Wind energy: We have finally found a solution to our energy dilemma.
Energy in abundance – or so it seems.
But what are the technical issues?
1. Wind energy is one of the main pillars of the renewable energy transition in Europe. But we should not forget that wind energy comes with a huge price tag.
Germany is a good example to illustrate this: In the last 20 years, German industry doubled its efforts to become a world leading producer of wind and solar technology. This was a major achievement, and only in the last 10 years did China surpass Germany as the renewable energy powerhouse in terms of production capacity.
Clean energy is certainly a good thing, but it comes at a huge cost. We can already see the effects this has had on consumers. In 2020 Germany will have the highest electricity prices per kWh in the industrialized world. This record is unbroken, because until recently Denmark has had the highest electricity prices in the industrialized world. We should also keep in mind that a major part of electricity bills is taxation.
At the end of every year, German households receive a letter from their utility provider outlining electricity costs. A significant portion of the tax is passed on to the renewable energy industry in the form of state subsidies. Some would argue that the renewable energy boom in solar power and wind energy could not have happened without subsidies. There is some truth in this.
2. History of wind energy: Windmills have played an important role in the history of North-Western Europe
Some locations present distinct challenges when it comes to generating wind energy. Some areas are renewable energy hotspots like the North Sea. Wind energy is generally favored by governments and wind farms have spread all across the North European Plain, North-Western Europe in particular. That plain passes through the northern part of Germany. This flat land stretches all the way from the Netherlands and Benelux Region to the Ural Mountains. The flatness of this terrain is ideal for generating wind energy. It allows for high wind speeds along wind-swept coasts of the North Sea and Baltic Sea.
In North-Western Europe, industrial production would have been unimaginable – in its industrialized form – without wind as power source. Windmills crushed whole grains into flour – in North-Western Europe windmills have been present for centuries. On top of that, windmills saved a lot of time. During harvest, every helping hand was needed to process wheat flour.
Thanks to the invention of mechanical windmills, some of these workers could move on to other professions and occupations. In contrast to other forms of energy extraction windmills depend on weather conditions. Windmills and by association wind energy plants are a mechanical device that relies on a primary energy source. Granted, wind doesn’t always blow, but in the Netherlands and in Northern Germany wind is there much too often (at least it seems that way).
We might come to the conclusion that windmills present a form of early mechanization to the European economy. They visually resemble more advanced mechanical devices of the 21st century. To me these similarities seem uncanny. Windmills may have inspired European inventors. This process must have contributed to societal development and allowed North-Western Europe’s population to continually grow steadily.
Windmills have been a labor-saving device that reduced the amount of time needed to process agricultural commodities, and they have allowed labor to be repurposed elsewhere. This has permitted industry to create more tools and more gadgets. Industrial production processes have served a growing population.
Slowly but steadily, time itself became a sought-after commodity. As the ox slowly grinds the starchy wheat into flour, he rotates the wheel which connects to different widgets. The ox runs in a circle 360 degrees, just like a watch does today. Time could be measured – in that sense.
How does European history translate to the present day? We haven’t given up on windmills, that’s for sure. We have gained more knowledge on how to utilize wind energy and have expanded our (energy) horizon. Our views have broadened to encompass the sea. We have gained more knowledge how to operate these plants in the North Sea, which is an area that consistently shows high wind speeds. In the North Sea, the wind blows formulaic as if scheduled. We face some challenges to transport electricity back to the coast.
We face quite similar problems in the Baltic Sea. Constructing offshore wind energy farms in the Baltic Sea is complicated. We have less room to install these plants in locations deemed suitable for further expansion. Permits and regulatory limits have set clear boundaries on the availability of allotments. New solutions try to fix this problem, we can now build floating offshore wind plants father from coastal waters.
Onshore wind energy plants face a ginormous amount of restrictions. Compared to offshore wind energy, new problems will come up like public engagement with the local population residing in one area.
Assuming we have all the building permits and all the consents, then we still have to resolve the problem of intermittency of electricity transmission. When the wind blows too strong, we have to shut down the plant. Shutting it down means less revenue. Wind energy plants can operate for 20 years or so, as long as the operating permit allows us. If wind speed is not enough, or the wind doesn’t blow at all, we will have to use precious oil to keep the engine running. The tacit mechanics of the wind energy plant could get damaged if we don’t do that.
That is why the main problem with wind energy plants is that we do not know how to store wind energy effectively (at high wind speeds). The problem is intermittency of electricity generation. Solutions available?
3. The problem with intermittency and storage: We can solve this problem by integrating different renewable energy systems.
Solution: We bypass the problem. We can combine different renewable energy solutions into one single entity. I have written on this topic on several occasions and elaborated that wind energy should be an add-on to solar energy and biomass conversion plants. This requires different renewable energy solutions to be present in one specific location, which makes it more difficult. It also entails much larger investments, and we will have to face the fact that decentralized solutions do not always constitute best option for our energy supplies in an industrial, high-tech economy.
Let us take the example of solar energy. The sun doesn’t always shine as the saying goes. Pretty much the same problem we have with wind energy.
Now let us take the example of biogas, which is less dependent on specific weather phenomena on a day. Anaerobic digestion is the technology used in biogas plants. Substrate is turned into silage. Bacteria feed on the substrate, or silage. Methane, among other gases, is exported to the grid when needed. The oversupply of electricity from the wind energy plant is send directly to the biogas plant where it can be used to heat up the silage. That means more methane is produced.
On a societal level, many people are concerned about high methane emissions that pass through small cracks in the biogas plant, and exude into the environment. It is often said that the gas admixture from a biogas plants has high sulfur content, which damages the grid infrastructure. There is some validity to this. But it appears our next best option if we are unable to store electricity in batteries on a commercial scale for the utilities.
4. Hydrogen fuel to solve our intermittency problem
We are still in the process of building a hydrogen economy. The creation of an economy that is fueled by hydrogen will take many years. Iceland and Norway are, to my knowledge, the only two countries where a hydrogen economy in its simplest form is currently being implemented on a societal level. In Iceland, buses are powered with hydrogen.
But we should keep in mind that Iceland possesses almost unlimited geothermal energy potential. There is some geothermal potential in the northern part of Germany, but this does not equate to Iceland’s energy abundance. As I have previously alluded to, Germany does not have the same potential for hydropower as does Norway.
The problem is the EROI (Energy-Return-On-Energy-Invested). Converting electricity into hydrogen lowers the EROI considerably. There is a significant energy loss converting one energy source into another. Let’s keep in mind that hydrogen is a secondary source of energy. We still face the problem what to do with the hydrogen we have generated from a primary energy source. The infrastructure to move hydrogen around hasn’t been build either. We have to factor in the cost of building and maintaining such an infrastructure.
5. Hydropower might become a means to reduce renewable energy intermittency
When I think of hydropower in a European context, I think of Norway primarily because Norway has steady rainfall all year round and the landscape is ideal for hydropower. You will find a steep gradient for hydropower plants. But due to friction we would loose most of that energy on its way from Norway to Germany. So that is not an ideal solution to buffer renewable energy supplies from wind energy.
Now let us get to the issue of storing wind energy in batteries.
6. Combined solutions for batteries and EV infrastructure
We are facing more or less the same problems as with hydrogen (fuel). Our economy hinges on petroleum because petrol can be transported almost anywhere, is energy-dense, liquid, can be stored almost anywhere and it requires fewer safety measures and infrastructure requirements. Batteries and electricity networks are fragile and require constant monitoring. Batteries for the utility sector are not yet commercially-viable without subsidies.
EV batteries could absorb and hold excess electricity. But at the moment we have not yet developed a distribution network that is compatible with the requirements of the electric vehicle industry. The sheer mass of electric vehicles coming onto the market and storing electricity is gigantic. This is true for transformers, which are less efficient than most people realize. Of course, all of this applies only if most people will drive electric cars and have spare cash. Even then, batteries are not suitable for truly long-term storage.
Another point: There is a chance that we will experience coronal mass ejection in the next 25 to 50 years or so. This is an unlikely event but if it happend it could destroy our EV/ battery infrastructure. Depending on where you are on the map, a coronal mass ejection could hit any region. The consequences of coronal mass ejection can affect electronics everywhere. We are not even talking about smart metering and smart grid infrastructure components.
Coronal mass ejection is a good reason not to abandon fossil fuels. Fossil fuels retain their energy density over a very long period of time. They require little energy to maintain until needed for energy consumption. Fossil fuels are resistant to coronal mass ejections. An event like coronal mass ejection could affect wind energy and solar storage. A good idea it is to store wind energy in underground caves, for example with brine or salt or pumped-storage facilities. It is important that the element we use can store energy. It is equally important that the element does not lose too much energy.
Our preferred solution is to integrate different renewable energy systems. In this scenario we assume that we want to rely 100% on renewable energies. Different scenarios are conceivable. Because of coronal mass ejections it makes sense to leave fossil fuels in the fuel mix. This makes us less vulnerable to external events.