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Lessons From a Wind Power Milestone

As the international climate change negotiations in Copenhagen have gotten under way, countries have been issuing various updates on their plans to reduce or limit carbon emissions. Among the many stories emerging from Europe came the news recently published in Platts Global Power Report that on Nov. 8 wind power accounted for more than 50 percent of all energy produced in Spain for the first time ever. That’s a major milestone for the wind industry, however, the report also reinforced the contention among many of us working in the energy sector that while wind is part of the answer, it’s not the whole solution.

But there is no doubt that the occurrence in Spain is an important milestone. First, this is a demonstration of wind power’s enormous potential. The turbines that generate power from wind are like alchemy: They use a free resource with an endless supply to create a valuable commodity. And they do it without emitting carbon dioxide, sulfur, mercury or other greenhouse gases that prove to be environmental concerns.

Second, the announcement challenges critics who say wind power is not reliable enough to provide base load energy. Base load energy is what supplies our energy needs 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It has to run around the clock and can’t take into account variation based on seasonality or demand. It’s what we use day-in, day-out when we turn on the lights, fire up the coffee maker, and get on the computer to tackle our day. In the U.S. and in much of the rest of the world, base load energy is typically sourced from fossil fuels and nuclear reactors.

But the problem with wind as base load power is that, while its supply is limitless, its availability at any given moment varies — from still air to gale force — and the power supplied by wind is just not predictable. So, some critics say, it would seem foolish to include wind power in our base load needs. The argument is that we can’t control the wind, and my caffeine addiction can’t depend on the vagaries of atmospheric conditions. When I turn the coffee maker on, it has to work whether or not it’s windy outside.

Wind power proponents claim that this variability can be addressed by distribution. The wind may not have been blowing in Barcelona, but it was in Madrid, Grenada, Cordoba and Seville. Breaking up the sources of wind power generation (so-called distributed generation) mitigates these problems. Given a wide enough area, the wind will always be blowing somewhere.

Distributed generation, however, doesn’t completely eliminate the variability problem. The wind may be blowing somewhere in a wide region, but it may only be turning one 500 kilowatt turbine at half speed. That produces power for about 250 homes, over a region that may contain 500 homes or more. So the amount and timing of wind power, in the absence of any ability to store wind power (or wind), remains a critical issue. This brings us to the bad news behind the Platts report.

The day on which a majority of the power in Spain was supplied by wind was in the early part of November — the shoulder period coming off the summer months and easing into winter. In early November in Spain, temperatures are still generally mild. People are no longer turning on their air conditioners, but they also haven’t yet turned on their heaters.

That day on Nov. 8 was also a Sunday, so a lot of businesses were closed, again lowering overall power needs. Lastly, the period of time during which wind power generated the majority of electricity was, according to the Platts news story, between 3:20 am and 8:40 am. That’s just over five hours during a period where power was obviously not in peak demand.

So the real story behind the headlines is that on Nov. 8 in Spain wind power supplied a majority of power during a short period of comparatively low power usage. It’s not proof that wind will be the dominant power for our baseloads, but it’s still an important achievement.

The whole solution will combine wind with other types of low carbon energy sources, including solar, hydro and nuclear power. It will also incorporate energy-efficiency efforts and significant improvements in the transmission, storage and distribution of electricity. Together, all of these factors will improve our energy outlook in the coming years, not just in Spain, but all over the world.

Michael T. Reese is a New York-based energy and infrastructure finance attorney with Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

10 Responses to “Lessons From a Wind Power Milestone”

  1. Bob Wallace

    Found a great site (courtesy of the Carbon Commentary link above).

    On this page you can pick a date and see Spanish wind performance across a 30 hour period, updated every 3 minutes.

    It gives lie to the wind suddenly starts and stops stuff. It shows one what happens when you link together a number of wind farms over a wide geographical area.

    There’s some other very good stuff on this site. You can see the daily prediction of what demand will be and then see the actual demand posted at three minute intervals.

  2. Bob Wallace

    Perhaps you don’t understand large wind because you sell small wind?

    Larger the blade sweep, more bang for the buck is the simple answer. That’s why commercial blades get longer and longer as time goes on.

    Plus getting up high into unobstructed air helps a lot. Some that small wind isn’t going to do.

    Transmission loss is a minor problem.

    Make the lines large enough, even going to HVDC if the carry is long.

    Create on-farm storage so that peaks can be stored and shipped when wind is lower. That means smaller diameter wire can be used – match it to average flow, not size it for peak output.

  3. Bob Wallace

    Here’s, what seem to me, to be a more balanced article on Spain’s wind turbines. It points out that Spain was not able to deal with high winds in November 2008 and had to shut down some turbines.

    But this November 2009 event was well handled by their grid and they were able to either utilize the power or store the excess with pump-up hydro.

    And the article gives a nice description of the severe storm that hit the area last January and during which some turbines had to be shut down for their protection.

    Spain is currently hampered by not being well connected to the rest of Europe. But as the European SuperGrid develops this will make Spain’s wind parks even more functional.

    Good read – good timeline graphs – recommend….

  4. @Paul and Bob–Thanks for your comments. Part of the reason I think the Spanish wind industry is continually touting its success is to justify its preferred position, not just in terms of preference on the grid, but also with regard to subsidies the industry receives. Another reason is, well, their efforts have been successful. They’ve built a huge amount of wind capacity and sometimes, in the wee hours, there’s enough wind blowing to generate a lot of energy (perhaps with some help by taking some units offline as Rick suggested).

  5. @Rick–The Platts article reported 11,546 MW of total generation by wind at 14:30 on November 8th. Tellingly, to your point re backing down generation units, the article went on to say: “Spanish market sources said that had the country’s electricity network not been so flexible then over-the-counter day-ahead power prices may have even entered negative territory.” Day-ahead prices on November 6 hit a 32-month low ($40.10/Mhr), according to the article.

  6. Bob Wallace

    “What is this ‘one source must dominate’ argument?”

    Whenever I see it, it seems to be a creation of the nuclear industry. In their fight to get us to spend taxpayer money to build new reactors they try to focus on the argument that wind, alone, won’t fill our grid.

    Part of their FUD strategy….

  7. What is this ‘one source must dominate’ argument?

    Wind turbines in Spain routinely account for a significant percentage of total power used, but Spain also runs Nuclear, Coal, Solar. They reset this % record regularly.

    Spain has over 16 GW worth of turbines installed (a large coal plant is 1GW) and in 2008 Wind energy alone covered 11.5% of total demand. They are aiming to have 21 GW wind capacity installed and cover 30% of the nations total annual demand!

  8. Interesting points but what were missing were the numbers. I understand what 50% is but I’m curious as to how many megawatts of demand was being served that early Sunday morning and how many megawatts of wind was being generated. Worthy of note would have been comparing scale between say California and Spain. Further, I’m curious how many generation units had to be backed down to their minimum output to allow the unpredictable wind to serve load before having to ramp those same units up 5 hours later. Finally, mentioning what the hourly price of the energy for those five hours was would be helpful. I enjoyed it though, thanks.