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August 14, 2023

No wind? No problem

Jonathan Parsons from Artemis Impact Equities Team provides an optimistic outlook for the future of wind power in the UK, even when the wind doesn’t blow!

This article has been supplied to The Big Exchange by Artemis Fund Managers. The views expressed therein are those of the author and should not be considered investment advice.

Jonathan Parsons, Artemis Impact Equities Team, March 2023

• The wind blows more reliably (and more quickly) offshore than on land.

• The UK is a world leader in offshore wind.

• Worries about the ‘intermittency’ of renewable energy are (yet another) red herring.

What do we do when the wind doesn’t blow?

Do you remember that cold snap back in March? On 10 March, temperatures across much of the UK were at the lowest levels this year, having fallen to -15°C in some places overnight. And as homes, offices and greenhouses demanded more power to keep their occupants warm, the electricity grid came under massive strain. At the same time, a high-pressure system was sitting across the north of mainland Britain. That meant the blades of onshore wind turbines, approximately two-thirds of which are in Scotland, weren’t turning…

This drop-off in production from onshore wind turbines – combined with strikes at EDF’s nuclear plants in France, which are linked to the UK through interconnectors – created challenges for the UK in balancing the grid.  The National Grid switched on two coal-fired power stations in Lincolnshire for the first time this year. And bids for gas power generation touched £1950 per MWh (the usual price range is £200-£400 per MWh).

Predictably, the response in the usual quarters was to focus on the intermittency of wind power (“what do we do when the wind doesn’t blow?”). For two reasons, however, that question was a red herring.

• First, although onshore turbines temporarily stopped turning, offshore wind farms were less affected.

• Second, new technology is helping to smooth energy supplies and maintain grid stability without the need for fossil fuels.

Offshore wind will become a key source of energy for the UK

During the first quarter of this year, almost a third of the UK’s electricity demand was satisfied by wind power (outstripping gas). Of that, over 70% came from offshore sources.

So, there’s good news for those who worry (or pretend to worry) about relying on the wind for a large part of our electricity needs. The fact is that windspeeds offshore are higher and more consistent than onshore – and this is where the UK will, in the future, derive the bulk of its wind energy. Existing onshore capacity is the second largest in the world and the UK has one of the largest pipelines of offshore wind power in the world.

The UK is a leader in offshore wind power (Source: Statista)

The technology needed to manage grid stability in a decarbonised energy system already exists

Yet while offshore wind is more reliable than its onshore cousin, grid stability is something that will need to be managed. The grid is not yet ready to depend on fluctuating supplies from renewables, but it will be... Because, while we currently need to use coal or gas-powered turbines to provide stability, in the future we can look to two types of technology – synchronous compensators and flywheels – to provide it.

Flywheels – are heavy wheels used to store rotational energy to provide continuous, smooth power output in systems where energy supplies are not continuous. Found in potter’s wheels, flywheels have been with us for centuries

Synchronous compensators – are, essentially, large motors that are not connected to anything and so just… spin. Their kinetic energy can also be used to stabilise the grid during rapid fluctuations of loads, by either releasing or absorbing power as needed to adjust the grid’s voltage.

These technologies are already contributing to stability: the Lister Drive Greener Grid Park in Liverpool has just been plugged into the grid, where it is supplying “current and inertia to the system, maintaining strength and stability in the electricity system, without producing harmful carbon emissions.” It follows in the footsteps of a similar system already installed in Moray and is part of Phase 1 of the National Grid’s ‘Stability Pathfinder Scheme’. Once completed, this phase is expected to deliver power equivalent to five coal-fired power stations.

So, by ‘conserving angular momentum’ and stabilising the national grid, these technologies are also helping to conserve our planet. They are also helping to make days on which the wind doesn’t blow something that windsurfers and kite-fliers need to worry about – not the rest of us.

Important information

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This article has been supplied to The Big Exchange by Artemis Fund Managers.

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