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Climate Hustle

What is the Potential of Wind Power?

Posted on 14 January 2011 by perseus

Guest post by Steve Latham

Could wind make a significant contribution to our energy requirements?

Global wind power has doubled over the last 3 years, which now accounts for 2% of the world’s electricity production, and as much as 20% in some countries. It is estimated that 13% of the worlds land area has wind speeds greater than 6.9 m/s at commercial wind turbine heights, this could theoretically produce 40 times the world's current electricity production.  Although the total quantity of wind energy potentially available is considerable, there remain obstacles to the substantial expansion of this industry.

Critics claim that wind power cannot replace conventional power sources since these still need to be available for when the wind isn’t blowing, and these are expensive to keep in reserve and waiting on part load, reducing overall energy efficiency. For low contributions, wind power can be considered largely additional, since reserves are always needed to cater for unexpected unavailability of the largest single power source and having a large number of smaller generating units can sometimes be beneficial.

In addition to providing replacement power, wind plants reduce emissions by forcing the most polluting and inflexible power plants offline with more efficient and flexible types of generation.  However, with increasing use of wind energy in the system the proportion of conventional plant wind replaces reduces, and consistent wind power generation requires high voltage connections to wind farms over a wide area.

Further expansion of the industry may also require energy storage technologies to balance fluctuations of supply and demand; these include hydroelectricity, compressed air storage and electro-chemical batteries. The latter option is particularly interesting in view of the potential use of battery-electric vehicles in the future since their batteries could be charged overnight when power demand is low and used to supply power during peak demand periods. Peak electricity demand could also be reduced through pricing structures and switching off non-essential appliances.  

In addition to to replacing carbon intensive electricity production, wind power can drive heat pumps for space heating or charge vehicle batteries for transport, reducing natural gas and petroleum use. These are more efficient methods of producing heat and work than the traditional methods they replace, so direct comparisons of energy cannot usually be made . For example, one popular book grossly underestimated the potential contribution of wind power, partly because it compared the electricity generated from wind turbines with the primary chemical energy in fossil fuel directly.

This same book also concluded that heat pumps are a more efficient method of supplying energy than combined heat and power systems.  However, I suggest that both systems could be used together to provide even greater benefits, and provide a means of matching wind supply with demand, thereby increasing the proportion of wind power used.

Figure 1 below illustrates a potential combined heat and power scheme where the energy input to a heat pump could be switched between electricity, partly powered from wind if necessary; and a directly coupled natural gas or biogas powered internal combustion engine. The engine can also drive the generator directly, providing backup power if necessary.  I believe that by using energy in a strategic manner like this, wind power and other intermittent renewables can be more fully utilised within the grid system

Figure 1: Strategic local CHP and mains Operated heat pump system  to expand the use of centralised renewable electricity

 Is wind power more expensive than conventional energy sources?

The relative price of wind relative to fossil fuel based power is dependent upon a large number of variables making comparisons difficult and sometimes controversial. However, one of the most important is the price of fossil fuels, particularly oil and gas which could substantially increase in the future as cheap supplies become depleted.

Onshore wind appears relatively competitive with current (late 2010) oil prices at 88 $/barrel (see figure 2 below). To compete at lower oil prices or much higher wind penetration rates, the external costs of fossil fuels need to be included such as the effects of future global climate change, local pollution, and sometimes hidden subsidies and military expenditure to secure supplies.  When the cost of fossil fuel electricity using carbon capture, and nuclear power are compared with wind on these terms, even offshore wind schemes appear competitive. However, there are large uncertainties in the cost of deep-sea wind turbines, modern nuclear and in particular carbon capture technology, which has still to be proven on a large scale.

Figure 2: Oil price at which various generating technologies become competitive   

(Lower bar subsidised, upper bar unsubsidised)

Other Issues with Wind Power

There is sometimes substantial local opposition to the installation of large wind turbines, despite assurances that they are unlikely to adversely affect wildlife or human health. One method of mitigating these problems is by providing communities with a commercial stake in the wind farm, creating local jobs and collecting revenues by exporting electricity to the grid.

In practice, governments often prefer a variety of energy sources to improve security of supply and avoid reliance on any one region.  Therefore, it can be politically and economically beneficial to include indigenous wind sources as part of the overall national energy strategy.


Wind power could economically provide a significant proportion of electric power for many countries and contribute usefully to their transportation and space heating requirements. One example is shown here for the UK. However, different countries will need to use different combinations of renewable and zero/low carbon technologies depending upon the local climate and resources.  To fully exploit this, a strategically managed, widely spaced grid network needs to be developed, which should ideally be linked to offshore wind and other low carbon technologies.

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Comments 1 to 37:

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  2. oops, try this:

    Article in Atmos. Chem. and Physics describing weather modification by large wind power array
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    Moderator Response: Thanks, but please provide some context--even one sentence--for links.
  3. Whatever its current potential, it can definitely be increased via application of suitable storage technologies-to alleviate the issues of supply-demand offset curves. The most promising technology I've seen in this regard are Vanadium Flow cells, which can store quite significant amounts of power for release when wind speeds drop. This might hopefully mean that Wind-farms can supply a larger number of homes-but be of a smaller size.
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  4. I'm still holding out for Kitegen - accesses the much stronger and more reliable high altitude winds.
    Can anyone tell me if there is any future in this?
    Seems it would be competing with planes for airspace (so win-win then!)
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  5. "Brave New Climate" is an excellent source of information on energy issues. Here is a link on wind power:
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  6. @gc: Brave New Climate is heavily biased towards nuclear power.

    Please don't turn this into a "nuclear is the only solution" thread. I mean, you don't even agree with AGW theory, so your only reason to bring this up seems to be to stir up controversy.
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  7. Anyone fancy inviting Prof. MacKay to respond to the remarks about Without Hot Air?
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  8. A review of wind energy technologies
    Volume 11, Issue 6, August 2007, Pages 1117-1145
    free copy:

    provides a lot of useful background facts
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  9. That somewhat seemingly skeptical weather bloke at the BBC, Paul, Hudson, has recently posted showing that;

    "the intense cold has gone hand in hand with periods of little or no wind. ...

    With much of the country experiencing very little wind, both onshore and offshore, wind turbines were largely inactive. This means that there would have to be some power stations - using coal or gas, since nuclear power output can't be increased at short notice - that simply exist as a stand-by facility, in case the wind doesn't blow.

    And that's a very expensive way of producing electricity. ...

    Professor Mike Lockwood at Reading University thinks that the UK could indeed experience colder winters on average, compared with the last few decades because of the sun's low activity.

    This would lead to a higher frequency of 'blocking' weather patterns leading to less frequent windy conditions than would normally be expected if one looks at climatological averages - suggesting we would have to continue to rely on coal and gas fired power generation well into the future - and possibly more than is currently envisaged."
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  10. Oh my goodness where do you start??

    1. At the AGU last year someone did present some research that showed that some crops benefited from wind turbines placed in the same fields.

    2. Regarding the UK and cold weather, if you take a look at the National Grid report about the recent cold spell. Out of the many weeks that we had snow and freezing conditions, it was only on 2 or 3 days that zero wind conditions caused a problem. In fact about three nuclear power plants were not contributing either. On top of that, oil and hydro also underperformed.

    3. One must remember that the point is to cut emissions!
    Without the wind turbines, the times when they are not spinning is time when coal and gas would be needed, so emissions for that capacity would shoot up from double figure emissions (30 or so gCO2/KWh) to triple figure emissions (900 gCO2/KWh) if the wind turbines were not in place.
    Whilst wind represents a small part of the mix, emissions are cut and they don't represent an issue, the issue changes when wind represents a larger proportion of the mix and traditional power stations will have to fill in gaps rather. That requires new thinking and changes to the grid system.

    4. One of the primary issues is load balancing of the grid. You do this by monitoring the frequency and either adjust the generator end or you adjust the consumer end, so that you get a steady 50hz.
    Traditionally because fossil fuel power plants have been designed to run constantly 24/7 it has been necessary for electricity companies to push consumers to buy products that soak up that generation capacity, then if consumer demand changed, massive power stations would be taken off or put online.
    That model is changing and now consumer products will need to participate in the balancing game.
    As an example there are at least two projects in the UK that are developing fridges that can monitor the grid frequency and take themselves on and offline depending on the situation. True Energy in Wales is is using vaccine refigeration technology to develop domestic/commercial fridges that can keep your food cool without power for 10 days.

    5. Then of course their is the super grids that are being developed to hook up European nations. This is another way to achieve load balancing and shifting energy around.

    6. There is also a smart grid project in the UK that is testing some of this technology.

    There is an enormous amount research and product development going on and the likes of Paul Hudson hasn't a real clue about the engineering.
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  11. Just noticed a mistake in my last post:

    "3. One must remember that the point is to cut emissions!
    Without the wind turbines, the times when they are not spinning is time when coal and gas would be needed..."

    I meant that if the turbines weren't in place, the times that they would have been operating, require coal or gas.
    The default has been largely been coal and gas, wind turbines at the current small scale replace some of that capacity, hence cut emissions. The fact that when wind doesn't blow, coal and gas are used, is a red herring because coal and gas would have been the default.

    The issue changes when higher levels of wind is used and that is where new ideas and technology come in.
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  12. The Ville, thanks for those examples. Here we already have some airconditioning units set to respond to remote adjustment to temperature when the grid is overloading.

    My view is that we already have the technology to allow airconditioning, water heating, refrigerators and freezers, industrial lighting - and we will soon have carparks fitted with plugin for electric cars - to be remotely switched on or off, or up/down depending on the grid situation.

    Instead of those German wind generating systems having to pay people to leave lights on at night when the wind is *really* blowing, we could have all such units built (or retrofitted) to feed into the grid if possible (cars) and to use up surplus generation where necessary or reduce demand by adjusting temperature settings or turning units on or off on a rotating basis.

    Once we change the engineering focus to the grid away from the idea of central supply and passive distribution, a whole lot of new approaches will follow quite naturally.
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  13. Ask the Danish what happens when you rely on wind power.
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  14. For those of you who like a project this site will help you figure out how to lower your bills via - Solar, Wind, thermal, bio fuel etc.

    Have a look at some of the big projects - I am on large cansolair build number 2 similar to this and will be doing a hot water system this year ready for next winter very similar to this and this

    For those who have doubts about heating from the sun try here

    These systems work, they save you large amounts of money on your bills, and more to the point by actively participating in this you are actively reducing you carbon footprint.

    This is one of those rare hobbies that will save you money rather than cost you a fortune and can involve the whole family, can be great fun to build, and be a very effective way of teaching your children about alternative energy sources and their associated benefits and how to use them.
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  15. Heraclitus, NASA now have a research programme looking at airborne wind energy:

    The potential is enormous, capacity factors high and embodied emissions low. It's a strong contender for being a hugely disruptive technology.

    In my view this area should get a massive R&D injection quick sharp.
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  16. Are there any credible studies out there that try to map out what proportion of world electricity needs to come from renewables year-by-year to give us a chance to stabilise CO2 emissions?

    I get the feeling that renewables will fall short of whatever's required (even if we go all out) for decades: So much of the technology is still 'growing up' (like solar and biomass), or has limitations (such as the intermittancy of wind), or is still under development (Energy storage would be a game changer but is still years away).

    Is there a gap opening up between where we need to be and where we actually are? If so, and it pains me to say this, could there be a case for using nuclear to plug that gap while we catch up?
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  17. Like I said, adelady, with Vanadium Flow Cells, you could potentially store several Gigawatt hours of night-time wind power for distribution during the day-time, when wind-power is often slightly more scarce.
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  18. Grim_Reaper, your claims are just the repetition of propaganda from those who are desperate to keep renewable energy out of the game. Photo-voltaic cells, for example, have increased in efficiency from less than 6% to more than 20% in the space of only 20 years-whilst the price per watt has dropped from $25 to less than $5 in a similar time frame-all on a *fraction* of the money received from coal & nuclear power.
    Battery storage, thermal storage, pumped storage, redox cell storage & compressed air storage are all viable *right now*. Biomass energy-particularly from land-fill & sewage gas is equally available *right now*. Tidal Power, Run of River & Tidal Stream Power are also available right now-as is Geothermal. Though new, Osmotic Power is also looking extremely promising, as is hydrogen. Even without any major breakthroughs, a variety of renewable energy resources-combined with demand management-could easily meet the vast majority of the energy needs of most Nations. All that is lacking is the will to stand up to the vested interests who currently hold our energy & fuel distribution networks to ransom!
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  19. Terry said:
    "Ask the Danish what happens when you rely on wind power."

    They work on the basis of system design that reaches across borders. Norway and Sweden have a large hydro capacity that can be easily regulated, so Denmark exports electricity when they have 'to much wind' and Norway/Sweden switch off the taps.

    The reverse is true when the wind is down.
    As I stated in my previous comment, part of the investment in Europe is a supergrid/interconnectors.

    Of all the technology and systems required, interconnections between nations is well established. Some see this as being negative, because they visualise nations as needing to be independent and self contained entities??

    Yet as far as other issues are concerned trade is fundamental and accepted, including trade of fuels. But for some reason trade in electrons in wires, doesn't register as being appropriate.
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  20. Thanks scatter. Everything I hear about high-altitude wind systems seems so positive - I've always assumed there's some flaw to make it unworkable on any sort of commercial scale, but haven't come across one yet. Possibly interference with flight paths, but it's obvious who should win that battle!

    As these systems use so little land area I wonder if there would be potential to site them with large solar arrays to reduce infrastructure requirements.

    They also just look fun - maybe that's why everyone involved always seems so enthusiastic.
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  21. @TerryG is probably referring to the study by CEPOS that concluded Danes pay the highest price for electricity in the European Union.

    Of course, what TerryG may not know is that the CEPOS is a conservative think tank and that the study was commissioned by the Institute for Energy Research, a Houston-based organization which the Los Angeles Times described as "a Washington-based hotbed of global warming denial supported by oil and coal interests."

    Never mind the fact that wind power has been a tremendous success in Danemark...
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  22. Marcus, I believe renewable energy is very much IN the game and nothing anyone can do will stop that.

    I am extremely excited by the promise shown by some of the tech that's out there but what I'm asking is whether what we have now (and will have in the near future) is scalable enough e.g. Is energy storage ready to allow wind to contribute more than 20% of any nation's electric?

    In the UK, we're throwing a lot at wind power, using feed-in tariffs to encourage solar and renewable heating, we're developing tidal, wave power, and biomass, but I don't see anything coming up that's going to replace large numbers of coal-fired power stations before, say, 2030. Can we wait that long?

    Looking across the English Channel at France, I see a country that has very low carbon electric and energy security because 75% of their electric is from nuclear. It does me wonder sometimes.
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  23. Well I can't think of significant downsides. It just makes so much sense.

    There are different levels of airborne wind energy, from low level all the way up to stratospheric, but I can't believe that it's beyond our capabilities to route aircraft safely around it.

    One to watch for sure.
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  24. Grim, the UK government is committed to replacing many existing nuclear power stations at existing sites.

    I assume the new power stations will have a higher capacity??
    Logically it would make sense to do that, then you would have more mega-watts from the same sites and it wouldn't have an impact on peoples perceptions, since we have already lived with nuclear power stations on those sites.

    BTW, the 32 gigawatts of offshore wind farms that the Crown Estate has approved, would actually be enough to power all road transport in the UK, even with the low load factor that wind offers. That in turn equates a UK carbon emissions total cut of 25%, because transport emissions is a large chunk of UK emissions.
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  25. I find myself very much in agreement with scatter and Heraclitus regarding airborne / high altitude wind power. It seems to offer such obvious benefits for more reliable and stronger wind - potentially without the visual impact of huge windfarms at groundlevel. And yet Magenn have had flying prototypes of their Air Rotor turbines since 2006 without bringing a product to market. Is there some catch that I just haven't seen or am I just being a bit too impatient?
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  26. Storage is the answer. Only pumped storage can manage the capacities needed to do a proper job.
    Now there is Gravity Power (
    All the advantages of pumped storage without most of the hassles and a lot cheaper too.
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  27. If I could ask just one favor, it would be nice to not just throw around empty rhetoric about how bad wind is or responses that there is a conspiracy against wind power. Also please don't turn this into another debate over nuclear power.

    My view is a great deal of the criticism over wind can be answered with solutions at small and large scales. Both scales can be optimized with a smart grid. Here's just one article about various alternatives
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  28. Re Ericmair@26

    Haven't seen that one before.
    Reminds me of the hydraulic power systems in London that pre-dated electric grids. There were massive steam engines that were connected to massive hydraulic accumulators, those were connected to a network of pipes that fed factories, providing power.

    I guess the Gravity Power thing is an accumulator, the exception being that it would drive a generator??
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  29. Even though I understand from the title that the subject is technological, I first thought "Global wind power has doubled over the 3 years" referred to the natural climate system and that it could not happen. In a minute I realized what part of wind power it meant.

    Certainly there is much wind power as a natural thing at high altitude, but it is not wind power as energy resource (as anonandon expects) yet, until we find some safe and reliable means to transmit it to the point of demand.

    I think that local energy storage (temporal aggregation) is crucial for utilization of wind power near the ground. Connecting together (spatial aggregation) does not guarantee stable supply. And the storage must be low-cost with respect to resources. Sometimes pumping water may work, but probably the main way will be something chemical, perhaps some kind of fuel cells. I think we should look for storage materials more conveniently stored than hydrogen.

    As for the issue of co-generation of electricity and heat from fuel, there is a trade off between efficiency in generating electricity and opportunity in supplying heat. Counting electricity and heat which have different utility in quantities of energy tends to favor co-generation, but if we think about exergy (energy potentially convertible to work), combination of high-efficiency heat engine and on-demand heat pump may be better.
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  30. gallopingcamel at 17:30 PM on 14 January, 2011 "Brave New Climate" is an excellent source of information on energy issues. Here is a link on wind power:

    archiesteel at 17:43 PM on 14 January, 2011 @gc: Brave New Climate is heavily biased towards nuclear power.

    In fact have referenced Brave New Climate. However, rather than nuclear and wind being in direct competition I like to see these sources as being complementary. The former would use excess overnight capacity for charging batteries or compressing air for vehicle propulsion, whilst the latter would be more directed towards space heating, although with a substantial contribution still coming from natural gas. Eventually, it is hoped that a substantial proportion of this latter component could be replaced with biogas or complementary passive solar and thermal insulation in new build.
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  31. Marcus at 13:40 PM on 14 January, 2011
    Whatever its current potential, it can definitely be increased via application of suitable storage technologies-to alleviate the issues of supply-demand offset curves. The most promising technology I've seen in this regard are Vanadium Flow cells, which can store quite significant amounts of power for release when wind speeds drop. This might hopefully mean that Wind-farms can supply a larger number of homes-but be of a smaller size

    If we could connect a vehicle battery charging network up to the grid this storage medium would then be provided for free (above that required for battery electric vehicles), although I would expect energy losses to be large if this was regenerated back to the grid.
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  32. Here is a useful guide to grid scale energy storage.

    On the subject of high altitude wind power, I believe Magenn are still looking to roll out their MARS rotary balloon system to remote rural villages in India this year. This will allow them to iron out any technical issues before they go commercial in the years to come. Interesting Magenn presentation here.
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  33. I am having trouble with the heat pump diagram in the original post. I think you are suggesting localized CHP (sort of)?

    A better use of the same CO2 cutting money would be
    1) Reduce building losses. R30 minimum walls/floor, R-50 roof
    2) R-8 windows or better
    3) ground source heat pump
    4) solar thermal for cheap winter heat

    All of the above are cheaper than a site built wind tower, with incentives equal (ie everything incentivized, or nothing). The options are presented in order of their economy. Items 2&3 are roughly equal in payback times. Item 4 moves above item 2 in a heat only climate, stays where it is when you are dealing with heating and cooling loads.

    So once all that is done, add wind. Now, because the ground source heat pump is taking advantage of your average, year round temperature, you can match your ANNUAL wind generation to your ANNUAL building load and save the local natural gas backup generator (extra pieces are expensive). And it is noisy. And a local device is not going to be as efficient as a centralized device (I am forgiving our history of coal here...).

    Unless you find yourself very frequently putting energy into the grid at a low point in demand (ie producing power when no one needs it) you will be better off having your wind power reduce coal than you will replacing your natural gas boiler with a natural gas generator, which then uses another device to deliver heat.

    I bring it up because design is important. It is easy to gloss over details that make renewable proponents look silly. Please let me know if I have missed something in the analysis.
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  34. @ actually thoughtful. Its abundantly clear to me that shifting to a low to zero CO2 economy is going to require changes at both the Demand & Supply side of the energy supply equation-some local (like locally sourced bio-gas, photo-voltaic electricity & wind power) & some multi-national (like the idea to use equatorial-based solar power to meet significant amounts of the electricity needs of Europe & Africa. What I definitely do *not* believe is that these shifts will do medium to long term damage to our economies-that's just a myth put about by those who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
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  35. "actually thoughtfull at 12:07 PM on 16 January, 2011
    I am having trouble with the heat pump diagram in the original post. I think you are suggesting localized CHP (sort of)?

    A better use of the same CO2 cutting money would be
    1) Reduce building losses. R30 minimum walls/floor, R-50 roof
    2) R-8 windows or better
    3) ground source heat pump
    4) solar thermal for cheap winter heat"
    Well first of all I am not suggesting that we have exhausted other more cost effective options such as building standards and thermal insulation. However, bear in mind that windows have a large carbon footprint, and we still need to generate energy however much energy we conserve. So what is the best method of doing this?

    No it isn't just a CHP system that would be missing the point completely, see the title 'heat pump'? it could incoporate item 3) on your list. This is an energy strategy which enables the cost of high penetrations of wind to be reduced, by avoiding expensive storage options so the cost of wind needs re-evaluating anyway. However, it still isn't a zero carbon system unless Bio-gas is used as back-up.
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  36. "gpwayne at 18:09 PM on 14 January, 2011
    Anyone fancy inviting Prof. MacKay to respond to the remarks about Without Hot Air?"
    I put these calculations to MacKay before he published his book in hard copy form, but he seemed unable to respond to them! This is hardly surprising since most of his base figures, particularly the fuel usage, seems to be dragged out of ‘thin air rather than hot air’ if I may borrow a pun.

    Instead our discusson focussed more aircraft efficiency, which he insisted could not be improved significantly. I have detailed this on the same link.
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  37. First, let me make it clear, I am all for wind power as a source of power. There are some issues including geographical footprint, dependability, etc... that need to be resolved. It is also not feasible for all areas. But, where applicable, it should be applied as a method to reduce usage of fossil fuels.

    There is a clear resistance to this from the environmentalists due to the bird killings and impact on scenic views. Also, the financial viability of this without government subsidies is suspect. Even T. Boone Pickens backed out of it.
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