EU Referendum

Energy: wind of change


In what just could be an indirect response to my Mail on Sunday piece – which provoked 3,706 comments on the website, we've had the peripatetic idiot raiding the dressing-up box again, this time in order to visit a wind turbine blade factory in Hull.

He was alongside his business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, the pair clad in the mandatory hi-vis jackets and hard hats, telling Sky News that the UK needs to "accelerate" the rollout of preparations for an electric vehicle future.

Kwarteng earlier had "admitted" that Johnson had been wrong when in 2013 he had cast doubt on the effectiveness of wind farms, suggesting they couldn't "pull the skin off a rice pudding".

This was perhaps of less significance, given that in October last year, Johnson was already prattling about offshore wind generating enough electricity to power every home in the UK within a decade. "Your kettle, your washing machine, your cooker, your heating, your plug-in electric vehicle - the whole lot of them will get their juice cleanly and without guilt from the breezes that blow around these islands," he said.

With that, he had repeated his manifesto commitment that his government would raise its 2030 target for offshore wind power capacity from 30 to 40GW. This was to be the first stage of a 10-point plan for a "green industrial revolution", the aim being to "accelerate our progress towards net zero emissions by 2050".

Now, in pursuit of that target, Kwarteng has promised the Hull-based Siemens Gamesa blade manufacturer a contribution from the government's £160 million offshore wind fund to go towards the £186 million upgrade of its Alexandra Dock site, doubling its size.

While these soaring ambitions make good press release fodder, though, however, delivery – as always seems to be the case with announcements from the Johnson administration – presents a series of challenges which, on their face, would suggest that they might not be attained.

As it stands, the total national fleet of wind turbines falls just short of 11,000, made up from 8,669 onshore and 2,292 offshore turbines. Operational capacities, respectively, are 13.7 and 10.4GW, the total coming to 24.1GW.

Here, it is of some significance that the UK's first demonstration offshore wind farm was installed in December 2000 off the Northumberland coast. It consisted of two 2MW Vestas wind turbines. It has taken 20 years of development, therefore, to top 10GW, and then by only a small margin.

Thus, in terms of the new offshore target for 2030, the government is expecting four-fold increase in operational capacity in as little as nine years, less than half the time it has taken to reach a quarter of the target.

But the problem does not end there. Offshore turbines, in the highly aggressive environment of our coastal waters, have a lifespan on 20-25 years, after which they are no longer safely functional – and even that lifespan estimate may be optimistic.

Within each early-model turbine, there exist thousands of components and parts that have worn down, become replaced and fixed without estimates on their installation time frame. These are already nearing the end of their life expectancy.

From a study led by the University of Kent published in February of this year, it was estimated that the UK must decommission approximately 300 and 1600 early-model offshore wind turbines by 2025 and 2030, respectively. From the fleet of 2,292 turbines, therefore, the majority will need replacement by 2030.

Furthermore, as the turbines exceed their safety remit, the sector is also set to lose the unique skillset of engineers that originally installed and maintained these early models, as they are now approaching professional retirement.

With a combination of these factors, it is anticipated that the additional requirement could significantly slow the growth of the renewable energy sector. And, of course, with each passing year, more turbines will need to be replaced – for which no provision seems to have been made.

Once operational, the problems don't stop there. While the government's projection for installed capacity might be set at 40GW by 2030, load factors vary considerably.

The lower range resides at percentages in the high 30s, and only in one experimental unit is a figure close to 60 percent achieved – in the extreme north of Scotland, conditions which are unlikely to be replicated elsewhere.

The average load factor for the entire offshore fleet is somewhat optimistically set at 40 percent which means that, even if the target of 40GW is reached, the actual availability will stand at 16GW.

Unsurprisingly, the onshore fleet delivers considerable less so that, in real world conditions, the 24.1GW of installed wind capacity only delivered 5.58GW in the last year – despite the National Grid giving preference to renewables production.

Within the average figures, though, are concealed a multitude of sins. Normal operational fluctuations in power production range from 2-300 percent, requiring a massive balancing operation to ensure that supply matches demand. The greater the contribution of wind power, the harder (and more expensive) it is to keep the system balanced.

As if this was not enough of a problem, there are occasional meteorological conditions when the contribution of wind falls to near zero. Where, as anticipated, the total (as opposed to occasional) renewables contribution is planned to exceed 50 percent, a collapse in the wind supply coinciding with peak demand, could be impossible to manage without substantial load shedding.

It is here that future planning is focused on a "smart" grid, the essential component of which is the network of smart meters which will permit selective load-shedding. By 2050, it is anticipated that as much as 32GW could be shaved off peaks without have to shut any part of the system down.

However, there have been considerable delays in smart meter roll-out, and technical problems with existing meters in terms of system compatibility. Currently, less than half of the 50 million target has been installed. There are no publicly accessible data on the number of non-functional meters.

However, smart meters are only part of the equation. The next phase is the introduction of smart appliances, which allows electricity distributors to reach into individual homes and disable, temporarily, appliances such as kettles, refrigerators and vacuum cleaners.

A crucial part of that system will also be the provision of two-way connectors for EVs, which will allow the Grid to shut off charging at peak periods and even draw power from the batteries of charged vehicles.

Not only are these connectors more expensive, though, there are increasing concerns about the fire risk during charging. Although, statistically, the risk is slight, the consequences are severe and current advice is to disconnect cars once changed. This rather defeats the object of the smart charging network.

Add to this the lack of capacity, brought about in part by the failure of the nuclear replacement programme, and what looks to be an unrealistically ambitious wind programme, and the risk of serious outages by 2030 begins to look unacceptably high.

Also published on Turbulent Times.