Wind energy: Europe needs to transcend nationalism to make it work
Researchers are suggesting that nations ought to look beyond their own boundaries when deciding where to site wind energy projects. Gee, does that mean Europe should adopt a European viewpoint rather than a nationalistic agenda? Yes, that’s precisely what it means. And the US, with its patchwork of state incentives and regulations, faces similar issues.
By Steve Hanley
A group of weather and wind energy researchers from ETH Zürich and Imperial College London made use of the Renewables.ninja platform (developed at ETH Zürich). It simulates the output of Europe’s wind and solar farms based on historical weather data.
This is helpful when viewing Europe as a whole – sometimes the winds off the Atlantic are calm, but strong in southern Europe and northern Scandinavia.
“There is hardly a weather situation in which there is no wind across the entire continent and thus all of Europe would lack wind power potential, ” explains Christian Grams, lead author of the study from the Institute for Atmospheric and Climate Science at ETH Zurich.
Wind energy requires regional, not national focus
Conditions in each region may remain stable for days or even weeks. During the past winter, winds were calm in most of the areas bordering the North Sea, where many wind energy generating farms have been built. That caused the amount of wind generated power available to Europe as a whole to decline dramatically. That, in turn, allowed advocates for coal, natural gas, and nuclear generating stations to go screaming to their local politicians with claims that renewables are not reliable.
Current plans call for even more wind energy turbines in the North Sea area, but in the journal Nature Climate Change the researchers argue that new facilities should be built in the Balkans, Greece, western Mediterranean areas, and northern Scandinavia. That way, when turbines near the North Sea are quiet, turbines elsewhere could be supplying Europe’s electricity needs.
“This is why wind capacity in countries such as Greece or Bulgaria could act as a valuable counterbalance to Europe’s current wind farms. However, this would require a paradigm shift in the planning strategies of countries with wind power potential,” emphasises co-author Iain Staffell from Imperial College London.
Storage is not the answer
The authors of the study say it would be difficult to store electricity for several days to balance these multi-day fluctuations – with batteries or pumped-storage lakes in the Alps, for example – since the necessary amount of storage capacity will not be available in the foreseeable future. Current storage technologies are more suited to compensating for shorter fluctuations of a few hours or days.
The researchers say that for solar to compensate for fluctuations across Europe, solar energy capacity would have to be increased tenfold. “The sun often shines when it’s calm,” explains co-author Stefan Pfenninger, from the Institute for Environmental Decisions at ETH Zürich, “but in winter, there is often not enough sunshine in central and northern Europe to produce sufficient electricity using solar panels.” It would therefore make little sense to compensate for fluctuations in wind energy with a massive expansion of solar capacity.
What will government policy makers do with the information provided by the study? Probably file it away to look at in the future while they continue their push to add wind farms along the coastline that borders the North Sea.