How Badly Does Europe Want to Convert to Wind Power?

Very badly. But a recent Wall Street Journal article (gated) by Guy Chazan makes clear that as much as Europe, and the U.K. in particular, is devoted to building offshore wind farms to wean itself from coal-powered electricity, the logistical challenges and costs are starting to look insurmountable. Among the most important passages:

“Offshore wind is one of the most expensive short-term ways you can conceive of to reduce CO2 emissions,” says Dieter Helm, professor of energy policy at Oxford University. “It’s economic nonsense to put all your eggs in one basket like this.”

Dr. Helm says the most cost-effective way of “de-carbonizing” U.K. energy, at least in the short term, would be to switch from coal to cleaner-burning natural gas in power generation. “If you take out 4 to 5 gigawatts of coal and replace it with gas, the CO2 savings would be similar and it would only cost ?5 billion to ?7 billion, compared to ?100 billion for offshore wind,” he says.


Joel Upchurch

I'm amazed that he wrote the whole article without mentioning nuclear power as an alternative to wind even though he mentioned that France wasn't having problems meeting the emissions targets because of their use of nuclear power.

Why can't they do something that is already working on the other side of the channel?

Eric M. Jones

Fusion, fusion, fusion; that's where the big money should be going. I keep reading that if we put up a zillion windmills, we will satisfy some small percentage of our needs. It makes some sense, but just....

Note that the ITER fusion reactor is in France.

cbp

Dieter Helm had an article in the Times last year in which he discusses at length his concerns with nuclear and wind, and where he also sees gas as the leader.

Right now it seems every expert has a different front-runner in the energy debate, although there is one consensus: coal is out.

Utku Oren

And what about dependency on natural gas, and price fluctuations. What if Russia cuts the natural gas supply again to Europe?

Tom Mcinerney

A study in Great Britain perhaps five years ago concluded that the price of windenergy roughly doubles when the windfarm is moved/located offshore. Thus , most of the conclusions of the Chazan article may well be justified (i'm not a WSJ subscriber).

But , what does it mean that Denmark , which once imported most of its energy , is now a net power exporter , due largely to investments in windfarms?

Surely the Germans are fools to install obsolete/expensive PV solar cells over oft-cloudy farmland!

How did U.S. petroleum imports affect American balance of payments in 2006/2007? What regimes profited from those payments? What is the ROI on the ongoing American "investment" in the state of Iraq?

Dieter Helm's figures suggesting that offfshore wind will be 20 times the expense of natural gas substitution constitute a strong argument , particularly when North Sea gas is an option.

The characterization of windpower as 'all eggs in one basket' is misleading , however , at least regarding continental Europe. Plans there involve linking wind (energy) from northern Europe with solar (energy) production in northern Africa, via a super smart grid:
http://www.european-climate-forum.net/index.php?id=supersmartgrid
http://www.supersmartgrid.net/

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Ryan

I wonder what the carbon foot print is to build these monstrosities (gotta burn coal to produce steel last I checked)... and where the break-even point would be... and if that is more or less than the expected life expectancy of these "green devices" which is could not be designed better to fall over someday in the future.. Everything I have seen does not work without subsidies (which by definition is not sustainable).

Signed,

Cynical

Pierre

My opinion on this is right in line w/ Utku's above. While climate consciousness is probably much more acute among citizens of the member E.U. countries compared to other places (like here in the U.S.), Russia--and the monopoly control it has on supplying natural gas to Europe --is equally a powerful and resonant political play among the populace.

Furthermore, the U.S., which does have significant reserves of natural gas, is many years away (coupled with significant legal hurdles to overcome) from setting up any kind of suitable infrastructure (LNG terminals, etc.) for export.

alex555

The reason Denmark is now a net exporter of electricity is that they can't use all wind energy because it's way too much unrealiable.

These turbines already produce a small amount of electricity, it's even worse if you can't use it all.

Solar isn't even barely whatsover in deserts. It cost twice of wind. Only wind is usable now.

Dan

One Word: Thorium. Why are we looking around for solutions instead of looking ahead?

Tasos

What about the operational (fuel etc) costs of the gas-fired plants?

well

Wonder what happens to cities that convert over to Wind on days or weeks with no wind conditions? We know inverters or battery are no good after a few hours. Rolling blackouts??? Or also build coal power plants along side to prevent blackouts??

Johnny E

That;s the trouble, economists only think in the short term.

Once you invest in the wind infrastrucuture any energy you capture is free, No expensive externalities like pollution, or propping up regimes in troubled parts of the world, or running out of a non-renewable resource, or drain on your trade balance of payments.

Sure the wind doesn't blow every day of the year but it's blowing somewhere near your power grid, Coal mines don't operate every day of the year either, especially when they have accidents. Nukular plants have to shutdown for maintenance,

And wind energy is scalable. When you build a nuclear power plant you have to deal with a huge regulatory bureaucracy, you have to invest billions before you generate any power, you have a huge NIMBY problem, you have to deal with the obnoxious radioactive waste which eats up all your profits, you have to get disaster insurance, you have to spend billions to deactivate it when it passed its lifespan, you have to find cooling water, you have a huge security problem with handling nuclear materials, and you have to give exhorbitant salaries and bonusses to all the guys running the company. But with wind, anybody can install a turbine in their backyard and can finance it by the savings in energy costs without Wall St. getting their filthy hands on your investment.

It's a case of distributed processing vs. centralized processing. You wouldn't even need to upgrade the power grid because all the power could be generated locally. You want more power, just add another turbine. No environmental impact statements,

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Iain McClatchie

Inflation is often quoted without the volatile food and energy prices... but of course the inflation we all experience includes that volatility. This volatility has a cost, the most obvious being that it makes future returns on capital less certain, and thus rent on capital more expensive.

Food and energy volatility both come from the international oil market. Gas tracks oil to some extent, and is fungible, so electricity prices follow international oil. Fertilizer and fuel are major components of farm costs, and follow international oil.

Hydro and nuclear, because they have low marginal cost and excellent dispatchability, produce electricity with little volatility. But since both are a small part of the US mix, they mostly take advantage of prices rather than set them. Curiously, the diesel to move coal to the powerplant is a significant fraction of the cost of coal power, so those prices are volatile (and low).

I'd be interested if food and energy in France are more or less volatile than here. France has the advantage of a nuclear powered grid, but it's a small country in a continent powered by imported fossil fuel, and their grid is tied to their neighbors.

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maybe me

Johnny E:

Wind power plants need maintenance and it gets a lot worse if they are off shore (hostile environment compared to land along with access difficulties) along with having worse NIMBY issues than nuclear since with wind there actually are legitimate reasons not to want to live near a wind turbine given the strobe effect and the noise (along with possible health effects from the infrasonics), probably acceptable (in that we could give compensation for those affected to move away) if wind were actually able to solve global warming but completely unacceptable if the only benefit is a warm fuzzy feeling for those who think with their emotions without caring as to whether their beliefs have any correlation with reality.

When you factor in the energy storage needs for wind (which is beyond our current technology BTW) it just becomes completely hopeless to try to get more than a small fraction of your power from wind (unless you like rolling blackouts, doubt too many voters will). You do also realise that local microturbines are a very bad idea that are unlikely to ever repay the energy used to make them?

As for those who propose natural gas, half as bad as coal is still completely unacceptable.

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Anders

I wonder where Dr. Helm gets his 100 billion GBP figure from.

The latest large offshore wind project at Anholt in Denmark is a rushed, awkward project with only one bidder (not exactly a recipe for a bargain) and that is estimated at up to 1.2 billion GBP for 400 MW.

http://ing.dk/artikel/107794-dong-klar-med-10-milliarder-til-anholt-havmoellepark

Scaling even this inflated, suboptimal price up gives a figure that is about an order of magnitude less than Dr. Helms estimate and not that far from his figures for natural gas.

Mike M

He says building wing is expensive in the short term? Perhaps that's not the term most important to me. If it was I'd just burn coal.

cthulhu

The only real solution for the next 30 years is nuclear, and we should be doing everything possible to get the thorium-based reactors (LFTR) up and running. Windpower is fool's gold. Do some unbiased research and it will become obvious.

deep

I have worked in the wind industry, and a couple things that need to be clarified. Places where the wind is unreliable, wind farms are not going to be built there. Wind companies invest millions in finding where the most optimal locations are. Companies spend an average of a year to two years studying the wind conditions of potential project sites. Second turbines are far more efficient today than they were in the 1980's. Some turbines can convert 90% of the wind capcity into energy. Energy used to produce the turbines is no more than most other forms of energy. Wind farms don't require mountain tops to be removed nor like natural gas has toxins dumped into the drinking water. A turbine needs requires an 8 foot hole.

Wind farms only requires a handful of people to do routine check ups. Some of this can be done by the landowners. NIMBY issues are there, but they are not as staunch as those who oppose a nuclear plant. In fact people are more adimant of having a wind farm in their community.

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Ed Griffiths

What the professor thinks is largely irrelevant, since the UK is already on course to have built 40GW of offshore wind (and is likely to have built 14GW of onshore wind) by 2020.

That represents capacity already built (last week we reached 1GW of offshore wind), building (6.5GW of offshore should be complete by 2017) or planned - bids accepted/seabed leases assigned.

2 new power links, 1 to Eire and 1 to the Netherlands, are under construction and there's talk of a north Sea grid, with links to Norwegian hydro... and ultimately to Saharan solar.

Also bidders for the first (1.2 to 1.5 GW total) schemes for wave and tidal power off the Orkneys have been accepted and there are any number of small scale hydro, biogas, biomass, solar and what have you schemes building.

There are a few issues in load balancing wind power which don't seem entirely addressed, but in essence the UK has already started to build the capacity to power itself sustainably as part of a connected euro-grid.

I think that's good news!

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nickyp

The UK already has an over reliance on gas imports (and shockingly low levels of gas storage). Switching from coal to gas will not do anything to improve security of the energy supply or improve overall energy mix. Off shore wind is not just about "de-carbonising" and therefore relative costs of "de-carbonising", whilst interesting, are not the bottom line.