It’s enough to take the wind out of your sails, isn’t it? You spend valuable time and money discrediting a renewable energy source for its perceived faults then three positive reports on the feasibility of wind power come along at once.
The slew of favourable findings began in June with a report from the National Grid, followed in early July by a study by Poyry, and rounded off by the recent publication of Managing Variability, a report commissioned by Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, RSPB and WWF.
Critics of wind power have long cited variability – the fact that wind is not a consistent power source – as a major drawback when it comes to reducing emissions. When the wind falls, the argument goes, energy production needs must fall back on fossil fuel generators – so-called 'hot standby'.
National Grid’s report indicates that technology will advance to deal with such issues, however, not look back for answers – so calm days will not necessarily mean more coal-fired power stations belching into life.
Improvements to the current grid, batteries and supercapacitors, the advent of smart grids and new ways of storing energy will all play their role in the wind revolution, as will larger nuclear power stations.
Smart grids would be able to shut off appliances at times of peak demand and draw energy from other sources, such as electric car batteries, to keep the need for backup power at a minimum. A connection with Europe would also ease variability, as turbines spread over a greater area could balance the grid.
A resilient grid
As well as confirming the manageability of wind, research analysts Poyry’s report, on behalf of the National Grid, Centrica and others, put a nail in the coffin of that other slander: that an increase in wind turbines would overload the grid.
Poyry’s research concluded that no power cuts or grid meltdown would occur if the Government were to push ahead with the massive expansion of offshore wind turbines the UK is able to accommodate.
Reviewing 2.5 million hourly weather reports on wind speeds around the UK, the report reveals that electricity produced by wind turbines will be so cheap when it is windy that other means of power-generation will be priced out of the market. Cost would effectively be decided by wind speed, not consumer demand.
Back-up fossil fuel generators would make up their money by ramping up the price for those times when the wind dropped, but might stand idle for so long that the way they are funded would have to change. Indeed, the report makes it clear how the market itself would have to adapt: as turbines operate on average at a third of their full power, when winds are high power plants would need to regulate themselves and parts of the wind network turn themselves off.
The grid would even prove resilient in conjunction with electricity generation by means of the tide and waves, another variable power source.
‘Some people were worried that the complexity stemming from intermittent wind with an overlay of tidal power peaking twice a day might simply have been too much change for the grid to bear, but our research shows the grid can cope,’ said Dr Phil Hare of Poyry.
No more 'hot' standby
The third report called variable output a ‘relatively benign’ issue, saying there was more chance – and danger – of a power station breaking down than of wind dropping completely across the UK.
Managing Variability also reveals that if 32 per cent of the UK’s 2020 renewables target were supplied by wind, it would cost consumers only £2 extra per £100. It also estimated that the wind industry would be employing a million people worldwide by the end of the decade.
In a grid already adapted to managing fluctuations in demand and supply, wind variability poses no real questions, and the report agrees with the National Grid report that new technologies can only improve the service and cost. Improved weather forecasting will also have a role to play.
‘This report shows that large quantities of wind power can be integrated into our grid without the lights going out and at reasonable cost,’ said Maria McCaffery, chief executive of the British Wind Energy Association. ‘It knocks on the head the myth that large amounts of capacity of “hot” standby is the only way to deal with the variability of wind.
‘This report is the final nail in the coffin of the myth of intermittency. We now need to move on and do more to have increased amounts of wind energy on the system, in as short a time as possible. As a source of energy wind is free and manageable. Integration costs will be more then offset by insuring ourselves from the inevitable rises in fossil fuel prices, and we could be looking at net savings as we deploy more wind.’
Tilting at wind farms
Such wide-ranging research from a variety of sources poses a considerable challenge to the host of Don Quixotes that oppose wind energy on the grounds of technological feasibility and its capacity for the consistent production of energy.
Employing a somewhat perverse logic considering the increasing threat of climate change and the alternatives to producing energy through renewable sources, most now position themselves as guardians of the Great British countryside.
Formed last October, the European Platform Against Windfarms (EPAW) sent a letter to European Union commissioners and parliamentarians in May calling for a moratorium on the construction of new wind projects until their impact on house prices, landscapes and wildlife had been properly assessed.
A more recent addition to the pantheon is the National Alliance of Wind Farm Action Groups (NAWAG), the solo project of Jonathan McLeod, an executive at PR firm Weber Shandwick, which has as one of its clients a proposed 150-turbine wind farm in the Shetlands.
‘For too long the greenwash of the wind industry has gone unchallenged,’ wrote McLeod, launching NAWAG in June. The alliance of 30 anti-wind farm groups is hoping to attract another 200 similar organisations into the fold.
In March, the RSPB, a long-time opponent of wind farms – and co-commissioner of Managing Variability – published details of research commissioned from the Institute for European Environmental Policy into the effect on wildlife of land-built wind farms. The findings prompted the organisation to call upon the Government to proceed urgently with a massive roll-out of the technology and to ‘reduce the many needless delays that beset wind farm developments’.