Comment: Why wind is not the answer

west kirkby wind farm

As offshore wind becomes more economical, this sight could become synonymous with coastal areas (Source: Jimmedia/Flickr)

In the first instalment of the RTCC Wind Week debate, Jean-Pierre Huguet of the European Platfrom Against Wind (EPAW) tells us why wind is not the future for energy security in Europe*.

By nature the wind is changing continuously in speed and the wind forecast cannot be predicted with accuracy.

These two factors impact directly on the production of electricity from wind, which is highly erratic. These fluctuations can create an energy deficit that must be immediately compensated for.

The only way to do that is to dedicate fast-response power plants to make up the shortfall. These of course must be fossil fuel-powered and would require specific additional investment.

These plants are usually low-efficiency gas engine or steam turbines, with high CO2 emissions.

Offshore wind farms are of high unitary capacity and concentrated in a few large sites (200-600 MW each) where management of rapid power fluctuations is raising critical issues. Effectively, each site reacts as if it were one single enormous wind turbine.

As an example, a 17-month survey conducted between May 2010 and October 2011 at the 180 MW Robin Rigg wind farm in the UK indicated that while overall efficiency was 30%, there were large production swings varying from 0 to 100% during short periods of just one or two hours.

Efficiency was below 5% during 30% of the time.

During four consecutive days, efficiency was below 1%.

In December 2010 while a cold wave was covering Europe for a month, creating peaks of electricity demand, the site efficiency was below 5% during 50% on the time.

Meeting demand

The absence of a guarantee between wind energy availability and demand is another constraint difficult to overcome. Frequently wind farms produce too much with low demand and not enough when demand is high.

Furthermore, existing and forecasted sites along the European Atlantic and North Sea coasts are exposed to the they face similar wind patterns brought by the windy low pressure coming from the West or low winds associated with high pressure from the North East.

Consequently a wind farms’ output has the same behaviour. To make it more complicated, electricity peak demand occurs at low temperatures with the gentle winds and high pressure from the north east.

So it is hardly believable that wind farm production deficits in one area can be compensated by another region as they are likely to be experiencing the same conditions across a national electricity grid.

The current European grid has limited interconnecting capabilities (less than 10%) and would not meet high-quality power supply requirements to even out the shortfall in one particular location.

Although this would generate a lot of electricity losses in the network due to the long distances involved, a new ad-hoc “smart grid” could achieve this. But with the project cost estimated at €500 billion (IEA) it is for the time being, wishful thinking.

The solutions to wind energy’s intermittency require either back-up power plants reliant on volatile fossil fuel imports or a European “smart grid”, which does not exist.

Energy security by definition requires no dependencies on external sources that are susceptible to natural events or political unrest.

There are more constraints brought by offshore wind farms than addressed in this article, for example the high cost per MWh making it economically unviable without subsidies, the environmental damage caused during installation, overestimated CO2 emission reductions and the downsizing of fishing areas.

It is clear to PULSE that in the quest to attain energy security for Europe, we cannot rely on offshore wind energy.

Jean-Pierre Huguet is a member of the French Collective for Coastlines Without Wind Turbines  PULSE, which is a member organisation of EPAW

*Nick Molho of WWF UK will argue the ‘for’ motion tomorrow.

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