Tag Archives: wind power

is wind power prohibitively expensive? apparently not

(this is reblogged from the new ussr illustrated, first published July 3 2017)

that’s a bloody big blade

Recently I heard retiring WA liberal senator Chris Back being interviewed, mainly on funding for Catholic schools, on ABC’s breakfast program. He was threatening to cross the floor on the Gonski package, but while he was at it he took a swipe at wind power, claiming it was heavily subsidised and not cost effective. Unfortunately I’ve not been able to find the whole interview online, to get his exact words, but as someone interested in renewables, and living in a state where wind power is prominent, I want to look more carefully at this issue.

On googling the question I’ve immediately been hit by link after link arguing that wind power is just too expensive. Is this a right-wing conspiracy? What are the facts? As I went deeper into the links – the second and third pages – I did become suspicious, as attacks on wind power spread to solar power and renewable energy in general. It seems there’s either a genuine backlash or there’s some manipulating going on. In any case it seems very difficult to get reliable, unbiased data one way or another on the cost-effectiveness of this energy source.

Of course, as with solar, I’m always hearing that wind power is getting cheaper. Thoughts off the top of my head: a standard wind farm of I don’t know how many units would be up-front quite expensive, though standardised, ready-tested designs will have brought per unit price down over the years. Maintenance costs, though, would be relatively cheap. And maybe with improved future design they could generate power at higher wind speeds than they do now. They seem to be good for servicing small towns and country regions. How they work with electricity grids is largely a mystery to me. There’s a problem with connecting them to other energy sources, and they’re not reliable enough (because the wind’s not reliable enough) to provide base-load power. I don’t know if there’s any chance of somehow storing excess energy generated. All of these issues would affect cost.

I also wonder, considering all the naysayers, why hard-headed governments, such as the Chinese, are so committed to this form of energy. Also, why has the government of Denmark, a pioneering nation in wind power, backed away from this resource recently, or has it? It’s so hard to find reliable sources on the true economics of wind power. Clearly, subsidies muddy the water, but this is true for all energy sources. It’s probably quixotic to talk about the ‘real cost’ of any of them.

Whatever the cost, businesses around the world are investing big-time in wind and other forms of renewable energy. In the US, after the bumbling boy-king’s highly telegraphed withdrawal from the Paris agreement, some 900 businesses and investors, including many of the country’s largest firms, signed a pledge to the UN that there were still ‘in’. The biggest multinational companies are not only jumping on the bandwagon, they’re fighting to drive it, creating in the process an unstoppable global renewable energy network.

The Economist, an American mag, had this to say in an article only recently:

In America the cost of procuring wind energy directly is almost as cheap as contracting to build a combined-cycle gas power plant, especially when subsidies are included…. In developing countries, such as India and parts of Latin America and the Middle East, unsubsidised prices at solar and wind auctions have fallen to record lows.

Australia’s current government, virtually under siege from its conservative faction, is having a hard time coming to terms with these developments, as Chris Back’s dismissive comments reveal, but the direction in which things are going vis-à-vis energy supply is clear enough. Now it’s very much a matter of gearing our electricity market to face these changes, as soon as possible. Without government support this is unlikely to happen, but our current government is more weakened by factionalism than ever.

Australia is 17th in the world for wind power, with a number of new wind farms becoming operational in the last year or so. South Australia’s push towards wind power in regional areas is well known, and the ACT is also developing wind power in its push towards 100% renewable energy by 2020. Australia’s Clean Energy Councilprovides this gloss on the wind energy sector which I hope is true:

Technological advances in the sector mean that wind turbines are now larger, more efficient and make use of intelligent technology. Rotor diameters and hub heights have increased to capture more energy per turbine. The maturing technology means that fewer turbines will be needed to produce the same energy, and wind farms will have increasingly sophisticated adaptive capability.

The US Department of Energy website has a factsheet – ‘top 10 things you didn’t know about wind power’, and its second fact is bluntly stated:

2. Wind energy is affordable. Wind prices for power contracts signed in 2015 and levelized wind prices (the price the utility pays to buy power from a wind farm) are as low as 2 cents per kilowatt-hour in some areas of the country. These rock-bottom prices are recorded by the Energy Department’s annual Wind Technologies Market Report.

As The Economist points out, in the article linked to above, Trump’s ignorant attitude to renewables and climate science will barely affect the US business world’s embrace of clean energy technology. I’m not sure how it works, but it seems that the US electricity system is less centralised than ours, so its states are less hampered by the dumbfuckery of its national leaders. If only….

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we need to support innovative design in renewables

Merkel tells Obama about the size of the problem (against a 'hey, the climate looks effing good to me' background)

Merkel tells Obama about the size of the problem (against a ‘hey, the climate looks effing good to me’ background)

Unfortunately Australia, or more accurately the Australian government, is rapidly reaching pariah status on the world stage with its inaction on carbon reduction and its clear commitment to the future of the fossil fuel industries, particularly coal. In a recent UN conference in Bonn, Peter Woolcott, a former Liberal Party apparatchik who was appointed our UN ambassador in 2010 and our ‘ambassador for the environment’, a new title, in November 2014, was asked some pointed questions regarding Australia’s commitment to renewable energy and combatting climate change. The government’s cuts to the renewable energy target, its abandonment of a price on carbon, and its weak emission reduction targets all came under fire from a number of more powerful nations. Interestingly, at the same time the coal industry, highly favoured by the Abbott government, is engaged in a battle, both here and on the international front, with its major rival, the oil and gas industry, which clearly regards itself as cleaner and greener. Peter Coleman, the CEO of Woodside Petroleum, has mocked ‘clean coal’ and claimed that natural gas is key to combatting climate change, while in Europe oil companies are calling for the phasing out of coal-powered plants in favour of their own products. In the face of this, the Abbott government has created a $5 billion investment fund for northern Australia, based largely on coal.

So, with minimal interest from the current federal government, the move away from fossil fuels, which will be a good thing for a whole variety of reasons, has to be directed by others. Some state governments, such as South Australia, have subsidised alternative forms of energy, particularly wind, and of course the rooftop solar market was kick-started by feed-in tariffs and rebates, since much reduced – and it should be noted that these subsidies have always been dwarfed by those paid to fossil fuel industries.

The current uptake of rooftop solar has understandably slowed but it’s still happening, together with moves away from the traditional grid to ‘distributed generation’. Two of the country’s major energy suppliers, Origin and AGL, are presenting a future based on renewables to their shareholders. Origin has plans to become the nation’s number one provider of rooftop solar. Currently we have about 1.4 million households on rooftop solar, with potential for about five million more.

Meanwhile, thanks in large part to the persuasive powers of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who’s been a formidable crusader for alternative energy in recent years, Canada and Japan, both with conservative governments and a reluctance to commit to policies to combat global warming, have been dragged into an agreement on emission reductions. So the top-down pressure continues to build, while bottom-up ingenuity, coming from designers and innovators in far-flung parts of the world and shared with greater immediacy than ever before, is providing plenty of inspiration. Let me look at a couple of examples in the wield of wind power, taken initially from Diane Ackerman’s dazzling book The human age: the world shaped by us.

Recent remarks by Australia’s Treasurer, Joe Hockey, and then our Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, about the ‘ugliness’ of wind farms, together with the PM’s speculations about their negative health effects, give the impression of being orchestrated. Abbott, whose scientific imbecility can hardly be overstated, is naturally unaware that the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), the Australian government’s own body for presenting the best evidence-based information on health matters that might impact on the public, released two public papers on wind farms and human health in February 2015. Their conclusion, based on the best available international studies, is that there is no consistent evidence of adverse health effects, though they suggest, understandably, that considering public concerns, more high-quality research needs to be done.

the Windstalk concept

the Windstalk concept

As to the aesthetic issue, one has to wonder whether Hockey and Abbott really prefer the intoxicating beauty of coal-fired power stations. More importantly, are they opposed for aesthetic or other reasons to the very concept of harvesting energy from the wind? Because the now-traditional three blade wind turbine is far from being the only design available. One very unusual design was created by a New York firm, Atelier DNA, for the planned city of Masdar, near Abu Dhabi. It’s called Windstalk, and it’s based on a small forest of carbon fibre stalks each almost 60 metres high, which generate energy when they sway in the wind. They’re quieter than three-blade turbines and they’re less dangerous to birds and bats. As to the energy efficiency and long-term viability of the Windstalk concept, that’s still a matter for debate. There’s an interesting Reddit discussion about it here, where it’s also pointed out that the current technology is in fact very sophisticated in design and unlikely to be replaced except by something with proven superiority in all facets.

a wind wheel, using Ewicon technology

a wind wheel, using Ewicon technology

Still there are other concepts. The ‘Ewicon’ wind-converter takes harvesting the wind in a radically new direction, with bladeless turbines that produce energy using charged water droplets. The standard wind turbine captures the kinetic energy of the wind and converts it into the mechanical energy of the moving blades, which drives an electric generator. The Ewicon (which stands for electrostatic wind energy converter) is designed to jump the mechanical step and generate electricity directly from wind, through ‘the displacement of charged [water] particles by the wind in the opposite direction of an electrical field’. The UK’s Wired website has more detail. Still at the conceptual stage, the design needs more input to raise efficiency levels from a current 7% to more like the 20% plus level to be viable, but if these ideas can find needful government and corporate backing, this will result not only in greater and faster improvement of existing concepts, but a greater proliferation of innovative design solutions. 

wind power in South Australia

Starfish Hill wind farm, near Cape Jervis, SA

Starfish Hill wind farm, near Cape Jervis, SA

I was unaware, until I recently listened to a forum panel on renewables broadcast by The Science Show, that wind power has really taken off in SA, where I live. Mea culpa. By August last year 27% of the state’s electricity production was from wind, and it’s now well over 30%, thanks to a new facility outside Snowtown, which came on stream in November. That’s half of Australia’s installed capacity, and it compares favourably with wind production in European countries such as Denmark (20%), Spain and Portugal (16%), Ireland (15%) and Germany (7%). It’s one of the great successes of the Mandatory Renewable Energy Target, introduced in a modest form by the conservative federal government in 2001 and expanded under the Labor government in 2009. The RET, like those in other countries, mandates that electricity retailers source a proportion of energy from renewables. South Australia’s renewable energy developers, under the longest-serving Labor government in the country, have been provided with tax incentives and a supportive regulatory framework to build wind farms throughout the state, to take advantage of the powerful Roaring Forties blowing in from the west.

The first wind turbine in SA was a small affair at Coober Pedy, but from 2004 onwards this form of energy generation has taken off here. The Snowtown wind farm mentioned above is the second in the region, and SA’s largest, with 90 turbines giving it an installed capacity of 270MW. We now have some 16 wind farms strategically located around the state, with an installed capacity of almost 1500MW. As far as I’m aware, we’re in fact the world leader in wind power – always remembering that, in population terms, we would be one of the smallest countries in the world, if we were a country.

The direct beneficiaries of these new farms are, of course, regional South Australians. An example is the 46 MW, 23-turbine Canunda wind farm near Millicent in the state’s south-east, which opened in 2005. The farm provides clean electricity generation to the region and has increased the viability of agricultural production. The facility has generated enough interest from the local community for tours to be undertaken.

Of course, one of the principle purposes of utilising renewable energy – apart from the obvious fact that it’s renewable – is the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. And South Australia’s emissions have indeed declined in spite of increased electricity demand, due to the high penetration of wind power into the market.

This development has of course had its critics, and these are pretty well summed up on Wikipedia – linked to above:

There has been some controversy with respect to the impact of the rising share of wind power and other renewables such as solar on retail electricity prices in South Australia. A 2012 report by The Energy Users Association of Australia claimed that retail electricity prices in South Australia were then the third highest in the developed world behind Germany and Denmark, with prices likely to rise to become the most expensive in the near future.[24] The then South Australian Opposition Leader, Isobel Redmond, linked the state’s high retail prices for electricity to the Government’s policy of promoting development of renewable energy, noting that Germany and Denmark had followed similar policies. On the other hand, it has been noted that the impact of wind power on the merit order effect, where relatively low cost wind power is purchased by retailers before higher cost sources of power, has been credited for a decline in the wholesale electricity price in South Australia. Data compiled by the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) shows South Australian wholesale electricity prices are the 3rd-highest out of Australia’s five mainland states, with the 2013 South Australian Electricity Report noting that increases in prices were “largely driven by transmission and distribution network price increases”.

The issue of cost to the consumer (of energy in general) is without doubt extremely important (and complex), and I’ll try to wade into it, I hope, in another post, but for now I want to look just at the costs for wind, and whether there are any further developments in the offing.

According to this site, which is informative but perhaps not as regularly updated as it could be in such a changing energy environment, SA’s Premier last year renewed his government’s pledge to have 50% of the state’s annual power supplied by renewable energy by 2025, a very realistic target considering that, according to the same site, wind and solar were already at 38% of annual supply, as of December 2013. However he pointed out that this would be difficult if the federal government reduced its RET target, then at 41TWh by 2020. In October federal industry minister Ian Macfarlane and environment minister Greg Hunt proposed a reduction of the RET to 27TWh.

A more recent article on the Renew Economy website argues that, though the government appears to have upped the proposed figure to around 31 or 32TWh, it may be targeting large-scale wind power projects by trying to incorporate rooftop solar, which has been taken up rapidly in recent years, into the large-scale target. The initial target was 45TWh overall, with a projected rooftop solar take-up of 4TWh, leaving 41TWh for large-scale renewable energy projects. We’re currently at 7TWh for rooftop solar, and the Warburton Review expects this to double by 2020. Hints by the government ministers that the take-up of rooftop solar should be reflected in the renewed target are adding to uncertainty in the industry, which is said to be in limbo at present. It may take a change of government to resolve the situation. Meanwhile however, South Australia leads the way with wind, and if the graph on the Renew Economy website is to be believed, we’ve already passed our 50% target for renewables (though the graph appears to fluctuate from moment to moment). The graph shows that we’re currently generating 710MW from wind, 527MW from natural gas and 179MW from brown coal. That makes just on 50% from wind alone. Compare this with Victoria, a much more populous state, which generates almost as much from wind – 592MW. However, that’s only about a tenth of what it currently generates from brown coal, its principle energy source (5670MW).

A new wind farm has been approved for Stony Gap, near Burra, but there may be delays in the project due to industry uncertainty about the RET and the federal government’s plans. Energy Australia, the project’s developers say ominously: We are now re-assessing the project based on current market conditions as well as government policy and legislation.  

And the cost? This is hard to gauge. As with solar, the cost of wind power has come down markedly in recent times. Basically the cost is for initial capital rather than running costs, but some argue that, because wind farms require back-up, presumably from fossil fuels, for those windless days, this should be incorporated into the cost.