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Winds of Change

How one Stanford student is mapping a path to 100 percent renewable energy.
Wind energy potential map inlaid over wind turbines
Von Krauland’s wind atlas reveals the total available area for each wind threshold (km2), number of turbines, potential power installed (GW), energy output (TWh), and energy output with array losses (TWh) for each state and the United States as a whole.

Anna-Katharina von Krauland, MS ’19, PhD candidate, was ecstatic to step into the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference. As one of the few delegates from Stanford University, she couldn’t wait to witness this global summit—and meet her climate heroes.

Soon, though, she began to notice a pattern.

Anna-Katharina stands smiling in front of a panel at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference

“It is not an exaggeration that I came across more media and film crews than scientists and engineers at the conference,” she wrote in an op-ed for The Stanford Daily. “True, COP26 is regarded as a world stage, but must the actors’ scripts be so hollow?”

Where were the decisive policy shifts? Where were the marching orders to keep the planet habitable? She recalls hearing a lot of hand-wringing about the state of Earth’s atmosphere, but few actionable solutions.

“Even the people in charge don’t know exactly what needs to be done, or they don’t have a clear roadmap,” she says. “That was kind of scary to realize, actually—and empowering at the same time.”

Because von Krauland knows we need a plan to meet our goals. She has built an atlas detailing prospective sites for wind energy across the United States.

“That’s what really motivates me to continue being at the forefront of research that helps shape these decisions,” says von Krauland, who is a 2020–22 TomKat Center Graduate Fellow for Translational Research.

Her research

Wind farm siting—the process of identifying potential sites for installing wind turbines for electricity—is typically an arduous process that can take months, or even years, to analyze prevailing wind patterns, project regulations, and environmental restrictions.

Von Krauland plans to accelerate it to mere hours—and hasten our transition away from fossil fuels in the process.

Last year, she published her atlas in the journal Smart Energy. Knowing that her target audience of policymakers and wind farm developers might prefer a more visual presentation of the data, she also teamed up with two Stanford master’s students to build a website, displaying the research using geographic information systems (GIS).

Nearly two-thirds of the U.S. land area is unrestricted for wind farms, her findings show, and 27 percent of the country consistently has wind speeds faster than 6 meters/second (m/s)—or faster than 13 miles per hour (mph).

These speeds, while slow for a car on the highway, reach the threshold of ideal places for wind turbines. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the best sites for wind turbines have average wind speeds of at least 9 mph (4 m/s) for small turbines and 13 mph (5.8 m/s) for utility-scale turbines.

Von Krauland’s research indicates that the nation’s vast appetite for electricity could be supplied entirely by a portfolio of renewable energy that includes wind, solar, hydropower, geothermal, and storage. Importantly, her atlas shows that each state has more than enough land to provide the large component of wind energy needed to realize this 100% renewable grid future.

All she wants? Speed.

Von Krauland is meticulous, down to brass tacks.

When asked what factors informed her research, she rattles off variables for the land-based wind atlas: “Let’s see, infrastructure such as buildings, roads, railways, and waterways, as well as water bodies and protected land, and then the policy-informed distance requirements from each.”

Speaking of water, she has a different set of considerations for offshore wind energy, from marine areas protected for birds and reefs to major shipping channels.

You can imagine how wind developers might be astonished to receive this trove of information in one place. Why has she gone to the tremendous effort, to do all of this, to publish all of this?

Speed. What she considers the missing piece in global discussions about climate change. Industry and government simply aren’t moving fast enough.

Von Krauland says she was inspired to pursue a bold, audacious project by her PhD advisor, Mark Z. Jacobson, who is a professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of Stanford’s Atmosphere/Energy Program.

In 2011, he co-founded The Solutions Project, a research organization that creates roadmaps for cities, states, and countries to reach 100 percent renewable energy using only wind, water, and solar resources.

“I definitely was inspired by his vision and scope. I see how it’s possible through him. He’s made such a big impact in the field, and that’s what I wanted to replicate,” she says, noting that she has served as the research team lead for The Solutions Project since 2017 and co-authored five papers with the group.

Europe’s wind resources had already been mapped, and so had China’s. Other scientists were calibrating what was possible in South America. So von Krauland turned her attention to the United States. Now, with her onshore atlas complete, she has begun mapping U.S. offshore wind resources, taking advantage of the ocean winds along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. She is also analyzing India, the fifth-largest producer of wind power in the world in 2020, after China, the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

Earlier this year, Jacobson and von Krauland published research in the journal Renewable Energy that concluded that the country’s energy needs could be sourced entirely from wind, water, and solar power—and maintain enough grid stability to avoid blackouts such as those witnessed in California and Texas in recent years due to extreme weather events. The study’s model projected into the future, into 2050–51, and even examined electricity needs down to 30-second increments.

Flexible focus

In 2020, the TomKat Center launched its Graduate Fellowships for Translational Research to support students for two years as they pursue real-world solutions for energy and environmental challenges. Often their research informs actual products or services—and the student researchers are taking an entrepreneurial path.

In von Krauland’s case, her wind atlas is not currently a commercial product, but her research is quickly garnering followers. Queries continue to reach her email and LinkedIn inboxes from colleagues, wind developers, and government officials who want to learn more. Recently, she met with the California Energy Commission to discuss how the Golden State might reach its climate goals.

“It’s been really great to be able to pursue these collaborations,” she says. Von Krauland even spent the first quarter of her fellowship in Denmark, studying at Aarhus University with a professor who has ties to Siemens Gamesa, the renewable energy branch of the German company. With the TomKat funding, she was able to continue her Stanford research across a nine-hour time difference, an unmanageable task had she needed to supplement her income by grading or teaching classes.

“The TomKat fellowship has given me the time and support and funding to make that happen. That’s been amazing.”