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Climate Hustle

Wind energy is a key climate change solution

Posted on 10 December 2015 by John Abraham

When we think about climate change, it’s easy to focus on reducing emissions in order to maintain a healthy global temperature. But any real progress has to be complemented by a significant increase in clean and renewable energy. Fortunately, businesses have plans to build on recent successes and supply the world with the energy we need to grow economies.

A great example is Vestas, a major renewable energy company. I had the pleasure of communicating with the Vestas CEO Mr. Anders Runevad. He has served as CEO since 2013 and prior to that he worked at Ericsson and Sony Mobile. Mr. Runevad combines a technical background and education with business training to chart out pathways for companies to build capacity in the rapidly evolving energy market.

Vestas is a company very familiar to people like me who work in the wind power industry. They are the largest manufacturer of wind turbines in the world. Just this year, they have reached 7 GW of announced orders; their turbines can supply energy to supply the needs of 75 million Europeans.

But providing energy to the developing world is only part of the energy solution. Solving the climate change problem means we also need to revolutionize the power grids in the developing world. Companies like Vestas are working on that problem too. 

Mr. Runevad recently met with India’s Prime Minister Modi and presented a plan to build blades at a new factory in India. They also have plans to increase the renewable energy supply in that country. As of now, Vestas has installed nearly 5,000 turbines in India and employs approximately 900 people there. Vestas has also committed to investments in Kenya by participating in the development of a wind park. The goal is to supply 15% of the electrical needs of Kenya, a country that is plagued by expensive and unreliable energy sources.

I asked Mr. Runevad a few questions related to recent wind power developments and to the future outlook on the industry. I asked him what has happened to costs of wind power around the world and in the USA in particular. He told me that in the past 20 years, the cost of wind is down approximately 80%. In the past 5 years, the cost is down 15%. In the USA, the cost has decreased more than 50% since 2009. So, the cost decrease is significant and sustained.

One concern people have about wind power is that they perceive it isn’t reliable. When the wind does not blow, power is not produced. But Mr. Runevad told me that the newer wind turbines are better at creating wind power in variable wind speeds. They have bigger rotors, higher towers, and lighter blades. The resulting grid is more stable. Importantly, there is better interconnection with neighboring countries and linking with storage or hydropower sources, which also increases reliability and efficiency.

I asked how effectively wind can compete with fossil fuel sources, and learned that wind has become extremely cost effective. In areas where energy consumption is increasing so that new power sources have to be built, there is a basic parity and in many cases, wind wins on cost alone. In mature markets where existing coal, nuclear, or gas power generation infrastructure is already built (often with years of subsidies), it is more challenging to build wind because new infrastructure would have to be created. There, new-build wind has to compete with the costs of maintenance of the existing energy source. However, even then, wind is an attractive option, aside from the fact it creates energy without greenhouse gas emissions.

With renewable energy technology changing so rapidly, I wanted to know what was in store in the near-term future. He told me that the cost reductions will continue into the future. There are three reasons for the cost reductions. First, turbines are becoming larger, with taller towers, and lighter construction. Second, increased efficiency in the supply chain and manufacturing systems are lowering cost. Finally, as the scale of wind installations increase, there are cost savings from the economies of scale that are realized.

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Comments 1 to 15:

  1. Publishing such uncritical marketing for a company does disservice to Skeptical Science. How about reading for example the Wind technologies Market report to check those "signifigant and sustained" cost reductions?Today wind costs about the same as 15 years ago. It is mature technology.

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] Fixed link.

  2. From the linked report: "Wind PPA prices have reached all-time lows. After topping out at nearly $70/MWh for PPAs executed in 2009, the national average levelized price of wind PPAs that were signed in 2014 (and that are within the Berkeley Lab sample) fell to around $23.5/MWh nationwide—a new low..."

    The brief increase in wind power costs from ~2001 to 2009 does not change the overall sharply downward trend of the past 40 years... or the fact that current costs are the lowest ever... and still dropping. Wind costs less today than it did 15 years ago. The technology is still improving. Your cited 'evidence' contradicts your position.

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  3. The problem with wind is that it is not a fixed entity.  In California, I've seen plots of wind output, and it is very dirunal, particularly in the Summer:

    This means that other base load plants where need to reduce power in the evening and ramp up during the day.  I know that nuclear plants in this country were not designed with this king of daily cycle in mind.  At a minimum California also needs large amounts of other renewables to even out the wind cycle.  Solar might fit the bill  because its output will be stronger in the middle of the day when the wind tapers off, but not every geographic location is the same in this respect.

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  4. Congratulations to Professor John Abraham for being nominated for teacher of the year at St. Thomas U.

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  5. @jpjmarti at 1.

    Your own link appears to contradict your claims. p 46

    "Wind turbine prices have dropped substantially in recent years, despite continued technological advancements that have yielded increases in hub heights and especially rotor diameters."

    " project-level installed costs appear to have peaked in 2009/2010, with substantial declines since that time" 

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  6. Wind power can only fill a niche role because it ineffectively use a weak energy source, winds, to supply only electrical energy. That is, it is an ecologically costly intermittent process with limited application. It cannot replace the concentrated energy in the liquid fuels needed for land, sea and air transport.

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  7. You've certainly correctly pointed out that wind power can't do everything but to say it can't do anything is illogical and notably relies on unquantified argument.

    It comes down to cost in the end: this is where the waters get very deep.

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  8. denisaf @6:

    1)  The "weak energy source" you mention actually has a total energy resource equal to 100 times current total human energy use.

    2)   Intermittency can be tackled in several ways, including by tapered use, chemical storage, geographically dispersed turbines, and elevating the wind turbines (see video below).  It follows that it is only an engineering problem, not a limit.

    3)  Electricity is unsuitable as a power source for large mobile units such as trucks and planes.  It has already been demonstrated as usefull for personal transport, and for rail networks.  It is certainly suitable for any stationay energy need.  As such, wind power (which produces electricity) is potentially suitable for the majority of our energy needs (75% plus).  That hardly represents a niche market.

    I doubt, of course, that wind will provide all our energy needs.  That will be some combination of wind, solar, geothermal, tidal, wave, hydro and nuclear power.  Of those, wind may be the largest single component, and will certainly be in the top three.  It is absurd, on that basis, to say wind has a "niche role" as, on the same basis you would need to say that solar, or nuclear, or for that matter, currently, coal has a "niche role".

    So, to summarize, your argument dogmatic assertions are either entirely wrong, or simply based on the assumption that the technology of wind energy cannot significantly advance on what is currently commercially deployed, despite several advances approaching commercial deployment:

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  9. Given that no. one priority is stopping burning coal, wind energy can be very useful part of the electricity mix for that. As for transport, heavy transport like trucks are small proportion of total energy use. Biofuel could easily handle all the needs for my country.

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  10. The link I provided does not contradict what I said. Read the whole thing and not just the spin. Page 48 shows a figure of the project costs as a function of time. As you can see there is almost no change since early 2000. The capacity factor during this time has changed only slightly (elsewhere in the report) so the unit cost is almost the same. You can say that costs have decreased recently, but that is based on cherry picking 2009 as a base year and looking at costs from then on. As for citing PPA cautions "Finally, because the PPA prices in the Berkeley Lab sample are
    reduced by the receipt of state and federal incentives (e.g., the levelized PPA prices reported here would be at least $15/MWh higher without the PTC, ITC, or Treasury Grant), and are also influenced by various local policies and market characteristics, they do not directly represent wind energy generation costs." PPA costs are costs AFTER subsidies.

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  11. Figure for your convenience Berkeley wind power costs USA

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  12. Isn't some sea transport already at least assisted by wind (and not just small sail boats)?

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  13. Does it matter whether the price of wind has gone down or not? Doesn't it only matter if it's cheaper than coal? As it seems to be, in the US, at least, according to this eia chart:

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  14. In northern Europe, solar is not the best option, but wind does quite well. Leitwind and the Leitner group are pursuing a variety of solutions:

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  15. This piece presents a grimly realistic view of how far we have to go and how far we haven't come:

    "Oil, gas, and coal still make up about 86 percent of the world's energy supply — a fraction that has barely budged since 1997"

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