With more accurate forecasts, the potential of wind power to prove a reliable alternative to fossil fuels is on the up.
Improvements in forecasting techniques could allow wind power to contribute a greater share of the UK’s peak electricity demand – perhaps as much as an additional 1.5GW, which would allow three medium-sized coal plants to be turned off.
That’s according to National Grid, which runs the country’s electricity network. It is trialling a new weather forecasting system, which it claims can predict when wind will blow (at electricity-generating speeds) in any given location 87% of the time. This helps to minimise the thorny problem of ‘intermittency’ (the fact that wind doesn’t always blow when power is needed).
The main challenge for any electricity network is to match supply with demand. Since demand fluctuates, and large amounts of electricity cannot be stored, some generating capacity needs to be kept running on ‘spinning reserve’, ready to feed into the grid when needed to match surges in demand. This is also necessary to make up losses in supply, such as when other power stations break down, or when wind power fails as the breeze drops.
The more confident National Grid can be about exactly how much electricity the wind can produce at any given time, the fewer stations will need to be kept running as backup. Since these are typically coal or gas plants, this will result in substantial savings in carbon as well as cost.
Wind currently meets about 5% of the UK’s electricity needs, but this proportion will need to grow significantly – mainly through offshore wind farms – if the UK is to meet the EU target of 15% of energy from renewables by 2020. So the importance of precise forecasting will grow, too. – Maria Stone
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