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Wind power: lessons for the future

By Dave Elliott

The development of wind power has provided many examples of divergent views and conflicts. For some it is the best way forward for dealing with climate change, for others it is an environmental disaster. Some wind supporters see objectors as retrogressive NIMBY’s, while some objectors see developers as evil despoilers of scenic views. Aesthetic issues and landscape preservation are important, but perhaps more substantially some objectors claim the wind power cannot make much of a significant contribution to dealing with climate change or energy security.

With wind now at over 230 GW globally, it is good time to take stock and see how (and if) some of these issues have impacted on its development and how wind power might be expected to develop in future. Palgrave’s new book ‘Learning from Wind Power’ edited by Joseph Szarka et al, attempts an overview. It says that the technology seems basically unproblematic, apart from the issue of intermittency, which is really just an operational and economic problem – it costs money to provide balancing services, and as the proportion of wind on the grid expands, more balancing has to be arranged. Less tractable are some of the institutional issues. As this book illustrates, in the UK, the planning permission processes and local objections have led to major delays, and the financial support system has arguably not been effective at creating the right investment climate, compared to that in other countries. Nevertheless wind is moving ahead in the UK, offshore especially, and it is likely to remain the dominant renewable source for some while in the UK and elsewhere.

Focusing on the UK, the book looks at some of the problems that will have to be overcome if the UK’s ambitious targets for wind power, offshore especially, are to be met. In addition, it argues that many of the lessons that emerge from the wind field are also likely to be relevant to other renewables as they seek to move into wide scale use.

A key issue is financial support. The UK’s Renewables Obligation (RO) has not been very successful for wind or any other renewable, arguably due to its emphasis on market competition. By contrast, the guaranteed price Feed-In Tariffs (FiTs) used across most of the rest of the EU have been very much more effective, delivering much more wind capacity (29GW in Germany, 6GW in the much winder UK) at lower costs per kW and per kWh, since it creates a stable investment climate. The UK belatedly introduced a small FiT system just for microgen projects (which led to 1GW of PV being installed), but, as part of the Electricity Market Reforms, the UK is in the process of trying to introduce a new competitive market based ‘Contracts for a Difference’ (CfD) system, to replace the RO, but also to be used to support new nuclear build and CCS projects.

Critics of the CfD have challenged the viability of a ‘one size fits all’ scheme, attempting to support a range of very different technology, all at different stages of development. They say that what is needed for wind and other near market renewables is a Feed In Tariff, with a price degression mechanism, as in Germany. They also query why nuclear, as an allegedly mature technology, should need extra support, whereas CCS is clearly still completely undeveloped and, if it is to go ahead, needs a separate bespoke support system.

As I suggest in my chapter in the book, the CfD seems to be moving from bad to worse. And as events have unfolded that does seem to be the case. Scottish and Southern Electric, Ecotricity, Good Energy, Renewable Energy Systems, Natural Power and Fred Olsen Renewables recently wrote to Energy Secretary Ed Davey warning that EMR proposals will only benefit nuclear generators and dissuade long-term investment in British renewables. The CfD system may not actually work very well for nuclear either. Some potential nuclear project investors have already backed off, claiming that it would not provide sufficient financial support. So no one is winning!

The UK’s focus on market competition has also impacted on the way offshore wind grid links have been developed, with each individual offshore wind farm being linked up to the land separately. As I note in my chapter in this new book, that looked like leading to a lot of duplication, with, in some cases, very costly undersea links running close by in parallel. Fortunately, this problem has now been recognised. DECC and Ofgem recently agreed that ‘more co-ordination in the development of offshore links and infrastructure can be achieved’, if ‘instead of building individual connections for each development, they could be interlinked to lower the overall construction and operating costs’. They say ‘this would mean the offshore network could grow incrementally and efficiently. This co-ordinated approach could reduce the cost of offshore connections by 8-15%.’ That would ‘help meet the Government’s target of reducing the cost of offshore wind to £100/MWh by 2020,’ and could also ‘pave the way for an offshore network in the North Sea linking wind farms off Britain’s coast to other European countries’.

This supergrid idea is crucial for the future development of the UKs huge wind power resource. The UK is looking to have perhaps 18GW in place offshore by 2020 and, as well as providing nodes for the wind projects to link to, the supergrid would allow us to export any excess wind generated power and import power when wind production was low. There are already around 3 GW of interconnector links to France and the Netherlands, but nine more are either in construction, planning or subject to feasibility studies. For example a 1 GW Kent-Belgium link, planned for 2018 and there maybe a 1.4 GW link to Norway, 900km, by 2019.

A new electricity market will emerge as this system develops, with prices determined by
supply and demand balances in each part of the EU. It may well be that, as a result, some of the rather parochial concerns driving the UKs EMR will have to be widened. The EMR does include proposals for a new ‘capacity market’, with a contract auction system for generators who can help balance variable renewables. But is a market-based system what is needed, given the strategic importance of grid balancing via the supergrid? How about a pan-EU cross-feed tariff system?

System-wide issues like this are likely to be increasingly important in the yeas ahead, but for the moment, the focus is on individual technologies, with the emphasis on cost reduction and trying to deal with funding, deployment and planning problems. Wind will remain dominant, but solar, wave, tidal, biomass and other options are coming up rapidly behind. Given that wind power has been the pioneer, many of the lessons and insights outlined in this book should prove to be valuable to those that follow.

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