Wind on the up­swing

As it gets ever cheaper, wind en­ergy will play a huge role in our clean-power fu­ture

Jamaica Gleaner - - SPORTS - Mau­reen Hand MIT Tech­nol­ogy

LAST MAY, I at­tended an in­ter­na­tional meet­ing on wind en­ergy in Por­tu­gal, where 100 per cent of that coun­try’s elec­tric­ity de­mand was met by re­new­able en­ergy – a com­bi­na­tion of so­lar, wind, and hy­dro – for four days. There have also been sev­eral short pe­ri­ods in which wind gen­er­a­tion alone has ex­ceeded 40 per cent of de­mand in US re­gional sys­tems in places like Texas, Ok­la­homa, Kansas, Ne­braska, and Colorado.

Some peo­ple think wind has value only in lim­ited lo­ca­tions and will play a small role in meet­ing our over­all en­ergy needs (see “The One and Only Texas Wind Boom”). In­stead, a his­tory of cost re­duc­tions com­bined with decades of de­ploy­ment and op­er­at­ing ex­pe­ri­ence are bring­ing wind power to the cusp of trans­form­ing our elec­tric­ity in­dus­try.

Yes, there are chal­lenges. Wind is un­likely to ever be our sole source of elec­tric­ity. Be­cause the wind is vari­able, it cre­ates some prob­lems for the elec­tric grid, but they’re not in­sur­mount­able. My or­gan­i­sa­tion has done stud­ies that have looked into what would hap­pen if wind and so­lar gen­er­ated a third to a half or more of US an­nual elec­tric­ity de­mand, and we’ve found that there are ways to mit­i­gate this nat­u­ral vari­abil­ity by us­ing flex­i­ble gen­er­a­tors, such as nat­u­ral gas or hy­dropower plants, and by co­or­di­nat­ing oper­a­tions over large geo­graphic ar­eas. In places like Den­mark, Por­tu­gal, and Ire­land, oper­a­tors are al­ready suc­cess­fully man­ag­ing the vari­able power gen­er­a­tion that comes from wind and so­lar plants.

RE­DUC­TION IN COST

Thanks to re­search and devel­op­ment pro­grammes and pol­icy in­cen­tives, the cost of wind has dropped by an or­der of mag­ni­tude since the early 1980s. To­day, there are long-term elec­tric­ity price agree­ments in the US, sup­ply­ing util­i­ties with wind power at prices that are lower than op­er­at­ing costs for nat­u­ral-gas plants, lever­aged by tech­nol­ogy ad­vance­ments and favourable tax pol­icy.

A re­cent sur­vey of 163 in­dus­try ex­perts found that the cost of wind en­ergy is likely to drop 24 to 30 per cent by 2030. They at­tribute this to a va­ri­ety of tech­nol­ogy, de­sign, man­u­fac­tur­ing, con­struc­tion, and op­er­a­tional changes. Larger ro­tors, taller tow­ers, and ro­tor-de­sign ad­vance­ments should al­low land-based wind tech­nol­ogy to cap­ture more en­ergy at lower cost. Off­shore wind tech­nol­ogy will take ad­van­tage of larger tur­bines, bet­ter de­signs for foun­da­tions and sup­port struc­tures, and economies of scale through larger project size.

We’ve been wait­ing for low-car­bon tech­nolo­gies to trans­form the power sec­tor. We may fi­nally be see­ing it hap­pen.

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