The previous entry on our attitudes to the future (Global Warming; it’s the end…), produced a considerable bag of responses (by my modest standards). It’s clearly a subject which many climate bloggers hold dear to their hearts, myself included.
It would have been easy to be discouraged by some of the opinions expressed, the gist being that we probably can do something to mitigate against dangerous change, but few of us have much confidence (in the political process, at least), that enough will be done in the time window available, which most are comfortable to agree is around ten or so years.
But, through a peculiar chain of circumstances, the Old man found himself reading up on wind. That’s the energy source, not the digestive by-product. And hope starts to spring again, albeit merely a moderate hope. Why? Because, in wind, we have the means to act fast, act big, and act together, in a way which is not allowed by any other energy strategy (as I understand it).
It is true that wind energy has taken a while to find its feet, and that it cannot replace all of the other energy sources required, but it is also true that both ‘large wind’ and ‘small wind’ have come on a long way in the last few years and, now that energy prices have leapt, technology and understanding has improved, and public resistance has, to some extent, abated, this energy source is now both economically viable and environmentally friendly. It also has the added advantage of not being a ‘security threat’, and being widely (though not universally) available.
So where are all the wind projects? Where are all the turbines? California has led the way for a long time (in spite of having a relatively poor wind resource compared to some). Iowa and some other states are making moves; Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands are already heavily committed and making progress, whilst the UK, which has at its beck and call around 40% of Europe’s total available wind energy resource, is lagging somewhat behind.
In terms of cutting emissions, the advantages are obvious and (relatively) immediate. Even a complex wind farm project need only take a year or so from inception to construction, if there isn’t too much interference from what appears to be irrational NIMBYish objections. Setting up an installation is not a trivial matter, but it is considerably simpler than building a power plant, or a reactor. Carbon footprint is also excellent; generally, the entire footprint (including decommissioning) can be accounted for in the first months of operation. It is also considerably easier to set up in otherwise little-used area, so long as the important environmental considerations are not otherwise problematic (and they rarely are).
Best of all (to me), is that wind energy is now something which many more people can participate in on an individual, business, community or group level. Efficient and cost-efficient products, tested by time and shown to work, already exist, in ranges from about 5-6kW up to 250kW, perhaps beyond. This means that homes can have them, small businesses, branches of corporate entities (such as discount warehouses or shopping malls), villages and towns, schools and police stations… actually, the list is very long.
There are still problems. Urban wind – arguable the place where the most potential need exists – still presents some logistical difficulties (wind shear, turbulence, surface roughness, etc…) , but even in a large town or city, it is still possible to find high rises, blocks of flats or apartments, and, perhaps most usefully, industrial/commercial estates, where an installation would cause few if any problems, and where the energy returned would more than match the cost of installation.
So why aren’t wind turbines of all sizes springing up everywhere? Well, the main problems are twofold: in the case of large installations such as wind farms, the planning process can be hopelessly slow; apparently, there’s a backlog of about 2gW of apllications in the UK alone waiting for completion of the planning process. In the case of smaller installations, the cost has been high in relation to the return expected, and little or no incentive has been offered in terms of grants or discounts, so far.
But I think all this is about to change. First, several energy companies have emissions reduction targets to meet, with penalties for non-compliance. Some of these also offer green tariffs, which are in high demand, but for which they currently lack the capacity to satisfy. At least two energy providers are now offering around 9pence (18cents) per kWh for any excess energy returned to the grid. On top of this, they are compelled, through ROCs, to credit wind users at least 4.5pence/kWh for the energy they use (though these companies also offer a better rate than this). Businesses can claim full credit for the CCL tax (about .45p/unit) on all the energy they use, if they source at least a proportion of their energy from renewables. A couple of companies are now manufacturing turbines on a production line, which reduces the cost, and there is much less resistance to installation from energy companies (in fact, they generally try hard to be helpful, now, for the reasons above).
So, both ‘small’ and ‘large’ wind power installations are now economically viable. Payback times vary with installation size, but the range goes from around five years up to around twenty, for good quality, well-sited and well-installed projects. These vary mainly with the available wind regime, but small turbines should pay back in regimes with a mean wind speed at hub height of around 5.5-6 metres/second, and large ones at regimes around 3.5-4 m/s.
So, here’s the Old man advocating a rapid acceleration of the wind energy programme, at all levels, at least in the UK, and arguably in several other countries where the energy source is viable (by no means all countries, or all regions). So, what has he overlooked? Where’s the problem? Critically, why aren’t there more active governmental incentives programmes to support the (perceived) high installation cost? If you are willing to accept that the Old man has done his background reading on the subject, and that the ‘standard’ objections are, by and large, mostly disguised prejudices against change, rather than reasons not to go ahead, what is stopping us, as either individuals (as long as we own a big enough space in a ‘good’ wind area), companies/institutions, or, critically, nations (especially the UK), from doing this?
As ever, my prognostications are fraught with the potential for error and misunderstanding, but I’d like to know from anyone why they think we should not see a very rapid acceleration of wind installations in the coming ten years, starting more or less immediately. Go on; make me miserable again…