Wind power isn’t perfect, but it’s a hell of a lot better than the alternatives

Sorry, posting this a bit late. Have been swamped lately with work….

apple_energy_storageAn intriguing story emerged last week about an Apple patent that has absolutely nothing to do with wireless gadgets, digital music, touch screens or the Internet “cloud”.

The title of the patent, filed in June 2011, is “On-demand Generation of Electricity from Stored Wind Energy.”

Wind energy? Apple? Don’t be so surprised. Like Google, another technology giant increasingly obsessed with clean energy, Apple operates huge data centres that consume tremendous amounts of electricity, much of it based on coal.

Like most consumer-facing companies, it wants to be perceived as a responsible corporate citizen, meaning it’s eager to tap into low- or zero-emission energy alternatives.

In its patent, Apple describes a way to capture thermal energy resulting from the spinning of wind turbines and then use it to heat up a special fluid with a low boiling point. The heat “stored” in that fluid could then be extracted on demand to generate electricity, similar to how a solar-thermal power plant might operate.

The fact that Apple is looking for a way to “dispatch” wind energy highlights what is arguably wind’s Achilles heel: intermittency. It often blows when it’s required least, and often doesn’t when we have our highest energy demands.

This has left wind energy open to attack by those, for whatever reason, who don’t think wind turbines have a place in our electricity mix. Associated with those attacks is much misunderstanding about how wind energy interacts with our existing electricity system.

For example, the Star received a complaint about last Saturday’s Clean Break column, in which I highlighted the hypocrisy of Health Canada for comprehensively studying the health effects of wind farms but not the oil sands.

In addition to accusing me of being an investor in the wind industry and thus having a conflict of interest – which I’m not, and don’t, unless you include the emotional investment I have in dealing with climate change – the writer of the complaint made the following comment about wind turbines:

“Every one of them is equipped with a gas generator to produce power when the wind fails. Nobody I know in the wind industry has ever stated otherwise.”

This statement is consistent with others which claim that for every megawatt of wind capacity installed another megawatt of natural gas generation is needed as backup.

Because of this alleged dependence on back-up generation from natural gas, another individual asserted in an e-mail that “there is a net-zero environmental benefit” from adding wind energy to our grid.

With regard to the first comment, one can say with absolute confidence that wind turbines are not equipped with backup generators that run on natural gas. This isn’t to say that other energy sources, including natural gas, aren’t relied on as a backup for when the wind doesn’t blow.

“When we’re dealing with the variability of wind, we look at a lot of tools,” said Bruce Campbell, vice-president of resource integration at Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator, which manages supply and demand on our grid. “You have to look at this from a system basis. You can’t look at it as one individual technology.”

Often we’ll use electricity generated from natural gas plants to step in when the wind steps out, but it’s not coming from a single point. The grid is like a big tub of water, with a bunch of taps at the top (supply) and a bunch of drains at the bottom (demand).

The goal is to keep the water at the level we demand, meaning there will constantly be a different mix of drains and taps that are opening and closing.

Campbell said Ontario hasn’t yet had to increase its requirement for back-up reserves because of the introduction of wind power. The question to ask is: If the wind generation we have no longer existed, what would be there in its place? The answer is more power plants burning coal and natural gas.

If we were to stick with our coal phase-out strategy without wind, we would need to burn more natural gas. The reality is that when the wind blows it gives us the opportunity to burn less natural gas when it’s being used to displace coal. This is partially why greenhouse-gas emissions associated with electricity generation in Ontario have fallen by two-thirds since 2003.

The dismissers don’t believe it. They contend that fossil fuel plants run less efficiently when backing up wind because of the increased need to start up and cycle. In fact, they claim the inefficiencies are so great that they offset the benefits of wind power.

The efficiency argument contains a tiny kernel of truth, but the impact is negligible according to a detailed study published by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory. It appeared last March in the journal Environmental and Science Technology.

Using the state of Illinois as a case study, researchers found that the inefficient use of coal and natural gas plants and its impact on carbon dioxide emissions is hardly noticed until wind exceeds a 20 per cent share of electricity supply. At 40 per cent of supply, inefficiencies are more visible, but CO2 reductions of 33 per cent are still achieved.

To put this in context, wind was roughly 3 per cent of Ontario’s mix last year and the goal is to achieve 10 per cent penetration through a combination of wind and solar by 2015. We have a long way to go to get to 20 per cent, let alone 40 per cent.

It’s important to point out that the authors of this study didn’t account for the retiring of old, inefficient coal power plants as more wind is introduced to the grid, or the addition of more flexible and efficient natural gas turbines that companies such as General Electric have started selling as a complement to wind.

They also didn’t account for some of the other tools at the disposal of system operators, such as demand-response, dramatically improved wind forecasting, and energy storage, all of which will play a growing roles over the years in Ontario and other jurisdictions.

Who knows, maybe Apple will even make something of its wind-turbine storage patent. Could there be an iWind in our future?

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.

5 thoughts on “Wind power isn’t perfect, but it’s a hell of a lot better than the alternatives”

  1. Don’t know how they got a patent for this. It’s all old hat. Frictional heating, a hot water tank and an ORC unit. Absolutely nothing new here!

  2. Tyler.
    Obviously the person who complained about your article hasn’t a clue as to how wind generators work of what their true pro’s and con’s are. I also doubt that for full disclosure he revealed what his investment profile looks like (assuming that he has one). But what I find most amazing is that there are still people on this planet who don’t get that we MUST abandon coal and fossil oil as fast as possible and that until something better comes around wind is, as you say, a hell of a lot better…
    Edward Kerr

  3. I’ve yet to hear a decent argument to proceed further with wind. We’re at a point that coal can be shut down and wind had nothing to do with it. The Eurozone has deemed Nat. Gas a “Green” energy source. We seem to be ok with it heating our homes for the most part with furnaces we demand to operate in the high 90’s in terms of efficiency. Wind operates at no such efficiency level. To now equate gas fired plants to be our new coal bogeyman, is preposterous. Peter Altmair, German Environment Minister stated that at the opening of a new 2200mw coal plant near Cologne that replacing older coal plants with newer ones was “consistent with our environmental objectives”. 22 more are planned there to stabilize the grid as a result of the installed wind and solar.
    As for storage, I suggest you check out Tom Murphys site “Do the Math” and check out Pump up the Storage and the other link for home storage options. It’s there that science and math destroys any reasonable notion that energy storage is anywhere in our forseeable future.

  4. Hi,
    “A study conducted by Stanford University confirmed that interconnected multiple wind farms can be used to provide baseload electric power. Interconnecting wind farms with a transmission grid reduces the power swings caused by wind variability and makes a significant portion of it just as consistent a power source as a coal power plant.”
    “This study implies that, if interconnected wind is used on a large scale, a third or more of its energy can be used for reliable electric power, and the remaining intermittent portion can be used for transportation, allowing wind to solve energy, climate and air pollution problems simultaneously,” said Archer, the study’s lead author and a consulting assistant professor in Stanford’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and research associate in the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution. ”

    “As one might expect, not all locations make sense for wind farms. Only locations with strong winds are economically competitive. In their study, Archer and Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford, evaluated 19 sites in the Midwestern United States with annual average wind speeds greater than 6.9 meters per second at a height of 80 meters above ground, the hub height of modern wind turbines. Modern turbines are 80 to 100 meters high, approximately the height of a 30-story building, and their blades are 70 meters long or more.

    The researchers used hourly wind data, collected and quality-controlled by the National Weather Service, for the entire year of 2000 from the 19 sites. They found that an average of 33 percent and a maximum of 47 percent of yearly-averaged wind power from interconnected farms can be used as reliable baseload electric power. These percentages would hold true for any array of 10 or more wind farms, provided it met the minimum wind speed and turbine height criteria used in the study.”

  5. Tyler, don’t know where else to put this, so here it is.

    You should have a look at the Lux Windpower site.

    Glen has spent the last number of years developing a vertical axis wind turbine that actually works and addresses the shortcomings of previous attempts at VAWTs. His research has also focused on driving down the cost of the rotor on the turbine.

    He has been working with a 40KW proof of concept prototype and is currently securing funding for a larger commercial scale prototype.

    With a number of basic, but fundamental design changes from “traditional” VAWTs Glen has come up with a potential game changer.

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