power generation

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The UK government announcement on incentives for small scale renewables has three unexpected features:

  • The payments for renewable heat, such as the home burning of wood to replace gas or rooftop solar hot water, are much higher than predicted.
  • The figures for wind have risen since the autumn consultation document. This means that well-located wind turbines of the 6-15 kW size are likely to produce returns above 13% per year.
  • The payments for solar PV have been increased slightly, but do not offer returns as good as wind. Importantly, the government has also signalled that it will allow PV installed at any time over the next 28 months to capture the full feed-in tariff. Previously, the tariff declined for installations made after March 2011.

An earlier article on this topic which looks in more detail on the incentives to take up the new ‘feed-in tariffs’ is here.

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A previous article covered the remarkable growth of Spanish wind and the success in incorporating this electricity into Spain’s grid. It focused on the periods in November when wind provided much of the country’s electricity, peaking at almost 54% in the early morning of 8 November 2009. Wind was almost 23% of the Spanish total electricity production during the month of November, beating nuclear for the first time. Solar also grew rapidly in 2009, up from 1% in 2008 to 3% of national output.

The effect on CO2 emissions from power generation was striking. Carbon dioxide output fell by over a sixth, largely as a result of the growth in renewables.

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Image source: TreeHugger.com.

Image source: TreeHugger.com.

One of the frequent criticisms of wind energy is that national distribution systems (‘the grid’) cannot cope with large number of turbines because of the variability and unpredictability of their output. Grids need to match supply and demand precisely, the critics say, and because wind varies so much it causes huge problems. Recent data from two meteorologically unusual days in Spain – the world leader in the management of renewable energy supplies – shows this assertion is almost certainly false.

  • During part of 8 November, Spain saw over 50% of its electricity come from turbines as an Atlantic depression swept over the country’s wind parks. (They are so big that no one seems to call them ‘farms’.) Unlike similar times in November 2008, when Spanish turbines were disconnected because the grid had an excess of electricity, the system accepted and used all the wind power that was offered to it.
  • A very different event in January of this year saw unexpectedly high winds shut down most of the country’s turbines with little warning. The grid coped with this untoward incident as well. These two events show that a well run transmission system can cope with extreme and unexpected events even with a large fraction of power provided by wind.

Over the course of this year Spain will generate about 14% of its total electricity from wind and this number is likely to rise to the high twenties by 2020. Spain is showing the rest of the world that these figures are not incompatible with grid stability. Although wind is ‘variable’, ‘intermittent’ and ‘unpredictable’, a well functioning grid system can still use wind to help stabilise electricity costs, reduce carbon emissions and improve energy security.

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The Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed stands in the sea off Kurumba to show the threat the islands face. Photograph: Chiara Goia. Source: Guardian.

The Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed stands in the sea off Kurumba to show the threat the islands face. Photograph: Chiara Goia. Source: Guardian.

Plans for a new windfarm are set to make the Maldives the country with the highest proportion of renewable power in the world.

The 30-turbine proposed windfarm, close to the capital Malé, will deliver 75 megawatts of electricity at full capacity, enough to provide electricity for the whole of the capital, the international airport and the surrounding resorts. Excess power will be used to run desalination plants that will produce bottled drinking water from the sea.

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Sizewell B

Until this week, we thought that Sizewell B was likely to be the most expensive nuclear power station built in the UK. Image source: World Nuclear Association.

The Guardian newspaper of Monday 19 October broke the story that the UK government is preparing to guarantee a minimum price for carbon dioxide emissions to encourage the development of nuclear power stations. Putting a high cost on greenhouse gas emissions from power stations will force up the wholesale price of electricity, ensuring a better financial return for nuclear power stations (and for renewables such as wind). The decision to create a floor price for carbon demonstrates that the full costs of nuclear technology are probably well above today’s wholesale electricity prices. We may well need nuclear power but we are going to pay heavily for it. The government’s optimistic noises from 2006 to the middle of this year about the commercial viability of nuclear power have turned out to be wrong.

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Copyright: Next Energy and Resources Co.

Copyright: Next Energy and Resources Co.

Solar photovoltaics slowly lose their generating capacity. Although some solar panels are still working satisfactorily 40 years after installation, the conventional view is that most will dip below 80% of their rated capacity within about 20 years. This will vary slightly between manufacturers and between different types of silicon.

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The hydro site on the River Thames at Osney. Image source: Oxford Times.

The hydro site on the River Thames at Osney. Image source: Oxford Times.

Many viable UK projects to generate renewable electricity are not being financed because of shortages of credit from banks. At the same time, individual savers are only able to get tiny returns on their savings. In recent days a number of schemes for linking the UK surplus from household savings to the deficit in renewable financing have surfaced.

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15 kW Proven Energy wind turbine. Image credit: Aeolus Power.

15 kW Proven Energy wind turbine. Image credit: Aeolus Power.

This article refers to the UK proposals made in July 2009. The actual feed-in tariffs will be more generous and the new rates are discussed in a follow up article here.

After months of deliberation, the UK government has announced a range of illustrative figures for feed-in tariffs (FiTs). FiTs are fixed payments made to the owners of small generating stations for the electricity that they export to the grid. Micro-generators need high payments to justify their expensive investment in buying and installing green generation.

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Most governments in the developed world were elected on platforms that promised aggressive policies on greenhouse gas emissions. The reality has not matched the commitments made. The reasons for this are multitudinous and no one should ever underestimate the difficulties of weaning advanced societies off the use of cheap and convenient access to fossil fuels. But in addition to the standard reasons for slow progress we can see a large number of obstacles that spring from human psychology. In particular, some of the resistance to aggressive action on climate seems to spring from mental attitudes that may have helped us survive as a species in the past. Perhaps politicians intuitively recognise the existence of these barriers. So they continue to say that climate change is the most important problem facing humanity at the same time as adding new runways to the local airport or sanctioning the development of new coal-fired power stations.

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Ed Miliband, Minister for the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Photograph: David Levene/Guardian.

Ed Miliband, Minister for the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Photograph: David Levene/Guardian.

The government wants to emphasise the affordability of climate change mitigation. It produces low estimates of the cost of low-carbon technologies. In the recent 2009 budget documents, the government estimated a cost of 1% of GDP to meet the tough new 2020 targets. In his pronouncement on carbon capture at coal-fired power stations, energy and climate change secretary Ed Miliband later said that his proposals will add 2% to electricity bills.

Are these numbers reasonable? Professor Sir David King, the former chief scientific adviser, says no. In a BBC interview of 26 April, he indicates that he thinks that the cost of reducing the UK’s emissions is much higher than the government indicates but also that the financial implications of not dealing with the climate change threat are far higher than even Nick Stern suggests.

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