Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Wind worries

There is a welter of misinformation about wind power. For the millions who subsidise it in the UK, there seem to be quite a few features of wind energy which cause problems for large-scale adoption and questions without obvious answers for all of us who end up paying for it. I've no problems with sustainable energy if lies about the climate aren't part of any technical, economic, ecological or political assessment. Here are just three well-known practical issues.

1. The unreliability of wind and consequent need for conventional back-up are well known.

2. The best sites tend to be used first, so new sites must use less favourable locations. This isn't quite true where more units are added to existing wind-farms, but the problem is real.

3. Technical developments will be made, but not dramatic ones. The basic technology seems to be mature, with no big cost-saving developments claimed even by proponents.

Because of problems 1 and 2, wind power is unusual in that other things being equal, it becomes more expensive as you scale up, not less. Other factors may mitigate this effect of course, such as shorter transmission distances, but these mitigating factors have to be found to avoid an increase in subsidies per megawatt or a reduced rate of return for the "investor".

Problem 1 also has another wrinkle in that the more wind power you have in the generation mix, the more expensive backup becomes. For the current levels of UK wind power generation, backup generation specifically built to offset the variability of wind is not required. With greater reliance on wind,  this will not be the case.


Sam Vega said...

Do you think wind power could make a meaningful contribution if it were developed on a local scale? I'm thinking about small groups of houses being served by a turbine which takes pressure off the grid when it is windy, but which can be served by the grid at other times.

A K Haart said...

SV - I've seen a small wind installation producing power, but it was barely enough to power a house. Surprisingly noisy too - you wouldn't want it near your house.

In principle I like the idea of capturing wind energy, but storage seems to be the really big issue. It's an area where we need innovators rather than fanatics who spoil everything they touch in my view.