Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Wind Energy Makes Progress, but will it be enough?

Over the last few days there have been several stories of wind energy, none in themselves remarkable, but which, put together show the progress that the technology is making. Consider, for example, the small community of Tocco Da Casauria in Central Italy. It is a small town of around 2,700 inhabitants that, because of its remote, mountainous location, has had to face expensive power costs in the past (about 3-times that of the average US household). However it has recently installed four wind turbines, and now not only has enough power for the community, but also exports a sufficient amount that last year it earned about $200,000, enough to significantly help with municipal expenses. (Though the turbines are privately owned the town gets a lease on the land, and a percentage profit from the power sale). Similarly, but on a smaller scale, the town has a solar array that lights the cemetery, raising about $2,000 which helps pay for the upkeep of the place. There have been six turbines in the farm which is one of 249 sites in Italy for which data is easily available, the first two turbines (which generated around 400 kW) were not successful, but the new set averages 2,500 operating hours/year and produces 3.6 MW.

However wind is not yet a major player in the Italian energy mix, and though Italy has a target of 17% renewable energy by 2020, it is still only at 7%, and is not reaching target goals. On the other hand, at the other corner of the European Union, consider the case of Scotland. Although the target is now to have 80% of that nation’s power come from renewable sources by 2020, recent successes have led the First Minister there to predict that 100% of the national power will come from renewable sources by 2025. The target of 80% by 2020 has only just been announced (last week) , up from the previous 50%, based in part on the perceived ability to reach an interim target of 31% by next year. Much of the increase will come from offshore wind farms, though the onshore Whitelee farm (which is expanding) already produces enough electricity to power Glasgow. Another onshore farm is planned for Shetland, but following protests from the local community, Viking Energy has just announced that the farm will be reduced by 23 turbines from the original 150. In addition the farm cannot be justified without a cable to carry the power to the mainland. Permission for that cable has not yet been given. Part of the problem has been the impact of the turbine installation on the deep peat bogs on the islands.

The level of local resistance to the farms, and its potential impact on overall rates for installation of the farms, and thus their contribution to future energy supply may have been underestimated in government. Which could be embarrassing in the future, since the provision of affordable, and sustained power is considered one of their responsibilities.

Whether the potential problems in Scotland presage similar problems for the overall power mix for the entire United Kingdom is similarly a question. The UK has just seen the opening of the Thanet Wind Farm, in the estuary of the River Thames.
London, September 29, 2010 — Vattenfall officially opened the Thanet Offshore Wind Farm, off England’s southeast coast. The wind farm has 100 turbines and will generate electricity equivalent to the annual consumption of over 200,000 British households.

The construction of the 300 MW Thanet Offshore Wind Farm has taken just over two years and the wind farm is expected to operate for at least 25 years. Between 2009 and 2011, Vattenfall plans to double its wind power electricity generation, constructing nine wind farms in six countries to supply electricity equivalent to the demand of 800,000 households annually.

Thanet is so far the company’s largest offshore wind farm . .
This moves the UK into the lead in regard to power from offshore wind farms. The islands have sufficient wind potential that it could provide a greater slice of the energy supply in the future.
The Offshore Valuation Group, made up of government and industry organizations, estimates if Britain were to develop just 29 percent of its potential offshore resource, this could deliver 169 gigawatts of capacity by 2050 and turn Britain into a net exporter of electricity.

This would involve installing 7.2 GW a year -- roughly equivalent to 1,000 7.5 Megawatt turbines -- with fixed offshore wind accounting for 5.4 GW of the average annual build rate needed.

The supply chain needed for this would have annual revenues of 62 billion pounds in 2050 and employ around 145,000 people directly, according to the Offshore Valuation report.
The other side of the story, however, comes from the costs involved. With the increase in the price of steel, and maintenance costs going up current projections may also be low.
However the UKERC have calculated that the cost per unit of energy – known as a Megawatt hour – over the 25 year lifespan of the farm is expected to be £149. That compares with £80 for coal and gas, and £97 for nuclear power.

(An) Onshore wind farm – at £88 per megawatt hour – is almost as efficient of fossil fuels but is hampered by complaints they ruin the landscape
Current government plans are to have as many as 6,000 turbines located onshore, and some 4,000 offshore. However, as the scale of operations grow, so it can be anticipated that the size of the opposition may also increase. This has been, for example, the case in the United States where Senators such as Kennedy on the East Coast, and Feinstein on the West have objected to farm installations. Though the Cape Wind project is now approved. As sites move closer to construction it may be that more of this opposition may arise.

There is also, as the Scottish experience is indicating, the need to install the power cables that will carry the power from where it is generated, to where it is needed. And those cables themselves are sometimes controversial. It seems much easier to install the smaller systems, for local use, as in Italy, where the benefits are more visible.


  1. HO -- I am surprised! You are clearly a highly intelligent, well informed individual. So why are you whistling past the graveyard?

    Intermittent wind power can not supply anyone anywhere with reliable 24/7 power. And wind power is much more expensive than reliable 24/7 alternatives such as nuclear, which also avoid the tremendous environmental problems caused by wind power. Those are facts.

    It does not help to mimic hopeful empty words from politicians. There are real technical, environmental, and economic problems to overcome before wind power becomes anything better than a Subsidy Slut. Ignoring those problems is inexcusable -- and ultimately self-defeating.

  2. I remain a skeptic of wind power. Maintenance may be a designable issue but no wind is a killer.
    here is an article from the UK about one of their wind farms.

  3. Um! I would point out that, within the story, there are a couple of points showing that the hopes of the politicians may not be realized for the larger farms.

    On the other hand the use of smaller farms seems to have potential advantages to the right community, such as the one that I led off the piece with.

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