A Mighty Extreme Wind for Offshore Turbines

In January we reported that winds across the Northern continents were losing some of their punch, and that climate change threatened to weaken them further — altogether bad news for wind power. In stark contrast, Australian researchers report today in the journal Science that gusts are accelerating over Earth’s oceans.

Unfortunately the trend offers offshore wind power a mixed bag: stronger but also more dangerous winds. “Mean wind conditions over the oceans have only marginally increased over the last 20 years. It is the extreme conditions where there has been a larger increase,” says Ian Young, vice chancellor at the Australian National University in Canberra and principal author of today’s report. Continue reading “A Mighty Extreme Wind for Offshore Turbines”

China’s Grid-Limited Wind Energy Potential

China’s wind power industry barely noticed the international financing crisis, doubling installations in 2008  for the fifth year in a row. Readers of Carbon-Nation shouldn’t be surprised, as we have already documented the state and market share-driven industry’s insensitivity to quaint financial targets such as profitability. What may ultimately check China’s seemingly unstoppable wind power surge is the capacity of its power grids to absorb the resulting energy.

China wind capacity-factor projection. Credit Michael McElroyThat conclusion emerges when one examines a report in Science last week by researchers at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and Beijing’s Tsinghua University, which combines meteorological and engineering models to predict that wind farms could meet all new electricity demand in China through 2030 at reasonably low cost. My coverage of the report, published yesterday by MIT’s Technology Review.com, concludes that China’s grid is the key hurdle to realizing this bold prediction, noting hopefully that China is already leading the world in the development of high voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission technology — the sort needed to share variable renewable energy sources such as wind power on a trans-continental scale, thereby minimizing the power supply’s vulnerability to regional weather patterns.

Analysts, however, doubt that China can build such renewables-ready supergrids fast enough to replace anticipated additions of coal and nuclear power, as projected by the Harvard-Tsinghua report. Caitlin Pollock, who prepares Asia wind market forecasts for Cambridge, MA-based consutancy Emerging Energy Research, says grid challenges make the growth level proposed “unfeasible and unlikely.” She notes that grid integration already lags wind-farm installation: “While China’s wind market has indeed doubled for the past two years, approximately 30% of this new capacity remained unconnected to the grid at the end of each year.” Continue reading “China’s Grid-Limited Wind Energy Potential”

Winged Creatures Should Fear CO2, Not Wind Turbines

Benjamin Sovacool agrees that wind turbines kill birds and bats, but this University of Singapore public policy professor makes a convincing case that this fact desperately needs context. Reviewing avian mortality from power generation in the June issue of Energy Policy, Sovacool shows that — gigawatt-hour for gigawatt-hour — it is fossil-fired power by a longshot that will ground winged creatures.

Sovacool’s analysis estimates avian deaths throughout the fuel cycle for coal, oil and natural-gas fired power generation:

  • Coal mining = 0.02 deaths per gigawatt-hour (GWh). For example, habitat destruction by mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia has killed approximately 191,722 Cerulean Warblers.
  • Plant operations = 0.07 bird deaths/GWh. Electrocution at one well-observed power plant in Spain killed 467 birds over two years.
  • Acid rain = 0.05 deaths/GWh. Cornell’s Laboratory of Ornithology estimated in 2002 that acid rain reduced the U.S. wood thrush population by 2–5%.
  • Mercury emissions = 0.06 deaths/GWh. Impacts include hampered reproduction and survival, observed in everything from albatross and woodstorks to bald eagles. Continue reading “Winged Creatures Should Fear CO2, Not Wind Turbines”

Repowering Wind Farms via Electronic Paper

Journalism is in the grips of a financial crisis, and that should worry us all. Cutbacks in reporting staff, such as CNN’s elimination of its science/environment/technology unit, will deplete the capacity for learning and intelligent decision making that our society so badly needs at this critical energy juncture. Online distribution of news could help by reducing printing costs, but this potential new direction for journalism is currently undermined by several faults: online news tends to fracture readership because readers go only to those stories they know in advance will interest them, and free access to articles combined with slim advertising revenue makes it a poor mechanism for financing quality news gathering.

What if there was a means of reading magazines and newspapers online, in a semblance of their current form, providing the information richness of dozens of pages of varied content (plus the advertising to pay for it)? There are several experiments of this sort underway by major newspapers. I just signed up for a free trial of the New York Times Electronic Edition, which is a digital replica of the printed paper.

There are tech tools available to turn digital newspapers into the portable reading experience we’re accustomed to, and they keep getting better. The NYTimes got excited this fall about a largescreen reader to be released in trial volumes later this year by the U.K.’s Plastic Logic:

The device, which is unnamed, uses the same technology as the Sony eReader and Amazon.com‘s Kindle, a highly legible black-and-white display developed by the E Ink Corporation. While both of those devices are intended primarily as book readers, Plastic Logic’s device… has a screen more than twice as large. The size of a piece of copier paper, it can be continually updated via a wireless link, and can store and display hundreds of pages of newspapers, books and documents.

Richard Archuleta, the chief executive of Plastic Logic, said the display was big enough to provide a newspaperlike layout. “Even though we have positioned this for business documents, newspapers is what everyone asks for,” Mr. Archuleta said.

Software is also improving the online reading experience, such as the Scribd iPaper document reader, which the NYTimes and other news sources use to present primary sources in web stories (thanks to Jim Bruggers for the tip). The January edition of one of the magazines I write for, IEEE Spectrum, is available in Scribd’s iPaper format, complete with full-text indexing (see embedded reader below).

As a preliminary test why not flip to an article in January’s Spectrum that should interest Carbon-Nation readers: my story on the repowering of Europe’s first-generation wind farms — an energy upgrade that could dominate the next decade’s worth of wind installations in pioneering wind-energy states such as Denmark and Germany.

Search for “Europe Replaces Old Wind Farms” and the iPaper reader will take you to the story on page 15 before you’re done typing. Then click this post’s comments link to reply and let us know what you think of the virtual reading experience. Could electronic tools like this save journalism and, in turn, democracy?

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Probing for Fluff in Europe’s Supergrids Vision

European renewable energy supergrid map Credit Wibke von FlemmingLast month the European Commission (EC) called for construction of regional power transmission grids that would ultimately merge into a supergrid distributing Mediterranean solar energy and offshore wind energy across Europe. Today, in MIT’s Technology Review, I test the political reality of sharing power across Europe (see “Europe Backs Supergrids”) and show that the EC just might pull it off.

Why be skeptical? Because for over a decade the EC has been pushing the liberalization of the European electricity market. Whereas, given the limited capacity for exchange of power between many European countries one could fairly question whether a ‘European market’ for electricity even exists.

Wind power developer Eddie O’Connor, for example, told me that his priority – building an offshore grid to connect tens of gigawatts of North Sea wind farms to be installed in the coming decade – would remain a dream so long as the European states and their politically powerful utilities control tranmission planning. “The utilities are the enemy,” says O’Connor, founder of wind developer Airtricity and CEO of Mainstream Renewable Power. “Even at this stage they’re still the enemy.”

What my report for TechReview shows, however, is that change is possible. The best example is a French-Spanish agreement this summer — under intense prodding from the EC — clearing the way for a much-needed second powerline across the Pyrenees. A special envoy appointed by the EC broke what had been a 15-year impasse complicated by local environmental concerns, Catalan fury, and diverging interests of the utilities involved. 

Even O’Connor is optimistic. He believes that new international institutions must be created to conjur up the supergrid Europe needs to carry renewable energy. But, says O’Connor, both are possible: “I believe the building of the supergrid is imminent.”  

Stay tuned for more on the EC’s energy envoys.

This post was created for EnergywiseIEEE Spectrum’s blog on green power, cars and climate

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Feathered Farmland Friends of the Fens

The wind power industry has had close to zero success designing bird and bat-safe turbines, but nascent research by ecologists nevertheless shows that wind power is compatible with local ecology. Case in point: today’s report in Britain’s Journal of Applied Ecology on wind farms and birds in the East Anglian fens.

Mark Whittingham and fellow ecologists from Newcastle University surveyed birds on farmland around two wind farms in the fens and recorded almost 3,000 birds from 23 different species. Among them are five endangered species: the yellowhammer, the Eurasian tree sparrow, the corn bunting, the Eurasian skylark and the common reed bunting.

Whittingham and company found the wind turbines had no effect on the birds’ distribution with the exception of common pheasants. “This is the first evidence suggesting that the present and future location of large numbers of wind turbines on European farmland is unlikely to have detrimental effects on farmland birds,” says Whittingham.

Plenty of questions remain. For example, a comprehensive $15 million study of Denmark’s large offshore wind farms published last winter showed seabirds to be remarkably adept at avoiding offshore installations, but ecologists remain concerned that the 10,000 megawatts of offshore wind power that Germany hopes to install by 2020 could scare off populations of endangered loons along Germany’s North Sea coast.

Even the Newcastle study was conducted last winter and must be followed up to confirm there are no unexpected impacts during the breeding season.

The wind industry would do well to continue working on newer, safer technology.

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This post was created for Tech Talk – Insights into tomorrow’s technology from the editors of IEEE Spectrum.