The nature and future of wind power


in Economics, Geek stuff, Science, The environment

This Economist article discusses the history, technology, and future of wind power. It includes a fair bit of useful information, particularly about integrating wind into the broader energy system:

In addition, the power grid must become more flexible, though some progress has already been made. “Although wind is variable, it is also very predictable,” explains Andrew Garrad, the boss of Garrad Hassan, a consultancy in Bristol, England. Wind availability can now be forecast over a 24-hour period with a reasonable degree of accuracy, making it possible to schedule wind power, much like conventional power sources.

Still, unlike electricity from traditional sources, wind power is not always available on demand. As a result, grid operators must ensure that reserve sources are available in case the wind refuses to blow. But because wind-power generation and electricity demand both vary, the extra power reserves needed for a 20% share of wind are actually fairly small—and would equal only a few percent of the installed wind capacity, says Edgar DeMeo, co-chair of the 20% wind advisory group for America’s Department of Energy. These reserves could come from existing power stations, and perhaps some extra gas-fired plants, which can quickly ramp up or down as needed, he says. A 20% share of wind power is expected to raise costs for America’s power industry by 2%, or 50 cents per household per month, from now until 2030.

In 2007, 34% of the new electricity generation capacity that came online in the United States was in the form of wind turbines; China has doubled its capacity every year since 2004. 20% of Danish electricity already comes from wind, along with 10% in Spain and 7% in Germany. Given aggressive construction plans in Asia, North America, and Europe, wind power definitely looks like a technology with a big future.

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan December 21, 2008 at 4:34 am

Why does the previous post have comments disabled?

“it is wrong for this generation to destroy the habitability of our planet and ruin the prospects of every future generation.”

It just is wrong? From which ideological position? Anyway, if you really think this is wrong, then do the political structures we have encourage the recognition of this “as wrong”, as a priority? It seems they do not – Dion’s Carbon tax platform was laughed off. If the democratic discourse is not sufficient to make this a priority, at what point do we abandon liberty for the sake of good consequences?

Milan December 21, 2008 at 11:46 am

Why does the previous post have comments disabled?

There seems to be a bug in WordPress. Sometimes, when I publish a post, it appears with comments off and a random collection of categories attached.

I have fixed it, in this case.

Magictofu December 21, 2008 at 4:14 pm

“It just is wrong? From which ideological position?”

Do you disagree or are playing a game?

Tristan December 21, 2008 at 6:23 pm

Do you mean, do I actually believe “its just wrong”? You mean, do I think rightness or wrongness is a primitive, which we can “just know” even if we don’t know why it’s just right or wrong? Well, if I did believe that, I’d probably be too embarrassed to say it, because its a tautological, and indefensible (because it’s non-falsifiable) position. In other words, once you assert this, you can’t talk to anyone that disagrees with you any longer.

Milan December 21, 2008 at 10:38 pm

Wrecking the planet for many future generations is so self-evidently wrong that the conclusion can be safely reached through many different lines of inquiry. Whether you think about it in terms of fairness, in terms of utility, in terms of how we would want others to treat us, etc, it is clear that seriously damaging the capacity of the planet to sustain life is a profoundly unethical thing to do.

Milan December 21, 2008 at 11:31 pm

I think it makes sense to shift this discussion to the post it is about, rather than continuing it below an unrelated post about wind energy…

. April 20, 2009 at 10:17 am

12 Small Windmills Put To the Test In Holland

“A real-world test by the Dutch province of Zeeland (a very windy place) demonstrates that small windmills are a fundamentally flawed technology (PDF of tests results in Dutch, English summary). Twelve much-hyped micro wind turbines were placed in a row on an open plain. Their energy yield was measured over a period of one year (April 1, 2008 — March 31, 2009), the average wind velocity during these 12 months was 3.8 meters per second, slightly higher than average. Three windmills broke. The others recorded ridiculously low yields, in spite of the optimal conditions. It would take up to 141 small windmills to power an average American household entirely using wind energy, for a total cost of 780,000 dollars. The test results show clearly that energy return is closely tied to rotor diameter, and that the design of the windmill hardly matters.”

. June 1, 2009 at 4:19 pm

Some Cautionary Thoughts about Wind

1. Without mandates or feed-in tariffs, the selling price for wind is generally lower than that for other wholesale electricity.

2. Sometimes the selling price of wind is even negative.

3. Wind substitutes not for electricity, but for the fuels that power electrical generation (coal and natural gas).

4. Currently, wind generated electricity, in the absence of subsidies, is much more expensive than the fossil fuels it is replacing.

5. At this time, it is not entirely clear that we need any new electrical production capacity.

6. The combination of low selling prices for wind and high cost of generation means that wind is likely to need large subsidies for years in the future.

7. The cost of wind turbines depends a great deal on the financing available. Because of the lack of cheap debt, the cost of wind may even be higher than what the EIA is forecasting.

8. There are a lot of reasons that the EROI calculations may be misleadingly high.

9. Wind-generated electricity cannot be used on a stand-alone basis to substitute for fossil fuel-generated electricity, without a lot of electrical storage.

10. If we want to follow the European model, and upgrade the grid and add more storage, wind-generated electricity will act more like other electricity, but it will be a very big undertaking.

. June 11, 2009 at 3:44 pm

“Let’s find the fastest short-term change in a month of Irish wind data. On 11th February 2007, the Irish wind power fell steadily from 415 MW at midnight to 79 MW at 4am. That’s a slew rate of 84 MW per hour for a country-wide fleet of capacity 745 MW. (By slew rate I mean the rate at which the delivered power fell or rose – the slope of the graph on 11th February.) OK: if we scale British wind power up to a capacity of 33 GW (so that it delivers 10 GW on average), we can expect to have occasional slew rates of 3700 MW/h assuming Britain is like Ireland. So we need to be able to either power up replacements for wind at a rate of 3.7 GW per hour – that’s 4 nuclear power stations going from no power to full power every hour, say – or we need to be able to suddenly turn down our demand at a rate of 3.7 GW per hour.

Is a national slew-rate of 4 GW per hour completely outside human experience? No. Every morning, as figure 26.3 shows, British demand climbs by about 13 GW between 6.30am and 8.30am. That’s a slew rate of 6.5 GW per hour. So our power engineers already cope, every day, with slew rates bigger than 4GW per hour on the national grid. An extra occasional slew of 4 GW per hour induced by sudden wind variations is no reasonable cause for ditching the idea of country-sized wind farms. It’s a problem just like problems that engineers have already solved. We simply need to figure out how to match ever-changing supply and demand in a grid with no fossil fuels. I’m not saying that the wind-slew problem is already solved – just that it is a problem of the same size as other problems that have been solved.”

. June 22, 2009 at 8:59 pm

Hardware: Wind Could Provide 100% of World Energy Needs

Damien1972 sends in a report on a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, which finds that wind power could provide for the entire world’s current and future energy needs. “To estimate the earth’s capacity for wind power, the researchers first sectioned the globe into areas of approximately 3,300 square kilometers (2,050 square miles) and surveyed local wind speeds every six hours. They imagined 2.5 megawatt turbines crisscrossing the terrestrial globe, excluding ‘areas classified as forested, areas occupied by permanent snow or ice, areas covered by water, and areas identified as either developed or urban,’ according to the paper. They also included the possibility of 3.6 megawatt offshore wind turbines, but restricted them to 50 nautical miles off the coast and to oceans depths less than 200 meters. Using [these] criteria the researchers found that wind energy could not only supply all of the world’s energy requirements, but it could provide over forty times the world’s current electrical consumption and over five times the global use of total energy needs.”

Milan June 30, 2009 at 12:17 pm

Interesting: if you are building a wind farm, the higher efficiency of larger turbines is largely offset by the need to space them farther apart:

“This number is worth remembering: a wind farm with a wind speed of 6 m/s produces a power of 2 W per m^2 of land area. Notice that our answer does not depend on the diameter of the windmill. The ds cancelled because bigger windmills have to be spaced further apart. Bigger windmills might be a good idea in order to catch bigger windspeeds that exist higher up (the taller a windmill is, the bigger the wind speed it encounters), or because of economies of scale, but those are the only reasons for preferring big windmills.”

This only applies to fields of turbines, and the high-altitude winds issue remains relevant, but it is something to bear in mind when thinking about wind deployment.

. July 5, 2009 at 12:41 pm

Meanwhile, researchers at Stanford are working to design “turbine kites” that operate at 30,000 feet, where air currents flow much faster than they do close to the ground.

. July 19, 2009 at 10:39 pm

June 12, 2009 6:59 AM PDT
First floating wind turbine buoyed off Norway
by Martin LaMonica

Development of offshore wind farms has been restricted to places where turbines can be attached to the sea bed.

But earlier this week, Siemens and energy company StatoilHydro installed what they call the first large-scale floating turbine. The installation is off the coast of Norway, and testing is expected to last for two years.

The Hywind turbine will still have a ballast that is tied to the sea floor with cables. Wires will transfer the electricity produced to the mainland grid starting in July.

If successful, the project could open up offshore wind to countries that don’t have relatively shallow waters of 100 feet to 165 feet off their coasts. The Hywind is suitable for depths of about 400 feet to more than 2,200 feet.

“Hywind could open…new opportunities for exploitation of offshore wind power, as the turbines could be placed much more freely than before,” Henrik Stiesdal, chief technology of the Siemens’ Wind Power business unit, said in a statement.

The turbine in Norway will be 7.4 miles offshore where the water is 721 feet deep. It will be utility-size turbine, with a hub height of about 100 feet, capable of generating 2.3 megawatts of electricity.

. August 12, 2009 at 4:59 pm

Wind power in America

Jul 30th 2009 | NEW YORK
From The Economist print edition

After a record year, America’s wind industry is suffering growing pains

ON THE back of $16 billion-worth of investment, America overtook Germany to become the world’s biggest wind-power generator last year. Wind accounted for 42% of new generating capacity, up from just 2% four years earlier. America’s blustery and lightly populated heartland states are ideal sites for turbines, so the country’s wind industry seemed poised for big things.
But this year momentum has slowed. An indication of the way the wind is blowing came in July when T. Boone Pickens, an oilman turned clean-energy entrepreneur, decided to call off plans for the world’s biggest wind farm, in Texas. His 687 giant turbines, ordered at a cost of $2 billion, are now looking for new homes.
Mr Pickens could not arrange for transmission lines to be built from his wind farm to areas where the electricity is needed. Because they dominate the landscape, big wind projects work best in places few people live. America’s “wind belt” runs from Texas up to the Dakotas. Texas and North Dakota have both been called the “Saudi Arabia of wind”. But unlike oil, wind cannot be put in a tanker and shipped. It requires expensive grid infrastructure, which in turn rests on a complex and time-consuming approval process.

. September 15, 2009 at 5:33 pm

Jet Stream Kites Could Power New York City

By ScuttleMonkey on kites-and-keys

Damien1972 writes to tell us that researchers from the Carnegie Institution and California State University claim that a fleet of kites could harvest enough energy to run New York and other major cities, especially if they are affected by polar jet streams. “Using 28 years of data from the National Center for Environmental Prediction and the Department of Energy, Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology and Cristina Archer of California State University, Chico compiled the first global survey of wind energy available at high altitudes in the atmosphere. They found that the regions best suited for harvesting this energy align with population centers in the eastern U.S. and East Asia, although they note that ‘fluctuating wind strength still presents a challenge for exploiting this energy source on a large scale.'”

. January 27, 2010 at 2:30 pm

Green energy
Smarting from the wind
Turbines can now “see” the wind before it arrives, and take appropriate action

Jan 26th 2010 | From The Economist online

GATHERING energy from the wind may seem a straightforward process. Air whips past the blades of a turbine, forcing it to spin. The turbine turns a generator. The generator turns out electricity. Yet in practice things are not so simple. Wind generators are, necessarily, erected in places where powerful winds are common. If they are not properly angled towards the more howling of these gales, they can be damaged or destroyed. Tweaking and adjusting turbines so that their blades can harness the strongest air currents rather than be harmed by them is a normal part of turbine management. But technology being developed by Torben Mikkelsen, of Risoe DTU National Laboratory for Sustainable Energy in Denmark, and his colleagues looks set to make the process easier. Dr Mikkelsen is working on a way for individual generators to scan the air upwind and adjust the position of their blades in anticipation.

The basic technology, called lidar (short for light detection and ranging) has been around since the 1970s. It is similar to radar in that it sends out electromagnetic waves and then analyses those waves that bounce back, to determine what they bounced off. The difference is that radar depends on radio waves. These have long wavelengths and therefore bounce only off large things. Lidar uses light waves. Light has a much shorter wavelength and is readily reflected from small objects—one reason that human vision relies on it. Crucially, the light waves used in wind lidar are reflected by tiny, naturally occurring particles like water droplets, dust, pollen and salt crystals that drift along at the precise speed of the wind.

. March 9, 2010 at 10:18 am

Will Politics Slow the Wind?
The growth of wind power may be curtailed by a growing coalition of naysayers, ranging from electric utilities to Senators

Not many years ago, there wasn’t enough wind power coming from the Great Plains to worry about. Now there is, and lots of people are worrying.

A group of mostly East Coast utility companies calling itself the Coalition for Fair Transmission Policy fears that the prime conditions in the Great Plains will make the region’s wind power too cheap for its members to compete with, unless developers there are made to pay the costs of moving wind power eastward.

Influential natural gas producers and generators in Texas are worried. They are demanding that the state’s wind developers share the costs of backup natural gas generators that must pick up the slack when the wind doesn’t blow. The gas industry, threatened by state policies that promote wind power, is asking regulators to impose penalties on wind generators that can’t deliver scheduled energy when the wind dies down.

And last week, four senators representing New York, Ohio, Montana and Pennsylvania proposed to deny federal clean energy grants to wind developers that buy blades, turbines and other components from abroad.

“It is a no-brainer that stimulus funds should only go to projects that create jobs in the United States rather than overseas,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said, pointing at a proposed Texas wind farm whose backers include a Chinese power company.

Some renewable policy advocates say the problem has less to do with China and more with on-and-off-again federal energy policies, and arguments over how to pay for the vast expansion of transmission lines needed to maximize wind power delivery. Instead of looking at foreign rivals, members of Congress should start with a look in the mirror, says this side in the debate.

. April 19, 2010 at 9:48 am

Energy development for Indians
Harvesting the air
Tribes struggle to develop new projects on the plains

Mar 31st 2010 | FORT BERTHOLD, NORTH DAKOTA | From The Economist print edition

ROUTE 83, south of Minot, North Dakota, is a particularly barren stretch of a barren state. Last year, however, nearby fields sprouted a new crop: a $250m, 80-turbine wind farm. Not far west is Fort Berthold, home to the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation. Wind hurtles across the reservation, careening around houses and over hilltops. The Indian tribe has just one turbine to catch it.

The tribes of the northern plains are mostly destitute; their lands include three of America’s ten poorest counties and six of its poorest 25. Virtually every tribe, however, is rich in wind. Tribes in the Dakotas and Montana alone have enough wind to generate more than 886m megawatt hours a year. Even if only one per cent were developed, this would bring in $3.6 billion over 20 years, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). Now a growing number of tribes on the plains hope that wind will bring prosperity, at last. They are not alone. Indian nations across the country are exploring renewable energy, from solar to geothermal. A new bill would speed development. But tribes may have to wait a while yet.

Some problems with development are not unique to Indian country. Fort Berthold has inadequate transmission, a challenge for wind projects everywhere across the plains. But Fort Berthold, the rare reservation lucky enough to sit on oil, points to other problems too. Rigs form a dense ring around the tribe’s borders; only recently has drilling begun within.

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