Oswald is an expert on gas turbines, having worked for many years at Rolls Royce*. He says that most people, in allowing for gas backup to wind farms, assume that the current situation of gas-turbine usage applies. Not so, he says. Gas turbines used to compensate for wind will need to be cheap (as they won't be on and earning money as often as today's) and resilient (to cope with being throttled up and down so much). Even though the hardware will be cheap and tough, it will break often under such treatment; meaning increased maintenance costs and a need for even more backup plants to cover busted backup plants. Thus, the scheme overall will be more expensive than the current gas sector. And since people won't want to thrash expensive, efficient combined-cycle kit like this, less fuel-efficient gear will be used - emitting more carbon than people now assume.
High-efficiency base load plant is not designed or developed for load cycling ... Load cycling CCGT plant will induce thermal stress cracking in hot components ... The other impact on the individual plant is a reduction in the plant’s utilisation. This has an economic consequence, which will encourage operators of generation plants to buy cheaper, lower-efficiency and therefore higher carbon emission plants ... Reduced reliability will require more thermal plant to be installed ...
And it gets worse. All this will hammer the gas grid's pipeline networks and storage hardware too, costing the end consumer even more money - again, something that isn't currently accounted for in wind power schemes.
Power swings from wind will need to be compensated for by power swings from gas-powered plants, which in turn will induce comparable power swings on the gas network as plant ramps up and down. This will have a cost implication for the gas network, an implication that does not seem to have been included in cost of wind calculations ...
In essence, wind plans aren't actually wind plans, according to Oswald. They're gas plans with windfarms used to reduce the amount of gas actually burned in the plants. But he thinks the assumptions now made on costs and emissions reductions to be anticipated are unduly optimistic.
From one perspective, one might argue that this is the exact purpose of renewable plants, namely to reduce fossil fuel burning. However, it does this not by obviating the need for that plant, but instead by reducing the utilisation of power plants which continue to be indispensable. Electricity operators will respond to the reduced utilisation ... high capital [cleaner gas] plant is not justified under low utilisation regimes ... it is critically important that the carbon saving achieved by the whole system is known, understood, and achieved in practice. The effect of this higher carbon calculation does not appear to be mentioned ...
There was one little ray of light for wind power lovers, however. When we asked Oswald for his views on plans to deal with wind variation using car batteries plugged into the grid for charging, he said he hadn't so far factored that into his plans. There are those - Google, the Danes - who think this might be seriously useful if a large amount of road transport went electric. Obviously, that doesn't seem especially likely in a 2020 UK timeframe, but it might not take that much longer if oil prices stay high.
Of course, that in turn would mean a lot more electricity production required - perhaps magnifying the wind variation problem, if the increased 'leccy demand was met with windfarms. And the calm or windy periods might not come just when the electric car users wanted them to.
"It's an interesting dance," says Oswald.
His article (Oswald, J., et al., Will British weather provide reliable electricity? Energy Policy (2008), doi:10.1016/ j.enpol.2008.04.0330) can be downloaded here, though you have to pay for it. ®
* The jet-engine firm, not the unimportant car badge.
Noone has mentioned geothermal
Supposedly, the problem with wind power is the variability of the wind.
The answer is to drill a really deep bore hole into the ground and let the temperature gradient between the surface and the underground drive a fluid-driven turbine.
The great thing is, in the winter when demand is higher, the temperature gradient is higher. In other words, geothermal produces more power in the winter.
As the earth is constantly producing heat, you get constant power - and there are no complaints about spoiling the view or killing birds, and no CO2 produced once the construction is completed. To save on construction costs, they could use disused mineshafts and drill down further.
It is now even possible to use geothermal to heat your own home. You can choose to dig a deep bore, or if you have enough lawn, you can lay the pipes under the lawn.
If Nuclear is 'relatively' safe - why don't we have nuclear reactors in cities? That is where the bulk of the energy demand is... that would be far more efficient.
Why are we trying to bury waste in Cumbria and not in existing industrial brownfield sites in densely populated areas?
Summary + video of turbine
To summarise then:
(1) gas will be ridiculously expensive and supply will be subject to political factors beyond our control, so saving gas is good;
(2) we will have multiple distributed sources of power, including wind;
(3) it is easier to modify demand than supply (cf Economy 7); things like storage heaters and electric car chargers will take the (relative to gas) cheap surplus wind energy;
(4) demand will be much more spread out with everything-on-demand;
(5) building regs will decimate surplus winter demand for heating: the heat lost in a new house is a tenth of that in a victorian house - and people will cut their use as the price goes up;
(6) the thick birds will have all have been mown down by the millions of cars racing around the countryside. The effect of 1 turbine per 10000 cars will be minimal.
For those who don't appreciate the scale of a wind turbine, here is a video of one with a man climbing down one: