Cold Weather Update
The principles have never been in doubt. Now, the cold weather of recent days has afforded a set-piece demonstration of the uselessness of wind turbines in the UK: data from this handy source.
The contribution made by the current fleet of wind turbines has ranged from a little over 2% of total national requirements, to as low as 0.2% (low winds are often associated with sustained cold weather). This extreme swing is not predictable very far in advance, and forward planning must cater for the worst. When the degree of swing equates ‘only’ to around 2% of total requirements, the planning system can cope fairly easily.
This current wind fleet has a nominal capacity of 1.6 GW. The government aspires to see this grow to around 30 GW – almost 20 times greater. Let’s immediately acknowledge this isn’t feasible, in construction terms alone; but consider what a 10-times increase would mean. There isn’t consensus on whether UK power demand is going to rise or fall in the coming years, so let’s assume it stays roughly the same. With no reason to imagine that wind predictability will change fundamentally, at 16 MW we’d be confronting hard-to-predict swings of around 20% of total national requirements.
Now engineers are clever fellows and there would be solutions to this problem. The two candidates currently available are (a) keeping 20% in reserve, in the form of coal and/or gas plants on permanent standby (this means actually running them at low levels of output, since plants can’t quickly start up from zero); and (b) access to large-scale hydro-power with plenty of spare capacity – since this can come online in seconds. This, in combination, is exactly how they cope in the big wind-power zones of Denmark and N.Germany – tapping into Norwegian hydro, and fleets of coal-fired stations.
There are plans afoot to bring a connection across from Norway to the UK. Well and good. But this will cost £££, as does running a coal plant in low-output mode. (Incidentally, National Grid love this, because they will be forced to invest hugely - at guaranteed rates of return !) So – will wind plants be charged these costs; or the costs of developing a proper long-term solution (= efficient means of storing electricity) ? Nope, these will be borne by ‘the system as a whole’, i.e. you and me. Wind generators will continue to receive their current subsidies, and get a more-or-less free ride on the costs of balancing the system.
And can Norway back up the whole of Northern Europe ? Nope. So, that’ll be coal and gas for the remainder, pending some technical break-through on the storage front.