The Earth is unevenly heated by the sun, such that the poles receive less energy from the sun than the equator; along with this, dry land heats up (and cools down) more quickly than the seas do. The differential heating drives a global atmospheric convection system reaching from the Earth's surface to the stratosphere which acts as a virtual ceiling. Most of the energy stored in these wind movements can be found at high altitudes where continuous wind speeds of over 160 km/h (99 mph) occur. Eventually, the wind energy is converted through friction into diffuse heat throughout the Earth's surface and the atmosphere.

The total amount of economically extractable power available from the wind is considerably more than present human power use from all sources. An estimated 72 terawatt (TW) of wind power on the Earth potentially can be commercially viable, compared to about 15 TW average global power consumption from all sources in 2005. Not all the energy of the wind flowing past a given point can be recovered.

Distribution of wind speed

The strength of wind varies, and an average value for a given location does not alone indicate the amount of energy a wind turbine could produce there. To assess the frequency of wind speeds at a particular location, a probability distribution function is often fit to the observed data. Different locations will have different wind speed distributions. The Weibull model closely mirrors the actual distribution of hourly wind speeds at many locations. The Weibull factor is often close to 2 and therefore a Rayleigh distribution can be used as a less accurate, but simpler model.

Because so much power is generated by higher wind speed, much of the energy comes in short bursts. The 2002 Lee Ranch sample is telling; half of the energy available arrived in just 15% of the operating time. The consequence is that wind energy from a particular turbine or wind farm does not have as consistent an output as fuel-fired power plants; utilities that use wind power plant provide power from starting existing generation for times when the wind is weak thus wind power is primarily a fuel saver rather than a capacity saver. Making wind power more consistent requires that various existing technologies and methods be extended, in particular the use of stronger inter-regional transmission lines to link widely distributed wind farms. Problems of variability are addressed by grid energy storage, batteries, pumped-storage hydroelectricity and energy demand management.