Troublesome Turbines

By Marcus Wilson 16/06/2011 4

I’ve been reading in theUK’s Daily Telegraph newspaper in the last couple of days about the troublesome position the UK’s wind turbines are in. As well as being noisy and (according to some) ugly, there are big problems with managing their power output. Apparently, the average wind turbine is shut down for about 25 days each year because it is too windy. The problem is not that the turbines are in danger of damage – it’s because supply of electricity outstrips demand. On a windy summer night the generating capacity of the turbines can exceed the consumption of power.

Ideally, this extra energy would be stored and then released when it was required, but there is very limited potential for doing this. This is one of the major issues holding back some of the greener forms of power generation. For example, with solar power, there is great generation potential during the middle of a sunny summer day, but, in many countries, the power consumption is going to peak on a cold winter evening. How do we keep hold of that energy in the meantime? On a small-scale it can be done with batteries, fuel cells,supercapacitors, etc., on a larger scale withpump-storage hydro-electric schemes, but on the kind of scale needed to exploit renewable energy fully, we are lacking cost-effective options. In the meantime, the turbines need to be turned off so they don’t overload the grid on windy summer nights.

 Then there’s also the issue of justhow much greenhouse gas is produced during the construction of a wind turbine, but that’s another story.

4 Responses to “Troublesome Turbines”

  • You’ve missed one significant alternative to energy storage and that is the idea of a supergrid to distribute energy across long distances. Weather patterns across the European continent vary hugely at any given moment and several studies have demonstrated the feasibility of transmitting power from areas where the wind is blowing / sun shining to areas where it isn’t. There are more radical proposals as well which require renewable energy to be generated in “hotspots” such as the coast of Europe, for wind (, or North Africa, for solar (, where supply is consistent and reliable. This can then be distributed across Europe. The supergrid concept is gaining rapid support across Europe and the UK is now considering laying a cable across the North sea to carry excess output from UK turbines or to supply excess capacity from the continent when appropriate.
    Obviously, the potential for supergrids to mitigate the intermittency of renewable energy supply in NZ is limited due to the size of the country and the distance to its neighbours. Despite this, surely NZ’s abundance of geothermal hotspots and epic geography present massive opportunities for energy independence that countries like the UK can only dream of.

  • I say leave the turbines on and use the excess to power millions of tiny fans on the other side of the world, y’kno, just cause.

  • Yes – a supergrid would be a way to circumvent some of these problems.I can see some practical and political issues on implementing it on a wide scale. NZ has its localized version of the transmission problem; the bulk of the renewable power is generated through the big hydro schemes in the South Island, but the biggest demand is from Auckland, in the north of the North Island. Those local to the Waikato region will be well aware of the new 400 kV line that is being scythed across the countryside as I speak…Not generally popular around here, though very necessary if Auckland is to remain functioning. (And that, however much we might hate to say it, is necessary if NZ is going to survive as a first-world country)

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