fact had not occurred to the NREL, General Electric, the Danish government, Iberdrola and T. Boone Pickens. Yes, you will of course need to complement wind (and for that matter solar) electricity with some fossil or nuclear capacity – which you will be relegating to intermittent peak loppers, as wind electricity has strictly zero marginal cost – , and/or a lot of storage, and/or fancy load-shedding and time-shifting by consumers like you and me. Another recent NREL study found that you could incorporate 20% wind into the East Coast electricity supply without appealing to technologies more sophisticated than an expanded transmission grid, and at a cost of under 0.5 cent a kilowatt/hr. The ultimate practical constraint on the share of intermittent renewables with foreseeable new technologies must be quite a lot higher. 100% is technically feasible simply by adding enough storage.
So, Dr. Chu: where is that nice new interstate grid?