Sunday, November 07, 2010

British Power is all Wind.

Britain has decided to go all-out for wind-power. On Thursday, I flew over the massive off-shore Thanet wind-farm - one of the largest in the UK - in the English Channel off Foreness Point. The farm consists of 100 turbines, each over 300ft high, and is expected to power over 200,000 homes. It will increase the amount of energy generated from offshore wind in the UK by one third to 1,314MW. Opened in September, the Thanet wind-farm was built by the Swedish Vattenfall energy company, and increases the number of large scale off-shore British turbines to 436, to be compared with 2,640 based on land.

Not everyone is convinced that wind-power is the most reliant route to clean, renewable carbon-free energy, and it is concerning that Britain is relying on a power source that must be backed up by more constant technologies such as nuclear, coal, or gas, because the wind blows inconsistently, as is its nature. A mere 2% of Britain's electricity was produced from renewable sources in 2002, but it is hoped that this should rise to 10% by the end of the year in light of the new wind-power generating capacity.There are further cost issues in upgrading the national grid to cope with power-surges and the need to switch between different power sources.

It should be noted that electricity provides only around one third of the total energy used in the U.K, and the bulk of that is accounted for by heating and transportation, which is supplied by respectively coal/gas and oil based fuels. Hence the UK will have its work cut out if it is to meet a EU target to raise its overall energy provision from renewables from the present 5% to 15% by 2020.

The actualization of an overall wind-power strategy is not going smoothly, however, and the number of new wind-farms coming on-stream has fallen by 30%, in part as a consequence of the recession. There has also been a fall in the past 12 months by 50% in planning approvals for wind-farms in England, a situation that is also reflected in Scotland. There is also considerable opposition to wind-turbines which are perceived as unsightly and noisy, as is reflected by the 230-odd campaign groups that operate across the whole of the U.K.

Indeed, some of these groups advocate nuclear power as a better option than wind, a situation that would have been almost unthinkable ten years ago. It was estimated in 2008 that to meet the U.K. wind-power goal by 2020 would require building one new turbine every day for the next twelve years. Since progress so far has fallen far short of this rate of conversion, little confidence is lent that the nation will be able to keep its promise on renewables.


Mark said...


I have a major doubt about wind energy that maybe you can clear up for me. Whenever I pass the San Gorgonio Pass Wind Farm to visit my inlaws condo it seems that the vast majority of turbines are idle or barely spinning. It has also been reported that during major heatwaves these wind farms are mostly idle because the air is so still. If during normal times their production is erratic and if they cannot contribute energy during a heatwave, what good are they? Would it make more sense to make such powers sources of natural gas and coal more efficient to extend those resources than to rely on such unpredictable methods of energy production like wind.

Maybe one area that wind energy can become useful is helping container ships save fuel during their voyages, like the German company Skysails is developing.

Would like your thoughts on this.

One aside note. The wind farm at the San Gorgonio Pass was breifly featured in the 1990 thriller Pacific Heights, when a couple of red neck developers where on their way to beat the living crap out of Michael Keaton.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mark,

as you say, the wind doesn't blow all the time and depending on the design/size of the turbine, energy is more efficiently harvested at particular wind-speeds. If there is no wind, then naturally no power.

Storing the energy is another issue, in order to come close to a constant supply, and this would be done using batteries, or some think hydrogen, although I have grave doubts about the putative hydrogen economy.

I think we will need a final energy mix, and energy-efficiency is key to all of this, including fossil resources. We are going to need these while we introduce alternatives but, not wanting to sound like an old record and bang on as I have for the past 5 years!, curbing our energy-use, particularly our requirement for liquid fuel by relocalising society as much as is feasible, is the only way.

In the wake of the BP/Gulf of Mexico oil-spill, there are a lot of people saying we should stop using oil and go for solar-energy instead. But how, in all honesty? The two things are chalk and cheese! Solar (or wind) can make electricity but how to power vehicles on the grand scale - 200 million cars in the US? 30 million in the UK? You can't electrify them all.

Hope this helps,



Anonymous said...

Hi Chris,
Two things come to (my) mind,when discussing alternative power of any kind.
The first is selective subsidies.
Their outputs are routinely discussed by commentators, as if the cost of the electricity produced was comparable with that of Hydrocarbon fueled plants, and nuclear.
In fact, as everyone knows, but gets away with ignoring, the alternative systems are all subsidised to varying amounts, but generally on a huge scale. On the other hand the hydrocarbon fueled plants, those incredibly reliable, efficient, not-so-much- now-polluting-as-they -did-in-the-near-past, elegant (consider for a moment a steam turbine!) systems pay a negative subsidy, in the form of taxes. Of course the nuclear plants, those pariahs of the power plant world, pay, not only the negative subsidy but also the CO2 tax, a tax which is designed(?) to compensate society for the damage done by a plant's CO2 emission. This ignores the fact that nuclear plants are physically impossible of producing CO2, except perhaps in the toilets.
The second thing applies to power windmills only. Their reliability is reported as being very poor indeed. See this site.
It describes extraordinary cases of poor reliability. As an ex marine engineer, involved, when I was gainfully employed, in the operation, design, construction, commissioning, management, repairing, troubleshooting and eventual scrapping of very large ships indeed, I can tell you that reliability was a given, but it didn't happen by chance, it happened because of good, experience-based design, proper selection of materials for the environment, extensive maintenance programs, and so on.
What do we mean by reliable? Well, take your average main propulsion system on a large, or any ship. It will be expected to operate flawlessly for 10,000 running hours between overhauls. Take a modern high speed diesel generator. Such a machine of, say 600-1000 kW, will be expected to operate for 20,000 hours without fault. At the end of the 20,000 hours, the machine has to be turned over to a manufacturers engineer, who will strip it down completely, renew bearings, valves, gaskets anything with the slightest wear, and, upon completion, it will run for another 20,000 hours. Both the propulsion and the generating engines will have remarkably low fuel and oil consumptions, produce minimum emissions, and generally help make the world go around, pushing enormous container ships and giving us all high quality Asian goods at ridiculously low prices, enormous tankers giving us cheap oil and enormous cruise ships giving us incredibly cheap and good cruises (although I have my reservations about the latter's height to beam ratios).
Apparently ignoring all of this marine experience, the power windmill guys merrily go their own ways, producing machines with abysmal reliability, largely kept quiet, yet extraordinarily expensive.
If the downtimes are costed into the output costs, if the subsidies are removed, if they are taxed as conventional plants, then, and only then, can we have a meaningful discussion of their relative values to society.
Hang on a mo' I hear. They need these subsidies as new industries to enable them get going. Oh yes?
What subsidies did Henry Ford get? He changed the face of the planet! Wilbur and Orville? Zilch. and so on.
If you are still reading, my apologies for going on so, it's just that I think this is a large part of our pain, as a society, the misused of facts by advocates of certain chosen technologies.
Peter Melia

energybalance said...

Dear Peter,

your comments are well taken and you can tell by my tongue-in-cheek title that I am not convinced this is the best way forward either.

There are many vested interest and indeed the issue of subsidies has been critical to the expansion of solar-energy in Germany and Japan, but now these are much less than they were.

There is some quite amazing new technology using quantum dots imbedded in polymers that provides spray-on thin-film cells and so any surface in principle be it a roof, a coat or a car might be used to generate electricity.

What is really remarkable is that it is infra-red energy that is harvested and so even at night, they can produce power when the sun isn't shining. That said, inaugurating an industry around this, which seems a wonderful idea to get away from coal and gas-fired power stations, is beset by the issues of subsidy (or not) that you allude to.

What neither wind or solar do is get around the depletion of liquid transportation fuels and so by default society must become more local.

The reliability of new technologies is another matter, and your 20,000 hours amounts roughly to a couple of years before the engineer needs to replace parts etc. as you describe.

At times I begin to despair about the massive overhauling of our energy and food production, and doubt that a Joule for Joule replacement is possible. This suggests a tough time especially amid economic chaos, that I hope will not become anarchy.



Utility Reviews said...

I think wind power makes a lot of sense and has been a neglected way of producing free energy for far to long. John

gebbe said...


I stumbled upon this post incidentally and would like to share my view, too.

If I understood you right, Chris, you wonder about whether a machine can produce more energy than it consumed (including materials, construction, maintenance...), right? I share or shared this doubt, too.

However, apparently some studies show that the total EROI of wind turbines is very good (something about 20). I got the information from this site:

I know that this is not a neutral source, but the studies the author refers to, seem trustworthy to me. Even it is 50% less, the EROI is still positive.

But, @ Peter, I cannot understand your positive position towards fuel power at all. I agree that one needs these technologies and also that is favorable to improve current technologies concerning efficiency and CO2 emissions *at the moment*.

But think only a couple of generations ahead. At the current rate of oil consumption the worldwide reserves last only some 50-100 years ( And in my opinion the oil consumption rather goes up during the next years due to emerging countries like China or India than it goes down.

There may be some factors (newly discovered reserves, raising efficiencies), which may slow down that process, but it will still take place in the next or next few hundred years.

My concluding point is that we HAVE to find RENEWABLE energy sources in order to ensure a living with technology. No way around it. And if we don't change anything today, we have this huge problem already tomorrow, meaning the next generation.

I'm far from being an expert to this topic, so I appreciate comments and corrections.

energybalance said...

Hi Gebbe,

not really. My concerns are about how fast the necessary number of wind--turbines can be built and brought on-line and the vexed issue of storing "power" from such an intermittent source.

Given that progress so far has been far less than the "one a day for 12 years" required rate, the case for Britain meeting its renewable energy target using a large chunk of wind-power is less than compelling.



Anonymous said...

Hi Chris, In my last long (I'm afraid) post about the possibilities of finding more natural resources simply by looking harder (in so many words), here is a copy of an article from NYT which would seem to support this view-
QuoteJust as it seemed that the world was running on fumes, giant oil fields were discovered off the coasts of Brazil and Africa, and Canadian oil sands projects expanded so fast, they now provide North America with more oil than Saudi Arabia. In addition, the United States has increased domestic oil production for the first time in a generation.
Meanwhile, another wave of natural gas drilling has taken off in shale rock fields across the United States, and more shale gas drilling is just beginning in Europe and Asia. Add to that an increase in liquefied natural gas export terminals around the world that connected gas, which once had to be flared off, to the world market, and gas prices have plummeted.
Energy experts now predict decades of residential and commercial power at reasonable prices. Simply put, the world of energy has once again been turned upside down.
Here’s CBS on the vast reserves of natural gas now being extracted from shale:
“In the last few years, we’ve discovered the equivalent of two Saudi Arabias of oil in the form of natural gas in the United States. Not one, but two,” Aubrey McClendon, the CEO of Chesapeake Energy, told “60 Minutes” correspondent Lesley Stahl.
“Wait, we have twice as much natural gas in this country, is that what you’re saying, than they have oil in Saudi Arabia?” Stahl asked. “I’m trying to very clearly say exactly that,” he replied.
Peter melia

energybalance said...

Hi Peter,

I agree with you! We need to secure more fossil resources to preserve the cities, while a clear energy descent plan is devised.

I don't believe we will be able to match the quantity of liquid fuels in particular which means we need to live differently.

Now that transition can hardly be made overnight, the result would be anarchy, and so the question is how many years worth of current energy do we have left?

While there are fossil-fuels aplenty, there is little financial incentive for change, and so commerce (which is the real driving-seat) will only begin to exert market forces when things begin to get scare/expensive.

Agreed, there are plenty of carbon resources left but the EROEI decreases for many of the others, including offshore oil-production and "fracking" - getting gas from shale by injecting high-pressure fluids - is an environmentally vexed issue; as indeed is the tar-sand resources for which the EROEI is given anywhere between about 1.5 - 3. These technologies also are highly demanding in water.

I don't think we can continue as we are, and so we need to address most immediately the issue of transportation. Producing electricity and space-heating is less of a problem, and I note with interest that the UK government is to invest in three times the amount of railway transport, unspecified though the reason is, I think surely it must be the anticipation of a decline in oil-powered transport.

Now according to your thesis, that is good because the cities need to be fed and fuelled from outside sources. Deconstructing the cities per se would be a disaster, so they must be held together until a system of more locally-dependent and interconnected (by trains) smaller communities can be established.

I agree to that getting anything like the level of current energy from renewables is all but impossible, at least in the short term and we will need fossil and nuclear power.

It is of course not only the aspect of oil-to-fuel that is critical to the survival of civilization. Petroleum is a primary input of practically all chemicals, pharmaceuticals, manufactured good and indeed food. Without oil we would starve, and so methods of regenerative agriculture should be sought and developed which require far less in terms of inputs of oil, gas and indeed freshwater.

I am also going on a bit here, mainly because while I agree that we need fossil resources for now and I can envisage in a very general way how society might look in a localised than globalised form, the mandatory transition is less easy for me to see. If the latter is not carefully handled, the result doesn't bear thinking about.



Lynn said...

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