Wind power has far greater potential than previously thought for providing countries in the developing world with access to cheap and clean energy, new data suggests. Already China, environmentally, probably the most important country in the developing world, has enlarged its target for wind energy as a result of the findings.

The information is based on satellite measurements and computer models that provide a more detailed assessment of a country's potential for harnessing wind power. This assessment found that 40 per cent of the land in countries such as Nicaragua and Vietnam was sufficiently windy to generate electricity.

"The new information suggests that wind power is much more viable," Tom Hamlin of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) said. Speaking from Paris, he added: "This gives us a much broader picture of the wind resources in the areas.

"The modelling is able to identify where the wind will speed up going through valleys, for example."

Campaigners believe such studies should be required reading for delegates to the UN climate change conference in Montreal this week, when representatives from 189 countries will meet to discuss future commitments to dealing with climate change. One of the key issues for delegates is how to persuade developing countries such as China to try to ensure their burgeoning economic growth does not follow the example of industrialised nations in terms of their emission of greenhouse gases.

China accounts for 16 per cent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions but this is expected to grow as the country's economy expands. This year alone, its economy is expected to increase by more than 8 per cent. It was previously thought that only 1 per cent of the land area in developing countries was suitable for harnessing wind power and providing an alternative to burning oil, gas, and in the case of China, coal.

Experts believe this estimate was based on information from meteorological stations sometimes built too close to trees or buildings that blocked winds. In Nicaragua, it was estimated during the 1980s that the nation's wind power potential stood at just 200 megawatts. The new wind map estimates its potential may be as high as 40,000 megawatts - the equivalent of 40 nuclear power plants. Indeed, the new data suggests that about 13 per cent of the land in the developing world could have potential. The study defines suitable areas as those that could generate 300 watts per square metre, needing winds of at least 6.4 to 7 metres per second at 50 metres above the ground. The UNEP's $9.3m (£5.3m) Solar and Wind Energy Resource Assessment focused on 14 developing countries - Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Bangladesh, China, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Mongolia, Brazil, Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Not all were found to be suitable.

In Bangladesh, for instance, the study identified that just 0.2 per cent of the land would be suitable for windmills. But in Nicaragua, Mongolia and Vietnam, the figure was as high as 40 per cent. The UNEP, which released some of its initial results earlier this year, said the new information was already having an impact on various nations' energy policies. Nicaragua's National Assembly has decreed that wind-generated electricity should have "first dispatch", which gives it priority over other options when fed into electricity grids. Mr Hamlin said China had used the data to increase its target for wind-generated power.

China now aims to produce 20 gigawatts of power from wind energy by 2020. In some countries these targets are helped being met by organisations such as the World Bank which have seized on the data to support the development of alternative energy sources.


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