Some media groups like to refer to themselves as ‘no spin zones’. But among energy insiders the phrase has been applied to wind farms, given that turbines mostly operate at well below 30 percent of installed capacity. Recently, serious cold weather has badly affected Britain and its much-vaunted ‘wind power experience’ and it turns out that wind farms are, quite literally in deepest winter, no spin zones.
Such is the grip the Big Freeze has had on Britain (as in northern Europe and the eastern U.S.) since early November that leading industrialists have forcibly reiterated last years’ warning about growing over-reliance on wind power. As the latest figures show, just when Britain was in the greatest need from its burgeoning wind farm industry to perform from November through January with temperatures plunging to as much as minus 20 celsius, wind power failed miserably.
Why the ‘British wind experience’ matters
Britain’s world lead in wind development is primarily because of two major natural advantages: Britain has the windiest conditions in Europe along with the longest continuous coastline. In short, if wind power can’t work in Britain it cannot work anywhere else. But fail it did yet again this winter. Indeed, as it has for most of the last 12 winters.
Figures released in early January showed that as temperatures plunged to well below freezing and electric power demand soared, electricity production at Britain’s 3,100+ wind turbines fell from an average of 8.6 percent of Britain’s electricity mix to just 1.8 percent. Instead of serving up to 3 million homes, wind farms were serving just 30,000 homes, a mere one-hundredth of normal capacity. On the evening of December 20 Britain’s average temperature fell to minus 5.6 celsius. At 6.30 that evening, the nation’s wind farms, which claim a generating capacity of 5.2 GW of electricity, were actually generating a piffling 40 MW, the equivalent of 20 turbines working at full capacity.
As Jeremy Nicholson, director of the UK Energy Intensive Users Group, states, “What is worrying is that these sorts of figures are not a one-off. It was exactly the same last January and February when high pressure brought freezing cold temperatures, snow and no wind.” Nicholson added, “We can cope at the moment because there is still not that much power generated by wind. But all this will change. What happens when we are dependent on wind turbines for 30 percent of our power and there is suddenly a period when the wind does not blow and there is high demand?”
When British wind farms were reportedly producing “practically no electricity” over a similar period in 2010 the British Government was forced to ask 95 major industrial consumers to turn off their gas pipelines. Nobody knows how much that cost the country. Back then, Nicholson stated, “If we had this 30 GW of wind power [the government’s stated goal for 2030] it wouldn’t have contributed anything of significance this winter.”
After this month’s repeat of the wind power-out, Nicholson observed that while the government was well aware of the problem, there was a need for a massive back-up infrastructure. “But it will cost billions to put these measures in place,” explains Nicholson, “and we will have to pick up the tab”. Yet another cost that advocates fail to factor in.
Supergrids are no answer
In previous years the British wind industry has asserted that intra-national Supergrids could be the answer. Speaking to the Daily Mail in the wake of this year’s mounting British media criticism, Nick Medic of Renewables UK insisted that overseas imports of their ‘spare capacity’ could solve the problem. No one appears to have told Medic, however, that avenue was effectively closed off in 2008 when a team led by British energy consultant James Oswald published a key and critical report, Will British weather provide reliable electricity?
The report showed that whenever cold weather and high pressure combine a lack of wind is usually the result. And it is a slow-moving phenomenon that tends to affect enormous continental regions way beyond state boundaries for more than just a few days. As Oswald’s report says, “Neighbors are just as likely to suffer a simultaneous shortfall in wind power”. Above all, Oswald’s report predicted an electricity shortfall crisis if government policy favoring wind power over hydrocarbons and nuclear persisted. In 2009/10 and 2010/11 the country came perilously close to experiencing blackouts because wind failed to uphold its end; a situation unlikely to ease while eco-zealot Chris Huhne remains as minister for energy and climate policy.
In fact, Oswald’s report focused exclusively on the month of peak demand, January, for the 12 years prior to 2008. So why would that matter? It’s just one month in twelve. But January also happens to be the month of Britain’s highest wind output. While the report supports the usual concerns over wind’s unreliability and intermittency, it adds to them the key problem of (load factor) volatility. Because of the dramatic falls in load factor, Oswald identified a raft of key problems, chief among them the repeated necessity of gas turbine back-up systems kicking in. He predicted two associated problems: a high degree of cracking in hot components not least as electricity operators will almost certainly keep their investment costs down by installing cheap, less efficient, back-ups. None of which, Oswald points out, is ever factored in by wind advocates.
Worst of all, Oswald’s 2008 report showed that load factors monitored by the National Grid actually reveal occasions when the consumption of electricity by wind farms exceeded output. In other words, there are times, when turbines use more electricity than they generate.
According to a recent news report, Britain’s National Grid provider is “looking into the problem of erratic energy supplies”. The only solution, however, would, as the report says, mean, “changing demand at times of crisis” or, put another way, enforced cuts. Given that much of the northern hemisphere appears to have slipped into a period of cooling, this is likely to mean a “crisis” every winter, with smart meters being installed to switch off refrigerators and other business and household appliances, at government whim.
Yet we might just stop for a moment and ask ourselves why, when we have centuries (yes, centuries) of oil and, particularly gas, ‘in the global tank’, the myth of renewable energy as a viable economic and energy proposition is so difficult to dislodge in the political media and thus public consciousness. The British energy industry regulator Ofgem has calculated that for Britain to achieve the sustainable energy targets set by Brussels it would cost £200 billion. To achieve this goal energy prices in the UK must double within ten years from the current (already) European high of £1240/$1940 per household to £2400/$3750 per household.
It seems that Britain’s much-touted wind experience is not something that other governments should be rushing to emulate. Wind proved to be a spin-free experience.
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