Engineering a new grid for 2030


March 14, 2014

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Listen to critics of wind farms and you’ll often hear how these projects kill the countryside, increase blackouts and damage health. Sadly, there isn’t space here to de-bunk all of these.

But there is one common criticism worthy of further scrutiny. This is the idea that building more wind farms is stupid because they’re only useful when the wind is blowing. This isn’t the case.

Last week, the UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering released a study on how the UK grid has to change by 2030 to accommodate more wind farms. The ideas in this report will also be of interest for other countries grappling with the same challenge.

So let’s look at its findings in more detail.

The UK’s big challenge is its demand-led grid, which means that energy sources must be generating enough energy when people need it. Sadly, the wind doesn’t always blow when required and, as more wind farms are built, this could cause supply problems.

However, this can be managed using daily wind farm output forecasts. These are reliable, although not 100% accurate.

There is also the problem of wind farms generating too much energy when it isn’t needed, and so the government has to pay them to shut off. Cue angry comments about these “constraint payments” on online chat threads, conveniently ignoring how traditional power producers also get such payments.

Wind farm critics think these are killer blows, but they aren’t.

The academy’s study says the UK grid is able to cope with both of these issues until 2020; and that it can be adapted to cope with this by 2030 and beyond. This takes into account the potential for increased energy demand from, for example, electric vehicles.

Its proposals to adapt the grid fall into three categories: storage, demand management and interconnection.

The first of these ideas is that the grid needs more energy storage capacity. This means that, when wind farms are generating too much power, the excess can be stored in large battery-like systems and used when needed at a later date. Low wind periods only tend to last a few days in the UK, and such a system would help cope during these times.

The second idea – demand management – looks at cutting domestic energy demand when there isn’t enough supply. For example, household appliances can be fitted with chips that enable the electricity grid to tell them to reduce their energy consumption at busy times. This would be part of a “smart” grid, or a system that some IT firms call the “internet of things”.

And the third idea – interconnection – proposes linking the UK grid to others overseas. This means the UK could export energy when it is producing too much, and import when it isn’t producing enough. The European Union is currently looking at plans along these lines as it considers policies to support an EU super-grid.

These are all vital changes that can future proof the grid and help to cope with growing numbers of wind farms.

Of course, much of this technology is untested at such a large scale, and making these changes would need funding, long-term political backing; and time to find the right blend of solutions. But it can be done if we re-think what a grid is and what it does.

It is also helpful that this study is written by a group with little interest in talking up the wind industry. In theory, this means that its ideas should carry more weight with wind farm critics.

Still, good luck getting those critics to listen.

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