Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Getting the wind up

In the Midlands, planning permission for a windfarm has been turned down.
BRENT Knoll villagers and councillors were celebrating today (Tuesday) after learning the appeal bid to build a wind farm in near the Knoll has been turned down.

Renewable energy company Ecotricity lodged the appeal after Sedgemoor District Council originally rejected plans to construct five wind turbines at land at Inner Farm in Edithmead.

Good. Apart from anything else, there really is no such thing as a "renewable energy company" in the commercial sense: these bastard things are built with massive government subsidies. Which means, of course, that we poor fucking taxpayers are compelled to stump up at least twice; first through the direct subsidies and, second, through higher energy prices. And how!

Burning Our Money has been looking at the figures for wind power and, really, they aren't good. Well, that's something of an understatement: they are abysmal. I would say that they just don't add up but unfortunately they do: they add up to tens of billions of pounds.
Denmark is the world leader in terms of the proportion of wind power in overall electricity generation capacity, and the country is often presented as the energy model for us. But a fascinating paper [PDF] by Hugh Sharman in Civil Engineering walks us through exactly why it wouldn't work here (HTP A Reader).

Of course the easiest way for the paper to summarise why wind power wouldn't work here would be to point out that it is because wind power doesn't work in Denmark or, indeed, anywhere else. But I digress.
To start with, wind power is a highly unpredictable source of energy. Denmark has installed wind capacity of 2,374 Mw (end-2003), but Sharman produces the following chart to show how actual generation varies wildly below that theoretical maximum, reflecting weather conditions:

Of course, this level of variability would be utterly unsustainable anyway: look at those lows. If half the country put their kettles on at the same time, all of the lights would go out.
Now, we non-specialists need to remember a simple but key point about electricity: it can't be stored. Yes, there are various techniques like using off-peak power to pump water uphill—or to compress air—which can then be used to drive generators later. But in reality, they are expensive and limited in application (the existing UK reservoir storage system at Dinorwig can cover 5% of generating capacity for five hours). They can't deal with the large and largely unpredictable peaks and troughs of wind power.

Given that electricity can't be stored on a large scale, demand and supply need to be balanced dynamically by grid controllers. That means being able to call on additional generating capacity as demand fluctuates through the day and through the seasons.

Which makes the variability of wind power a major headache. Sharman has the following chart showing how, far from helping, the variability of wind generation actually compounds the problem of demand variability:

No wonder grid managers are not keen. Indeed, according to this briefing paper, "grid management authorities faced with the need to be able to dispatch power at short notice treat wind-generated power not as an available source of supply which can be called upon when needed but as an unpredictable drop in demand."

We've pretty much proven the unfeasibility of wind at this point, but let's close in to the bitter end, shall we?
What's more, because of this extreme variability, on average, wind turbine generators operate far below their theoretical capacity. Denmark's operate at 80% below theoretical maximum capacity. Or to put it the other way round, their "load factor" is just 20%.

That of course, increases costs. According to Sharman, each 1,000 Mw of installed capacity costs on average £1bn (50% onshore and 50% offshore). But if it's only operating at a 20% load factor, to get a real 1,000 Mw you must multiply that by 5, equals £5bn. On Sharman's calculations that would mean the government's renewables target involves spending over £40bn on wind generators.

But there's more.

More than £40 billion (apart from the fact that you can pretty much guarantee that, if the government is anywhere near the project, that figure will be nearer £80 billion)? Oh, yes...
Even if we spend £40bn and install 41,000 Mw of wind generation capacity, because the power would still be variable and unpredictable, we'd need some back up.

In that respect, Denmark is in a much better position than us. They are linked into the much larger grids of Sweden, Norway, and Germany, so they can draw back up supplies when the wind drops (or blows too hard for generation—oh yes, there's that problem as well).

And since Denmark is relatively small, they can draw this back up from their larger neighbours without too much of a problem. Moreover, the process is greatly assisted by the fact that both Norway and Sweden have a lot of hydro electricity, which turns out to be a lot easier to ramp up and down than other potential back-ups.

None of this is available to us. We can import a little bit from France, but not on Denmark's scale.

In reality, to make wind power workable, we'd need to maintain/install massive back up here in the form of conventional power stations.

How much? The normal industry rule of thumb is that wind power needs 90% back up capacity. 90%!

So, have you got that? To provide the electricity that we need, we would have to build £40 billion worth of turbines and then we would have to build conventional powerstations to underwrite 90% of the power that those turbines are supposed to generate!

Does anyone think that wind power is still a good idea? Apart from the fuckwits in the government, of course.


Roger Thornhill said...

Does anyone think that wind power is still a good idea? Apart from the fuckwits in the government, of course.

Yes, the 'kwits at the engineering and energy companies who see a way to get the Simple Shopper to keep them in business.

This is the somewhat the same but to a lesser extent for wave power. However, I cannot see who would really object to wave power as long as it was not going to interfere with boating/yachting. It is mostly invisible from the shore, unlike windfarms, and produces more predictable energy (unless the Moon crashes into the Earth, in which case I think we will be rather distracted for a while).

What got me angry was the Orkneys project that demanded a string of pylons across some of the most beautiful parts of Scotland. I am biased. I like that bit of Bonny S, and it has been part of my holidays for two decades.

I suggested they use the electricity to synthesize hydrogen or hydrocarbons, e.g. methane or methanol. This is a very convenient store of the energy, as we know. I even suggested that the residents get their energy from this product for their transport, heating and microgeneration needs, so removing a massive capital outflow from the local economy. Their answer was some wet nappies about "untried technology" - funny how they rush to use such things when it suits, but NIH when it is not within their "subsidy envelope(tm)".

Highlands Not Pylons!

Yorkshireminer said...

What these figures miss is the fact that all that energy that is produced by wind power does not have to be imported, and does not have to be paid for by extra exports which would in itself cost even more imported energy. Most of these windmills are danish built and they now have a thriving export market in them to America and employ thousands of people building the machines. This sort of bottom line profit/loss Bookkeeping takes no account of of all these other factors. We had the same attitude in Britain during the 80s with the mining industry. The mines were costing the government I don't know how many millions in subsidies the word uneconomic was used as a synonym for unprofitable. What happened they closed the mines and put the miners out on the street. The cost of keeping them in Dole far exceeded the cost of the subsidy. The country then had to import even more energy which affected the balance of payments, yet more costs. The young left the villages leaving only the old, purchasing power dropped. The shops closed the villages began to die this brought about a fall in house prices. Firms who made a living supplying materials and machinery too the mines started to close down more people out of work and on the dole. This sort of closed profit single and loss thinking has cost Britain millions more than the subsidy and will cost millions for the foreseeable future because Britain will have to import even more energy to make up for the growing energy market. It is the economics of the mad house. Denmark made a political decision in the 70s to become as energy independent as possible. I used to ride past the experimental wind farm near Roskilde ever day on my way to university. Denmark is now energy neutral supplying 20% of its electricity by wind and the rest from the small oilfield in the North sea. This has had political consequences, not being beholden to blackmail by the oil sheiks they were able to tell them to go and take a running jump when the cartoon crisis hit them. Imagine Brown the so called prime minister doing that. The Danes resisted being blackmail because they had wind power. Put that in a profit and loss account. Now to address the main complaint of this article in that wind power cannot guarantee a continuous supply of energy this is a technological problem and it is being addressed and there are some very interesting developments on the horizon. Here are a couple of links you might find interesting.

Excellent article by the way, I really enjoyed reading it.

Deep Regards

Yorkshire Miner

Anonymous said...

Sedgemoor is actually in Somerset so could hardly be described as the Midlands.

Anonymous said...

We have had a Hydrogopher since 1800. Tide tables are published regularly showing the height, direction and speed of current. We are an island surrounded by water. Why are we fooling about with wind?


Still no-one mentions geo-thermal power,which is in operation in some parts of the world.What are the practical objections to drilling a hole?

The Sage of Muswell Hill said...

It may be a bit early to celebrate since there is a possibility that this refusal on appeal will be "called in" by the relevant minister and overridden: you could describe that as "local democracy" in action.

Also, I hope the planning inspector in this case has an alternative source of income. Since, I believe, planning inspectors are self-employed consultants to the Planning Inspectorate, bringing in decisions which fly in the face of NuLab diktats may be a financial suicide note.

FlipC said...

Huzzah the magic word - "storage" except -

"remember a simple but key point about electricity: it can't be stored." wow didn't know that. Just out of curiosity does BurningOurMoney own a laptop, mobile, car, Rampant Rabbit?

You know these mobile phones are never going to catch on as you have to lug a trolley around with the battery on them, same with these laptops that you can only get ten minutes work out of before they need recharging; shame really as they could be useful.

Anonymous said...

flipc - how many duracells do you think we would need to store, say, 30,000Mw of electricity?

Devil's Kitchen said...


Actually, a couple of us told you why it wouldn't work in the comments here.

And, of course, the Remittance Man (who is a mining engineer), elaborated on it.

Please look at those: I am not going to explain again.


FlipC said...

@Rob - You seem smart so I'll just start you off on the trail; here's the first breadcrumb.

What size of trolley do you currently require for the batteries to power your mobile and laptop?

Devil's Kitchen said...


Your laptop: how much power can the battery store, precisely? How much useage, in terms of time, can you get out of it? And, how long does the battery last before it starts to lose charge capacity?

Batteries are fine on a small scale: for storing the amount of charge required for large-scale energy generation? Pretty useless.

Apart from anything else, the charge in/out swap is not suitable for batteries. It's fine for capacitors (and wind turbines are build with capacitor storage underneath), but then they cannot store charge for very long.


FlipC said...

Ya ain't following the breadcrumbs. Okay try this -

In the early days of mobile phones the batteries they used were big, bulky and didn't last long. Now they can fit into laptops and mobiles. So why didn't they use these smaller batteries in the first place when mobiles were invented?

Just to help answer that then ask:
Why weren't they?
Why were they?

Unknown said...

Mains electricity is AC, it cannot be stored in a battery.
There are ways to convert it to DC so that it can be stored but then you get large losses in the conversion & you would then have to convert it back when you wanted to use it!

FlipC said...

Quite correct, except there are other methods for storing it they're just don't possess the long-term qualities needed to make wind-power usable - yet.

And that was my point. We have smaller and better batteries now because there was a need for them. With the current electricity generation system there has never been a need for any form of long term storage for the grid.

Therefore complaining that wind-power doesn't work because there's no long-term storage is the same as complaining these new-fangled mobile phones would never catch on because the batteries were too big.

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