Join the conversation at Hot Topic

I’ve been listening to a lively keynote address given to the NZ Wind Energy Conference earlier this month. The speaker was Lawrence Jones from Alstom Grid. He’s an expert on integrating variable renewable energy sources into global power grids. It was a heartening talk for anyone concerned to see renewable energy, wind in particular in this case, advance rapidly to take the primary position it must do if we are to have any hope of staving off the worst effects of global warming. All the more heartening because it was based on a major research project conducted by Alstom Grid on behalf of the US Department of Energy exploring the challenges and best practices for grid integration in many countries of the world.

I’ll offer a brief overview of the talk here, but I recommend it as worth listening to in full. There’s an audio of it on the Wind Energy Association website, and the accompanying slides are on this pdf file.

The context in which Jones placed wind energy in this talk was not climate change but the needs of a growing world population for energy and overcoming the energy poverty of many regions. He explained in response to a question at the end of his talk that the fact that he didn’t mention climate change was not an evasion but simply because he took it for granted that it would be a major factor in the thinking of the people present.

Things are moving very quickly in the development of wind power, far more so than most were able to imagine. The distribution of wind generation around the world at the end of 2010 lists China as the leading country, a little ahead of the US. Yet five years earlier they didn’t even make the list of dominant players. They are now putting up 36 turbines a day.

Jones showed a graph of the growth of global wind power capacity over two decades: from 2GW in 1990 to 17GW in 2000 to 194GW in 2010. ’I challenge you to show me any other industry that has gone through such significant growth in a decade.’ The projections show 500GW by 2030. Looking at EU countries’ projections of wind power as a substantial percentage of total electricity demand by 2020 Jones comments that most of that will be from offshore, yet ’most people thought ten years ago offshore wind would never happen, was impossible’.  He pointed also to the rapid expansion of wind power in the US and the offshore developments planned there, noting that Google was among the companies wanting to invest.

Yet, in the face of this expansion, myths and misconceptions remain rife. Jones addresses some of them.

  • Wind power is very difficult to predict. That’s not true. You can predict it. The question is how close, how accurate you want your prediction to be.
  • Wind is very expensive to integrate in power grids.  A blanket statement that has to be put in context: Compared to what? In what systems? Under what operating conditions?
  • Wind power needs backup generation. Really? Everything we do in power generation requires some form of backup.
  • We need dedicated energy storage to handle fluctuations in wind power generation. A lot of systems round the world have been able to run high levels of wind generation without high levels of storage in the system.
  • Is there is a limit to the amount of wind that can be accommodated by the grid? No evidence as yet of any limiting factors.
  • Can grid operators deal with the continually varying output of wind generation? The answer is yes. This is the question that led the Alstom team into the study sponsored by the US Department of Energy to hear from a comprehensive mix of operators around the world, including Transpower in NZ, what their experiences were, what the challenges were and how they had been tackled. The message from them is: We can do it. The grid is not a limiting factor. Operationally we can find ways around resolving it. We need tools, we need different kinds of policies to be put in place, but it’s not a limiting factor. Interestingly Jones noted that the small operators are often able to teach the big ones.

Jones is enthusiastic about wind power, but with full recognition that handling wind power’s integration into the grid requires special skills and new technologies. He spent a good part of his talk on the factors which the operators taking part in the survey identified as vital to the continuing development of the industry. They include accurate forecasting down to very short term, the tools for incorporating forecast and uncertainty information into decision making and planning, clear operating policies, smarter electricity grids and technologies, skilled technicians and operators, system flexibility and so on.  Jones explains the various factors succinctly and emerges with a picture of an industry capable of managing a variable energy source much more effectively and successfully than might be imagined by those who haven’t engaged with the detail and hence haven’t grasped the range of new policies and new technologies.

What was most encouraging about his talk was that it was not based on remote theory but on current practice and the understanding of operators already achieving a measure of success in making a variable energy source serve a stable and dependable role in an electricity grid. Often it is the doubters and deniers who are the theoreticians on renewable energy. Pliny the Elder provided a most apt preface to Jones’ address:  ’How many things are judged impossible before they actually happen?’