Key decisions looming on further development of wind power, says Royal Academy of Engineering

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The GB electricity grid can accommodate up to a 20% contribution from wind power without the need for significant upgrades to the system and using existing balancing mechanisms, according to a report published today by the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Beyond 20%, however, managing the system will become increasingly difficult and key long-term planning decisions are required if we want to fully decarbonise our energy system.

The Academy produced its report, Wind energy: implications of large-scale deployment on the GB electricity system, to assess the potential for wind energy to contribute to meeting the government’s targets of providing 15% of the UK’s energy from renewable sources by 2020 and cutting 80% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

The working group considered all three aspects of the energy ‘trilemma’ – security, cost and decarbonisation -and found that wind power could be used to meet up to one fifth of the country’s electricity demands under the current energy demand scenario.

John Trewby CB FREng, chair of the Academy’s working group on wind energy, said: “Wind energy has emerged as the first variable renewable generating technology to be deployed at scale on our electricity system. It elicits strong feelings and the debate has become very polarised. We felt that the Academy could make a useful contribution by setting out the engineering characteristics of the technology and exploring the implications of increasing the amount of wind energy on the electricity system.

“As I have learned in the course of this study, the issues raised by wind energy are many, novel and complex. These matters deserve debate. I hope that readers will find this report on wind energy provides a helpful and balanced assessment of the challenges that engineers are tackling and will need to tackle as the UK seeks to create an energy system that is fit for the future.”

Managing fluctuations in supply, including variable renewables such as wind power, is fundamental to the operation of the electricity grid and, to date, the balancing mechanisms already in place have been sufficient to cope with the amount of wind energy on the GB system. The contribution of wind is expected to reach 20% within the next decade.

If the UK is to meet its targets and further reduce greenhouse emissions by 2050, the grid will need to be largely decarbonised by 2030. Fossil fuel intensive uses, such as transport and heating, are likely to be progressively electrified in the form of heat pumps and electric vehicles. This will significantly increase overall electricity demand as well as fluctuations in demand, both daily and seasonally.

Professor Roger Kemp FREng from Lancaster University, a member of the working group, said:”We see wind as playing a major role in the future but the task of decarbonisation represents a paradigm shift in the UK’s energy system – the scale of the challenge should not be underestimated. Wind energy will be only one of the tools available alongside other generating technologies, better connectivity and demand side measures. All will need to be carefully integrated using a systems engineering approach.

“As we progress towards a low-carbon future, the energy industry and infrastructure will have to evolve ahead of or with electricity demand to accommodate more wind. This evolution is complex and will also require other forms of low carbon generation, innovations in energy storage, management and more interconnections with the electricity grids in other countries.

“This will happen only if there is clarity in the government’s plans for the future decarbonisation of the country and a willingness to work together with industry in building confidence to invest in the UK energy market. Energy systems and technologies are global; several countries are ahead of the UK in developing wind energy and we will need to adopt best practice, wherever that might be.”

The report makes several recommendations to government and industry on the necessary steps to increase the use of wind power and other renewables in the energy mix, including:

Quick implementation of the Electricity Market Reform and clarity on the overall costs and benefits of generating energy from wind versus fossil fuels.

A long-term and clear trajectory in government plans for decarbonisation of the electricity sector, to form part of the next Carbon Budget.

A true partnership between government and industry in the planning of the interventions needed to decarbonise the UK energy system.

Government and industry must engage with the public and lay out the impact and benefits of more wind power. More power from wind will require more and bigger turbines which will impact on local communities and business.

The Academy’s report was produced by an independent working group of Fellows and others with relevant expertise:

Chair: Rear Admiral John Trewby CB FREng, Chairman of the University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust; associate of Group4Securicor; Chair of Exelis Defence Ltd; Council member, University of Southampton.

Professor Richard Green, Alan and Sabine Howard Professor of Sustainable Energy Business, Imperial College London.

Dr Rob Gross, UKERC co-director; Senior Lecturer in Energy Policy at Imperial College London; Director of Imperial’s Centre for Energy Policy and Technology (ICEPT).

Professor Gareth Harrison, Bert Whittington Chair of Electrical Power Engineering at the University of Edinburgh; Deputy Head of the Institute for Energy Systems in the School of Engineering.

Professor Roger Kemp FREng, Professorial Fellow at Lancaster University; member of the Engineering Policy Committee of the Royal Academy of Engineering; member of the IET’s Energy Policy Panel; associate of the Cambridge Electricity Policy Research Group (EPRG).

Richard Smith, Future Transmission Networks Manager at National Grid.

Professor Sir Mike Sterling FREng, chairman of the Science & Technology Facilities Council; member of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills’ Lead Expert Group on Manufacturing; member of the Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology.

Royal Academy of Engineering. As the UK’s national academy for engineering, we bring together the most successful and talented engineers for a shared purpose: to advance and promote excellence in engineering. We provide analysis and policy support to promote the UK’s role as a great place to do business. We take a lead on engineering education and we invest in the UK’s world-class research base to underpin innovation. We work to improve public awareness and understanding of engineering. We are a national academy with a global outlook. We have four strategic challenges: Drive faster and more balanced economic growth; foster better education and skills; lead the profession; promote engineering at the heart of society.

Source: Royal Academy of Engineering