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.

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