Welcome to European Tribune. It's gone a bit quiet around here these days, but it's still going.

While an overall mission of reaching 100% independence from fossil fuels in electricity generation is a highly commendable one, the strategy you outline here, mainly based on Wind, seems to me to have serious problems.

First of all let me pose a question: from rough calculations, 800 GW of installed capacity would require a quarter million of turbines (rated 3 MW). Using a round value of 1 M€ per unit, the overall investment would be about 250 G€. You provide higher numbers, why the difference?

Anyway investment costs don't appear to be a problem, laid down this way.

I see tow main problems with this strategy:

  • It assumes electricity demand to remain the same from now up to 2020;
  • Underplays the problem of load balancing.

Let me take on each one separately.

Electricity demand

This is the biggest problem, the fact that we have Peak Oil, at best, at our door. Above all it will (already has) create difficulties in the Transport sector, not in the Electricity generation sector. While  petroleum products are still fashionable for electricity generation in some developing economies, in the OECD countries that's not the case.

Rough numbers, Oil provides for 90% of our Transport. As the volumes of petroleum reaching the international market continue declining, the OECD countries will face serious difficulties to continue running their transport infrastructures without major transformations. At the moment electricity seems to be the best positioned energy vector to take over diesel and gasoline; already auto makers across the world are making the shift, either developing hybrid engines or full electric vehicles. But the big shift will likely be the update/expansion of the electrified rail road network (see Alan Drake's strategy for the US here).

Transport will become a much more pressing issue than Electricity generation in the US (well at least as long as a serious shortage of Natural Gas doesn't unfold). And will inevitably impose an increasing demand on the electric grid, that will not only represent a generation challenge but will also exacerbate the load balancing issue (people travel at the same time).

Load Balancing

You underplay the load balancing issues with the observation that the large extent of the US mainland is subject to different wind regimes, which is indeed backed up the reports you provide. But  these reports were written with Wind having a small margin of the generation market, what will happen when Wind reaches, or even goes beyond 50% of the installed capacity? Will it work the same way?

The main problem with this line of thinking is the fact the US has a clear geographic uneven Wind resource, with the Midwest clearly possessing the best prospects. Hence it is to expect for the Wind Industry to develop on a relatively constrained area of the country, at least on an initial phase. The same could have happened in Europe, since the North Sea presents a much superior resource than anything else. But has the offshore industry is some years behind the onshore, development took place initially inland, providing a somewhat diversified wind park.

Please remind the August 2003 heat wave (you can find a pressure chart from the 7th of August here). As can be seen, several highs gathered those days covering the whole continent, the islands and the North Sea, all registering pressures above 1000 hPa. While in the US an event like this would never be extensive enough to drop generation to zero, it could cause serious problems if it hit one of those preferential sites.

The "full wind" strategy would have to deal with this. I can see two ways of doing it:

  • Build extra capacity - developing alternate sites that would ensure a minimum output throughout the country;

  • Expand energy storage - install back pumping storage on every hydroelectric infrastructure or develop new systems like compressed air storage;

I exclude Natural Gas from these tactics on purpose, for it is a fossil fuel, with an uncertain future in the US. Both tactics push up the overall generation capacity required. This isssue should require a proper assessment, both in cost as in power output.

That's essentially it. Don't take me wrong, Wind will undoubtedly play a major role in our shift away from fossil fuels. But any strategy planning that shift supported by a single energy source and without properly addressing the Transport issues is likely bound to failure.


by Luis de Sousa (luis[dot]de[dot]sousa[at]protonmail[dot]ch) on Fri Jul 18th, 2008 at 05:54:47 AM EST

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