The underlying physical facts have not much changed; and the amout of wind power has increased considerably. But the operators are good engineers - and regulators let them spend whatever they need to (and send us all the bill) - just keep the bloody lights on! So, by and large, the lights have been kept on, albeit at the cost of ever more of those extreme, inefficient and expensive solutions.
However, new solutions are hoving ever closer into view as practical propositions. Most of what I summarise below is not red-hot news in the industry; but a lot of MSM types are suddenly catching up with it.
- Storage: it has long been the quip in physics labs around the world that "if you can invent a truly economic means of storing electricity, you can name your university after yourself". I'm hoping it's obvious how cheap storage would contribute to the erratic windpower problem. Well, a bit like The Cure For Cancer (see BTL comments here), there hasn't been a single mighty breakthrough; rather, a lot of impressive incremental improvements, not least in batteries - and we're getting there. So, there are people building solar + battery combos, and massive grid-scale batteries at cunning points on the system, without subsidies: always the acid test. It's early days: but we're getting there. (It's not just batteries, either.)
- Hydrogen: I've written about this quite recently (and subsequently so, inter alia, has the DTel). I know there are loads of sceptical views out there: but believe me, the amount of private money and effort going into this is truly immense. How does it contribute to the erratic windpower problem? Easy: storing hydrogen is much easier than storing electricity, and negative-price electricity (offpeak windpower at times of big surplus: solar power in many, errr, sunny parts of the world) can generate quite cheap hydrogen, via electrolysis. And hydrogen can be used for lots of applications - including generating electricity again! (I'm summarising heavily because it's a very big picture that's rapidly developing.)
- Demand-side response & aggregator systems: when the price of electricity goes negative, you can pay people to take it off your hands. Likewise, when it goes through the roof at times of peak usage, you can pay people to stop using it. Who are "people"? Well, just about anyone and any firm or organisation that can, with a bit of thought (and maybe a bit of investment), vary their demand in response to sufficiently juicy price incentives. To make this work on a big scale requires a lot of software sitting in some aggregator's systems, crunching the most epic quantities of data real-time and transacting millions of times in small quantities. There are more people with this vision than are making much money out of it - yet.
It's all part of the vast, mostly-untapped world of demand-side response potential. We are going to need it all, eventually: and storage, and hydrogen. The good news is, this (like hydrogen replacing natural gas) is the kind of phenomenon that can grow slowly (at first), in small but steady degrees. Contrast with the unicorn of carbon-capture-and-storage - everyone can describe it, some people believe in it, but it doesn't exist - which can only be done by hitting critical mass immediately. That's hard. That takes public money.
The other beauty of DSR is, early adopters will love it (£££ + prestige) and then, at both the individual and the corporate level, it will become fashionable - always the best form of promo.
So: balancing a grid which supports a large amount of windpower and solar will never be cost-free - there has to be some flipside to sources of energy with almost zero direct variable cost (i.e. no fuel) - but it is going to get ever more efficient.