Wind power is (too) successful?

Written By: - Date published: 12:30 pm, May 15th, 2010 - 15 comments
Categories: climate change, energy - Tags: ,

You sometimes have to wonder about headline writers sometimes (including myself). But take a look at this one from Bloomberg.com, a site with a focus on investment.

Windmill Boom Curbs Electric Power Prices for RWE

RWE AG is a power utility and wind farm operator in Germany. The reason that they’re getting reduced prices for power is because they and other wind-farm operators been driving down power prices in Germany with their volumes of power generation on windy periods.

On windy nights in northern Germany, consumers are paid to keep the lights on.

Twice this year, the nation’s 21,000 wind turbines pumped out so much power that utilities reduced customer bills for using the surplus electricity. Since the first rebate came with little fanfare at 5 a.m. one October day in 2008, payments have risen as high as 500.02 euros ($665) a megawatt-hour, about as much as a small factory or 1,000 homes use in 60 minutes.

The wind-energy boom in Europe and parts of Texas has begun to reduce bills for consumers. Electricity-network managers have even ordered windmills offline at times to trim supplies. That hurts profit for wind-farm operators…

This has caused the electricity prices to be set to negative occasionally when the power generation from wind becomes too high and they’re trying to get rid of the generated power.

One solution is more investment in transmission systems to move power from northern Germany wind farms to heavy industry in the south, he said. ‘Power transmission is the bottleneck.’

This is much the same issue as we have here, albeit at a smaller scale. We don’t have a convenient adjacent larger grid to push power into as the Danes (for instance) do to Germany. However we do have a long skinny country with wind blowing in different locations at different times. Being able to use renewable energy sources like wind or tide to pump power into our grid means that we can conserve the baseload generation of hydroelectrical dams.

The most obvious issue is the bottleneck in the antiqued cables between the North and South Islands. But most of our transmission grid is getting a bit decrepit because of under investment and has to be carefully managed in its flow patterns. My understanding is that our grid really isn’t suited for taking sudden bursts of power from wind in one part of the country and feeding it to another part of the country. It needs upgrading to take power from erratic sources.

Instead of transmitting and getting end-users to consume the excess power, there are alternative techniques to store power. If the power is surplus to current needs, then it can be converted into gravitational potential at even relatively low efficencies.

Storing electricity may be another fix. In Scandinavia, Danish wind power is used to pump water into Norwegian and Swedish reservoirs and later released to drive hydroelectric plants when the wind is not blowing.

The low marginal costs of wind power and other renewables is transforming economies.

Spanish power prices fell an annual 26 percent in the first quarter because of the surge in supplies from wind and hydroelectric production..

Wind power is pretty relatively cheap to install and maintain and is getting cheaper overall. One report that I read said that last year, the price of turbines of equivalent power had dropped by over 15% in a year on the back of reduced commodity price levels during a recession. The same applies to most power generation equipment. But this means that the most cost-effective time to install new capacity is in recessions, like now. Also have a look at a post ” by Bryan Walker at Hot Topic.

Of course all of this takes imagination, forward planning and and some thought. It is a pity that Gerry Brownlee as Minister of Economic Development and Minister of Energy and Resources clearly isn’t up to the any of these tasks. Instead he seems to be fixated on mining and burning coal, a process that will carries increasing costs in the future to discourage greenhouse gas emissions.

15 comments on “Wind power is (too) successful?”

  1. jcuknz 1

    While you are correct in thinking the Cook Straight cables are well past their useby date I always thought that the whole point of wind power was to supply local needs and save the horrendous transmission losses that the current practice of supplying the North Island from the SI [ and vice versa] seems to have locked us into. I remember back in 1964 watching the ship waiting in Ohio[?] Bay for good weather to start laying the first cable …. 45/46years ago .. definitely post dated and worn out from scuttlebutt I’ve heard.
    Whatever the overall tenor of your thread is good news to counter arguments that Wind Generation is too expensive, unless there is some fly in the ointment as to how one interprets the facts .

  2. William 2

    The original 60’s cables across Cook Strait were replaced with three new ones in the early 90’s, two in use & one spare. A few years ago the proposal to replace the converter equipment on pole one included two more cables to give four in use and one spare for a total of 1400MW capacity. That seems to have been scaled back to 1200MW using the existing three cables.

    • lprent 2.1

      Ummm, from memory only a few years ago we had at least one of the cables shutdown, and there is a plan to upgrade the cables.

      Yep, have a look at this article.

      The link consists of two separate circuits, each with its own major converter system at each end.

      The converters are called Pole 1 and Pole 2. Last September, Transpower stood down the elderly Pole 1 part of the link, initially reducing the capacity of the link from 1000 megawatts (MW) to 500MW.

      It has since increased the south to north transfer capacity of the other part of the link, Pole 2, to 700MW and brought back half the capacity of Pole 1 for use in critical periods – though only to transmit power from south to north.

      Transpower has proposed replacing it with a state of the art thyristor valve unit which will boost the capacity of the overall link to 1000 MW from 2012, and 1200 MW from 2014.

      Yeah – I remembered that drop in carrying capacity to one half – a converter rather than a cable but the same underlying issue in terms of the grid. My point was that if there are bursts of power that need to be shifted between the islands then there is a quite limited capacity to do so. Especially since from what I understand of the current configuration it would be difficult to run the full capacity in a single direction. But I could be wrong…. Any knowledge anyone?

      • William 2.1.1

        Firstly an apology, my post should have been a reply to jcuknz, it was intended to correct his scuttlebut about the age of the cables. My comment about a spare cable was wrong, currently one cable is used for pole 1 & two are used for pole 2.

        There was a failure of one of the new cables in 2004, it is mentioned here (45kB) along with development options. There was a proposal submitted to the Electricity Commision in 2005 that included laying two more cables, there’s a pdf (1.4MB) linked from “HVDC IGE application” on that page. That was superseded by a different proposal (580kB) linked from “Overview of HVDC Proposal” that doesn’t include new cables at present. Work has started on that, Gerry had a photo op with his miners spade!

        I’m not sure what your last question is about, power is only ever sent in a single direction. If you meant will both directions now have full capacity (north to south has been lower since it became possible), this paper (570kB) states the new pole 3 (the replacement for the old pole 1) will be 700MW in both directions, the existing pole 2 is 700MW north & 666MW south. The present upgrade includes improvements to pole2 so its possible that difference will change. That paper also has useful diagrams of the current & future configuration.

        • lprent 2.1.1.1

          I’ll have a read when I’m not at work (I get saturated with tech reading there).

          I was mostly speculating on the overall age and ability to do fast reconfigurations of the grid from erratic power, and using the cooks strait cables as an obvious example of a possible choke point.

          Our power sources are largely from hydro, thermal, and geothermal now. They’re all pretty predictable sources within a pretty large time-band. Amongst the sources becoming possible, tidal power is also pretty predictable albeit within a shorter time span.

          Wind, wave, and probably solar are erratic as hell locally and over short time periods, but are probably pretty statistically predictable over longer periods and across the whole country. That means we can use them to get ‘bonus’ power into the grid.

          But our grid (from what I understand) isn’t particularly flexible in the short-term for dispersing bursts of power. It is designed and configured to shunt power in predictable directions for reasonably long periods of time and takes time to reconfigure.

          It isn’t up for dealing with the type of minute by minute spiky power surges that you get with wind gusts or cloud.

  3. Marco 3

    Local residents start jumping up and down every time a power company wants to build a wind farm. Apparently it destroys their view of the natural landscape or something to that effect. Would it not be easier for each new home to have a small wind turbine installed on the roof coupled with solar water heating? Cabling costs would then disappear if we subsidised upgrading existing homes.

    I’m not sure if the technology for this exists ye,t but if not then isn’t this the perfect opportunity for some R and D by NZ companies. Also on a side note instead of tax cuts would it not be better to provide free public transport. It costs me $50 a week in petrol and parking costs to get to and from work. If public transport was free then that $50 goes straight back into the pocket. It would also reduce congestion on roads and lower the environmental impact of commuting.

    Just a thought.

    • RedLogix 3.1

      The objections understandably arise when the power companies get greedy and want to locate their wind farms on the most prominent ridge-lines in order to extract the maximum possible profit margins.

      Most other countries have perfectly good wind-farms in all sorts of less visible places, and they perfectly viable. Off-shore wind farms would appear to be the most sensible of all, except that Maori own that now and would want to clip the ticket.

      Peter Sinclair of Climate Crock of the Month fame has two new videos on Wind Energy

      • jagilby 3.1.1

        If you knew the first thing about the viability of these plant you would know that these farms are extremely marginal from a financial viability perspective (pretty much bang on NPV neutral)… even when placed on the most prominent ridge lines.

      • jagilby 3.1.2

        Other countries don’t have to ship 60m blades half way around the world.

        Other countries don’t have 6-12 months resource consent processes/vexatious environment court suits.

        Other countries don’t have as far to get to the nearest grid injection point.

        Other countries have economies of scale – cheaper sources of capital, more competitive environments.

    • Alwyn 3.2

      One major problem is that the noise from even a tiny wind turbine is extremely annoying.
      If you think the complaints from people in Makara (near Wellington and the site of a wind farm) are loud and anguished wait until you get the ones from the neighbours if you put a small turbine on your house.
      The sound is low-pitched and continuous. You might not notice it during the day if you live in a busy area but at night in the suburbs it will drive you mad.
      It’s also very expensive power if generated in this way.
      If someone has actually done this in a suburban area they may wish to comment. A couple of us looked at the possibility about 20 years ago but never went ahead with the idea.

    • lynne 3.3

      The technology does exist, there are some housing developments in Europe that are built with solar roofs, and on roof wind turbines, I’ve never understood why NZ doesn’t require the use of at least solar on new buildings. In Canada they developed solar walls over 5 years ago. They make solar panels in Australia so we could get them relatively cheaply if we ‘bulk bought’ as a nation.

  4. There’s some good discussion about this on European Tribune here. It happens because electricity is assigned by merit-order, with the highest marginal cost generator setting the price. Wind has a low marginal cost, and so a block of it pushes that price down when the wind is blowing. In Europe, the benefit of lower power prices more than outweighs the subsidies some European governments give to wind.

    (As an aside, lower power prices is another example of why GDP is a bad measure. its good for people, but bad for GDP)

    • jcuknz 4.1

      I thought GDP was bad, period. That the other measure whose name I can never remember was a vastely superior method of calculating progress or regress for humanity.

  5. jcuknz 5

    I am aware of a family living on the Otago Peninsula who operates with wind and solar power, at least they were a couple of decades ago and I have a small solar unit keeping up the voltage on my yacht. I check the voltage each time I visit and happy it is as high as if I was regularly charging a battery at home. In the 13+volt range for both a regular car sized battery and my big ‘180’ for starting the engine..

  6. jcuknz 6

    Marco further again to your comments …. for years I have been utterly frustrated by the bean counters wanting bus services to operate in the black and so they cut services which further drives down patronage. If only they would, we all would, look at the whole picture instead of our navels.

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