Cheaper & Greener: Wind Farms Can Power 1000s Of Homes, In The Right Conditions

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Rampion Offshore Wind Farm in sea around Britain

Why It Matters

We need a range of alternatives to fossil fuels in order to power the world in a sustainable way. Using natural geography to our advantage is one way of ensuring that new power sources are viable for years to come and one example of this is wind power. But for wind power to be it’s most efficient, there needs to be investment in the technology. Britain has become a unique example of the power of wind farms, due to being an island, the government’s recent investment in wind power and the ways in which this has led to better wind farm technology that creates energy for less and in a more green way.

Sources 

The primary source for this article is this piece: Lessons from Britain, the world’s biggest offshore wind market – The Economist

Key Takeaways 

Below are the key points of the article:

  • Worldwide governments have been looking to reduce emissions caused by electricity generation, the urgency of which has increased with the uptake of (and push for) electric vehicles.
  • Wind farms are appealing as the wind blows day and night – unlike solar power which can use the sun only during the day.
    • Offshore wind farms also have the appeal of not disrupting views on land, which is a common complaint about onshore wind farms.
  • Britain is at the forefront of wind power and wind farms:
    • Britain is already the world’s largest offshore wind market, second only to China.
    • In the past decade offshore-wind capacity in Britain has grown 20-fold, meaning it now comprises a quarter of renewable generation. 
    • This is because:
      • The high winds and shallow seas are ideal for wind farms.
      • The UK has created policies that have supported wind farm production.
  • Why Britain is at the forefront:
    • The Climate Change Act called for Britain to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 80% by 2050.
      • ‘offshore wind is a crucial part of the British government’s efforts to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050’
    • Politicians favoured offshore wind
      • They did this because ‘offshore wind’s global capacity is about one-twentieth that of onshore wind or solar.’ – meaning it hasn’t been utilised as much as it could be.
      • Government investment has funded research and a facility in Northumberland to test blades – for wind turbines for wind farms, leading to improvements in the blade technology.
    • The government also created a subsidy for low-carbon power, like wind power, called The Contracts for Difference (CfD) scheme. 
      • The Contracts for Difference (CfD) scheme’s objective is to provide investment certainty by giving projects long-term revenue.
      • Companies bid to supply electricity in contracts lasting 15 years with the government paying the difference between the bid price and the market price.
        • Since 2015, these auctions have excluded onshore wind and solar power.
      • These long term contracts gave companies the certainty to invest, such as those who build the parts for wind turbines, like Siemens Gamesa who made the blades for the Horsea One:
    • Horsea One:
      • is the largest offshore wind farm in the world – until Horsea Two is completed, it is already in the planning stages.
      • comprises of 174 turbines across 407 square kilometres of water
  • Benefits for wind power, globally, due to Britain’s investment:
    • The contracts to create wind power allowed for the development and refinement of the build process.
      • For example, Orsted, the Danish firm which won the contract to 3 wind farms, including Horsea One, was able to purchase parts in bulk, making a saving, and refined each stage of development, across planning, build and maintenance. 
    • This opportunity to create business around wind power, with the help of the government subsidy, means that improved wind farms can be created.
      • For example, Siemens will be building longer blades for Horsea Two ‘so more power can be generated from fewer turbines, lower installation costs.’
        • ‘The new turbines’ diameter will be 167 metres, 40% wider than the London Eye.’
      • ‘Other countries, including America and Taiwan, now have their own plans for offshore wind, benefiting from the expertise that companies honed in Britain.’
    • Success of Britain’s wind power investment
      • Offshore wind capacity has grown twenty-fold in the past decade
      • Offshore wind accounts for one quarter of renewable energy generation in Britain.
      • The cost of electric power costs almost a third of what it did in 2015:
        • ‘The lowest price secured in the first round of auctions, in 2015, was £114.39 ($142) per megawatt hour (mwh). In 2017 the cheapest projects, including Orsted’s Hornsea Two, won with bids of just £57.50. ‘
        • In the latest round of contracts, the lowest costs projects were won with bids of only £39.65 per mwh.
      • Note: 1 MWh equals 1,000 kilowatt hours – enough to supply the average power requirement for around 2000 homes for an hour.
    • Future of UK wind power & ongoing issues
      • The government will hold auctions every 2 years (from 2020 onwards) for low-carbon power – with their expectation that further improvements to the process reduces costs, including to bill-payers, while continuing to be an investment in UK manufacturing.
        • ‘Offshore wind has produced factory jobs, as at the plant in Hull. But it is not clear that creating British manufacturing jobs advances the aim to lower power prices, given Britain’s relatively high labour costs.’
      • The debate over costs may escalate
        • ‘In 2017 Dieter Helm of Oxford University wrote a scathing review of Britain’s energy market, pointing out that consumers were paying high prices even as the cost of renewables plunged. He named lengthy, generous offshore-wind contracts as a principal culprit.’
          • For example: ‘Orsted agreed to build Hornsea One for £140 per mwh, about three times today’s wholesale price.’
        • Compared to onshore, offshore farms present higher risk to return on capital investment due to higher and more uncertain installation – which leads to consumers paying more despite the cost of the renewable energy decreasing with more efficient technology, such as the wind blades.
      • Ambitions aims with wind power requires technology that doesn’t yet exist:
        • ‘The Committee on Climate Change suggested that offshore wind capacity may reach a staggering 75gw in 2050.’
        • ‘That would require about 180 of today’s biggest turbines to be installed in each of the next 30 years.
        • ‘Generating that much more power from intermittent sources will need investment in technology that does not yet exist, including batteries that can store power for weeks.’
      • Britain’s power grid isn’t entirely stable
        • ‘Lightning strikes on August 9th contributed to halting operations at Hornsea One and a small gas plant, causing a power-cut. The blackout illuminated broader problems in Britain’s electricity system that will need to be resolved as it tries to decarbonise.’

The Solutions 

Big Picture Solution

The step towards a zero-emission project is in the right direction. However, the government must be mindful of the cost involved and create long-term investment certainty. Britain must also be cautious of not relying solely on generating wind power while the infrastructure and technology to make the best use of it is still undeveloped. 

Globally, the advances coming out of Britain’s wind farm projects will help other countries, where wind farms can be used reliably, to create better wind farms at a lower cost (to both governments and consumers), which will help the transition away from non-sustainable fuels.

Individual Actions

Consider switching to renewable energy sources, which may vary in your area and cost a little more, to prove the public willingness to move to renewable sources; while doing your part to slow climate change, and remind governments that renewables are where you want them to invest.

References & Sources 

You can read the entire article here – The experiment – Lessons from Britain, the world’s biggest offshore wind market – The Economist 

It includes data from the following sources: 

  • BloombergNEF
  • World Bank, Global Carbon Project 

By Aarthi Ratnam & Nick Gomez