The dash towards wind power will undermine UK's ability to meet 2050 carbon targets, says the author of Parsons Brinckerhoff's Powering the Future report
In recent months we have seen a range of new government strategies and plans aimed at reducing the UK's carbon emissions for 2020 - all as early steps towards our goal of an 80% reduction of 1990 levels by 2050.
We have also seen an equally productive flurry of comment from wide-ranging interest groups and organisations about actions required. As a result, and with the common driver for renewable energy to replace fossil fuels, we are now seeing a major push towards the large scale and early adoption of wind power.
While this may sound like a good thing, the truth is it's not. The early adoption of large amounts of wind power across the UK will clearly help us meet our 2020 EU Renewables Directive targets - but will severely limit our ability to meet the critical UK 2050 targets.
This is not because wind is a bad thing, quite the contrary; it can replace a large amount of our current high-carbon generation. But what we must do is manage the intermittency of the electricity it generates, which means we must develop wind in the right sequence in order to get the best synergies with other carbon efficiency measures we will be pursuing.
There are three main points here. First, for the electricity industry to manage this intermittency it must be able to cope with rising demand when the wind is falling. To do this by 2020 we will need a large amount of additional fast-start generation plant to pick up the load. And the type of fast start plant this requires - high emission oil-fired gas turbines - are the last thing the country needs in its long-term generation mix.
Second, the economic viability of developing other essential low-carbon generation technologies, such as carbon capture technology for coal and high efficiency combined cycle gas turbines, will be severely undermined by the early and extensive development of wind power. The viability of these low-carbon technologies depends on giving them a high level of usage, but the development of large-scale wind would potentially halve the operating hours when these plant would be needed. This would force carbon emissions up if cheap dirty plant was used instead or force power prices higher still.
Third, in order for the UK to come anywhere near hitting its long-term carbon targets, a large-scale and rapid switch to electric vehicles is going to be essential. Coupled with this is the need to develop a nationwide vehicle charging infrastructure allowing to charge their vehicles remotely.
The smart grid technology that is already being developed, and will be employed for this purpose, will also allow the variability of demand for vehicle charging to be managed within grid limitations - and offer the ideal synergy with the unpredictability of wind power.
So the reality is that wind power is going to be an essential element of our future generation mix - which will also include new nuclear, clean coal, gas, tidal, etc - but to get the benefits and avoid the pitfalls of wasted investments or failed targets we need to get the sequencing right.
Powering the Future was published this week www.pbpoweringthefuture.com