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Non-nuclear energy

Why are R&D needed for wind power?

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Wind mills in Wales, courtesy of ESN

Why wind power is not in regular use everywhere yet?

  • Wind speeds in any area are variable and therefore the wind is an intermittent source of electricity. During periods of very low winds, wind turbines cannot generate any electricity at all and at extremely high winds they must be shut down to prevent damage. This variable nature of wind power reduces its attractivity especially for the traditional operators of large power plants. They do, therefore, often decide to build a new conventional power plant rather than to rely on a power source, that requires additional efforts for proper exploitation. New power plants usually increase the reserve capacity of electricity generation and thus reduce the need for installation of wind turbines (or other smaller-size power plants) until the power consumption does further increase or old power stations have to be dismantled.
  • As long as wind remains a small fraction (less than 10%) of total electricity generation, there is no problem integrating wind energy into an electrical grid. Beyond this level of penetration, problems with reliability and stability of power supply may occur and research efforts are needed to solve or at least reduce these problems.

Why do we need RTD
The generalised use of wind turbines as a source of electricity in the future will probably depend more upon the costs of other electricity generating options and public reaction to their environmental impacts than on the further improvement of wind turbine technology itself, which is already quite advanced and mature. Nevertheless, there are still a few technological advancements that would further improve the potential of wind power.

  • For ecological (and also long-term economical) reasons, it is highly desirable to try to cover the total world energy demand with renewable sources of energy. Not only could this make a major contribution to the reduction of CO2 emissions, but it would also permit future generations to use fossil fuels for other purposes (e.g. chemical raw material). At the shorter term the cost of sustainable energy production must become more competitive and research and technological development will play a key role in bringing this about.

Among all sustainable options wind power is the one, which has already achieved a significant breakthrough on the market. Further R&D efforts will help to increase its potential and its share in the energy supply.

What RTD is necessary for Wind?

  • New lightweight composite materials for use in turbine blades could result in larger turbines (over 1 MW) becoming more reliable and thus more cost effective. Equally important is ensuring advancements in control systems, which would allow larger turbine blades to be used without experiencing damage during storms.
  • The development of "offshore" wind farms in coastal areas would also improve the prospects for wind power. More R&D activities are required to solve problems linked with offshore farms (reliability, accessibility, maintenance, corrosion by salty sea water.
  • Breakthroughs in electricity storage or other storage systems (hydropower, compressed air) would also make wind power more attractive as an electricity supply option. Since there are large areas around the world which only have moderately strong winds, any improvements which result in economic generation of electricity from areas with slightly poorer wind resources would have a big impact on the future of wind power. 
    blade close-up, courtesy of ESN
  • Wind power is free of charge – only the cost of conversion into electricity has to be paid for, and this represents the strongest advantage over fossil energy technologies. However, the intermitting nature of this source of energy, constitutes a major drawback. During the 1980s the cost of wind generated electricity dropped from about 15 - 20 cents per kWh to the current average costs of 6-8 cents per kWh. This compares favourably to the costs of generating electricity from fossil fuels (4-6 cents per kWh) and is cheaper than the cost of electricity from most recent nuclear power plants. The costs came down largely because of improvements in the reliability of wind turbines, the best of that are now available to operate 95 - 98% of the time.

Why is EU support necessary?
The European industry leads the way in the field of wind technology. To maintain this position requires increased RTD support as well as new policies on RES penetration. The market needs a removal of administrative and legal barriers.
Co-operation between the EU Research Programmes and those of Member States could help to achieve bigger targets in a shorter time-scale. In addition, standardisation of the technology will require a common EU approach.

Barriers and Bottlenecks
What are the major technical barriers to be overcome?

Significant developments are still anticipated in the areas of

  • Cost reduction: The biggest barrier remains cost and this is expected to fall by between 20% and 35% at the long term. A reduction in the cost also helps to overcome other barriers by enabling exploitation of lower wind speed sites and offshore sites, so increasing the potential for power generation while reducing visual impact.
  • Turbines and Blades: Innovation in terms of the overall machine design and layout, and for the components of wind turbines, is likely to facilitate a significant long-term reduction in energy costs from wind. This will be achieved by maximising the rotor diameter, whilst reducing the design loads and the overall system mass with the help of new materials. Examples of innovation are the use of highly flexible rotor-blades and direct drive generators.
  • Offshore technology. Foundation and grid connection costs are much higher than for on shore installations. Up-scaling and optimisation of design are, therefore, areas for technical improvements leading to cost reductions.
  • Exploitation at lower wind speeds: better modelling studies will lead to a deeper understanding of the wind condition in a specific landscape. This, in turn, will enable designs to be optimised, to reduce the weight and cost of wind turbines, and ultimately to allow exploitation of lower speed winds.

What are the major non-technical barriers to be overcome?

  • The liberalisation of the energy markets, which will mean that with increased competition, energy companies will be reluctant to invest in new, risky, sustainable technologies.
  • Making the technology socially acceptable.

Wind mills close-up, courtesy of ESN
How can these targets be achieved?
  • EC policy: A fair policy will ensure that wind energy is not disadvantaged in a market based on fossil fuel, which does not consider the specific necessities of wind energy generation.
  • Access to the grid: A guaranteed access to the grid for the electricity produced by wind power has been the most successful mechanism in terms of attaining installed capacity and often in terms of achieving lower cost of energy where there is competition. For this mechanism to work the utilities have an obligation to purchase the power at a reasonable price.
  • Green power market: Green power – electricity from clean energy sources. More and more consumers seem prepared to pay a higher price, provided that the source of energy is less polluting. Legislation endorsing the requirement of a minimum market quota would be beneficial to this initiative.