Saturday, June 6, 2009

Pump It Up

My recent post about Spirit of Ireland drew some flak. Richard Tol has been batting away in the comments with those more enthusiastic about the SoL concept than him (or me).

It is interesting to look elsewhere for examples about combined wind/hydro electricity initiatives. New Zealand is especially interesting, not least because it shares some of the same energy characteristics as Ireland in terms of wind generation capacity (though there are some key differences: New Zealand has active volcanoes and the geothermal power opportunities that go with them!)

The free market energy blog MasterResource has a very pertinent post by New Zealand energy engineer Bryan Leyland. Bryan reflects on New Zealand's own potential for a combination of wind power and pumped storage to substitute out non-renewable electricity generation capacity. His analysis shows that you would need wind and pumped storage generation capacity of 1.55 times the likely level of generation demand to allow for wind capacity operating at a factor of 37% and for losses of 25% of pumped storage capacity due to evaporation and conversion losses. Wikipedia suggests the latter can even be as high as 30%. Hence his conclusion:
The conclusion is that wind power is very expensive and large-scale power supply from windpower (and other new renewable technologies) cannot be contemplated until an efficient, low-cost method of storing large amounts of electricity for long periods is discovered. I am not aware of any technology that comes anywhere near to meeting this requirement.
None of this is to say that the Spirit of Ireland initiative is wrong or fraudulent. Though maybe it's just a tad ambition given the worldwide (though very limited) experience of similar initiatives. Perhaps in going for scale they can solve some of the problems (technical and - most importantly - economic) that beset such ambitions elsewhere.

And of course, unlike New Zealand, we at least can tap our next door neighbour for some spare electricity should we run low ourselves - at least we will when the East-West interconnector is finally (and once again belatedly) in place.


  1. We tend to forget about the hidden costs of dependence on fossil fuels such as instability resulting from military action in the Middle East, terrorism from the consequential Western presence there, or the eventual peak of oil production. The cost of renewable power generation will eventually fall as the technology matures and economies of scale are derived from higher volumes.

  2. I see no good reason why the cost of renewable energy will more than halve - the amount needed to make it anywhere near competitive. I see an even lower chance of developing a storage technology that is cheap, efficient and can store huge amounts of energy for weeks and months.

    But we do have lots of coal and the promise of nuclear power - including the small safe (100- 200 MW) sealed high temperature gas reactors that could provide distributed generation at a reasonable price.

    This is where money should be spent - not on subsidizing technologies that are expensive and have huge problems.

  3. I like the kite based systems currently being trialled. They operate at altitudes where the wind is consistent and therefore get around the intermittancy issue.

  4. As an exercise in ingenuity, kite systems are intriguing. But as a potential supplier of large scale energy, they have at least as many technical and economic problems as the other renewable technologies. What keeps them up in the air if the winds drops or changes? How do they survive a major storm? How d they generate enough lift to support the power cable? And so on.

  5. The wind doesn't drop at the altitude they operate at. It also doesn't change direction. I would have said that the issues were more around regulation of air-space and how to deal with tether failures. But lets just step back a moment, my real point is that as soon as someone mentions wind power, they think of the prevailing model and criticise it's shortcomings. Stating that human ingenuity will solve the problems of nuclear but not those of renewables is inconsistent and belies an irrational bias.

  6. While it might be possible to reduce the cost of wind power by 30% or so, it still won't make it economic. In fact, when the costs of backup, energy storage and transmission are factored in, I doubt if wind would be economic even if the cost were reduced by 50% or more.

    In my opinion the big promise of nuclear power is from mass production of the small, sealed, intrinsically safe units that can be spread around the power system and reduce, rather than increase, the need for expensive transmission lines.


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