Can Wind Energy Continue Double-Digit Growth?

The need for backup power has been overstated, but grid interconnections are crucial

2 min read

Wind power ­supplies a large proportion of the electricity in countries like Denmark, Germany, and Spain, and its use is growing at an explosive pace around the world. Government ­incentives and the high cost of fossil fuels have combined to make wind farms a good ­investment for power-­generation ­companies. But that ­investment comes at a price: the potentially ­expensive systems needed to make transmission grids run reliably, regardless of wind’s famous ­fickleness. The question is, how much does that cost? To date, power grid studies have ­produced widely divergent estimates. Conclusions differ, for instance, about how much reserve generating ­capacity must be built to keep the lights on when the wind dies down. The uncertainties are a big problem for policy-­makers, because such grid-related costs will ultimately determine how much wind power is too much.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) in Paris ­created a research team to do a metaâ''analysis of 19 national or regional wind and grid studies, under the ­direction of Hannele Holttinen, a senior research scientist at the Technical Research Center of Finland, in Espoo. The first draft of that ­analysis, issued in November, found that in some cases for every 100 megawatts of wind power, you need 100 MW of fossil, nuclear, or hydroelectric as a backup. But in general, the analysis argues, reserves can be much lower where there’s ready access to a large electricity grid. Much depends, therefore, on the size of the region studied.

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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