Towards a true wind power grid


April 3, 2012

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Grid operators will need to be as good at forecasting as developers and investors, as wind power’s penetration of the European energy mix grows.

By Jason Deign, European Correspondent

Heard of Gregor Czisch? He is a researcher who has studied renewable energy at institutions from the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems to the University of Kassel’s Institute for Solar Energy Supply Technology. But, ironically for a solar power researcher, he is a big fan of wind power.

In fact, in looking at how renewable energy technologies could best meet Europe’s power supply requirements, he has come to the conclusion that wind energy is the best answer.

That is because it is the cheapest to deploy and potentially plentiful. And what about the variability? That might not be a problem given a sufficiently large area, says Czisch. While it is true that the wind does not always blow, if you take a region the size of Europe, for example, it is always blowing somewhere.

In fact, according to Czisch’s models, if you had a grid extensive enough and powerful enough to connect the whole of Europe, you could almost power the entire continent, using wind energy alone.

Powering a whole continent exclusively with wind may be pushing it somewhat. However, much of Europe is already on track to achieve significant wind energy penetration. And there is no doubt that linking wind resources over a sufficiently large area may help solve much of the problem of intermittency, and allow the industry to contribute much more to the grid.

In Spain, Iberdrola is already considering using its vast wind farm estate in ways which will allow it to achieve greater generation stability, effectively keeping some turbines or farms on standby and only bringing them online when the wind drops.

On a bigger scale, however, this will not just take lots of wind farms and an improved super-grid, which is already in the works under European Commission proposals. It will also take improved forecasting, and for two reasons.

The first is that a good knowledge of upcoming weather patterns will obviously help in understanding where wind energy can be captured and where it will need to be transported to.

Right now, wind farm site selection is often a case of putting turbines in any potentially windy area where they will not get in the way. If Europe is serious about running on wind power, however, it would make sense to study macro weather patterns and understand where and when the wind blows at a continental level.

That would help to identify major wind generation areas and the times when their yield is likely to rise or fall, as well as regions where power may need to be brought in from abroad at certain times of year.

But the second reason is potentially even more important. Up until now, grid operation was mainly about understanding and forecasting demand and adjusting the output of coal, gas or nuclear plants to suit. Renewable energy is changing that. With significant input from solar energy, and particularly wind, grid operators also need to be able to understand generation patterns.

If a particular day in June, for instance, is likely to see plenty of sun in the Med and plenty of wind in the North Sea, grid operators need to know about this well in advance. Only then can they adjust the contribution from non-renewable sources accordingly.

Without this knowledge, grid operators risk having to ask wind farm owners to switch off their turbines, which does nothing to help the growth of the renewable energy sector, nor Europe’s attempts to reduce carbon emissions.

Steve Ross, managing director for Europe, Middle East and Africa at the renewable energy risk management company 3TIER, says: “A grid operator’s main objective is to ensure stability of supply, whereas a wind farm owner has to maximise assets.

“Using forecasting intelligently will allow both parties to meet their goals in a harmonious fashion, maximising both the reliability of the supply and the profits for the asset owner.”

Grid operators in countries such as the UK have already started to apply these kinds of forecasting techniques, but this process needs to speed up if it is to keep pace with the introduction of renewable energy sources, Ross adds.

“Five years ago, wind power’s contribution to the grid was negligible, but now we are seeing the introduction of 1GW or 2GW wind farms.

“These are serious power production facilities, which means that there has to be a wider understanding and appreciation from both transmission operators and project developers alike, of wind conditions, to enable the grid to function effectively in the future.”

Ross finishes with a word of caution. “The UK is currently remembering Titanic, an unsinkable ship that failed 100 years ago due to a fixable design fault,” he says. “Not to invest in what is a simple cost effective solution here seems a little bizarre.”

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