May 26, 2008
Wind power is the most successful renewable energy, leaving aside hydro power for which it is becoming increasingly difficult to find suitable sites in Europe and the USA.
By the end of 2008 the globally installed capacity of wind power will exceed 100 GW, the equivalent of 50 nuclear power plants, if we take into account its lower capacity utilisation.
More than half of the present global wind capacity is installed in Europe, especially in Germany, Spain, UK and Denmark, 17 percent in the USA, the most rapidly growing market for wind energy, 8 percent in India and 6 percent in China.
The rise of wind power during the last three decades has been impressive, even though its share in global electricity supply remains derisorily small (less than 1 percent).
It owes its success to three major factors:
- The rapid improvement of technology, which has led to more powerful turbines (from 0.2 MW in the 1970s to 3-6 MW today), and ever bigger wind parks – on-shore and off-shore – of up to 1 GW.
- The spectacular rise of world market prices for oil, gas and coal.
- Attractive subsidy schemes in the major countries.
Wind power has given rise to the creation of a global industry that is benefiting from fast technological progress, world-wide competition and trans-national investments. Small and big wind-turbine makers manufacture not only in Denmark, Spain and Germany, the three market leaders, but also in the USA, in India and China. The wind power boom has thus turned into an important driver of industrial development, e.g. in India and China, which should no longer complain of lacking technical expertise.
Thanks to these developments, generating costs have declined steeply, making wind power increasingly competitive with fossil or nuclear generated electricity. According to US estimates, in 2006 generating costs per MWh were as follows: gas $ 52, coal $53, wind $ 55, nuclear $ 60.
In 2008, wind electricity in favourable locations should be fully competitive with fossil-fuelled and nuclear power, thanks to ultra-rapid rise of oil, gas and coal prices.
Existing subsidy systems should therefore be phased out in the next 20 years, as fossil fuel prices continue their upward movement and production costs of wind turbines keep declining due to larger series.
The globally available wind capacity (72 000 GW) is more than plenty for satisfying future electricity needs.
Wind power’s major constraint will remain intermittency. No country would dare to completely base its electricity supply on wind power. It is possible though to overcome this constraint by appropriate storage and grid systems and combining wind power with solar and nuclear generation.
It is plausible to expect wind turbines to supply a rising share of global electricity demand and to replace hydro power as the major source of renewable energy. In his most recent “Plan B 3.0”, Lester Brown has rightly called for a gigantic investment effort in wind parks. He pleads for a “war-time mobilisation” in view of reaching a total capacity of 3 000 GW by 2020. That seems unfortunately unrealistic. We should be content with 1000 GW.
But we only have a chance of reaching even this more modest target if the major GHG emitters – China, India, Japan, Russia and above all USA – were to follow the EU example and impose ambitious targets for a 20 percent reduction of C02 emissions and a 20 percent share of renewable energies by 2020.
This would represent a breakthrough on the path towards the C02-free energy system humanity will have to put in place before the end of the 21st century if it wants to avoid catastrophe.Author : Eberhard Rhein