Friday, January 8, 2010

An Ill Wind

I'm thinking of getting Minister Eamon Ryan a belated Christmas present: a subscription to Sky TV. On the day he was welcoming the announced reduction in gas prices by the CER - as a result, he explained, of surplus supply via the UK - the BBC was reporting severe gas shortages ... in the UK.

Of course it's a matter of timing: the weather has put extreme pressure on gas demand in the short term. The price cuts reflect long term trends (especially a demand-destroying recession). But the long term is made up of a lot of short terms, and when it comes to energy the short term has a habit of going in the opposite direction to the long term.

Take wind generation of electricity. In a (very) quiet moment I like to pop over to eirgrid to see how our long term progress towards a world-leading dependence on wind generation is going (i.e.: 40% of electricity from renewables by 2020). You can monitor our progress towards that brave new future on the eirgrid site: fifteen minutes at a time.

The problem with this ambition is evident in the graph which I've derived from eirgrid's site. Today, as electricity demand was escalating (top chart), wind generation was plummeting (bottom chart). By implication this means that dependence on renewables (mainly wind) will require a massive, back-up generation capacity in the form of non-renewables. And today isn't exceptional: check out Thursday, 8th October 2009 on the eirgrid site when wind generation fell to just 5 megawatts during the peak demand period (or 0.4% of the installed capacity of 1,396Mw).

What are the alternatives? The problem with our commitment to an unprecedented target of 40% renewables is that it effectively shuts down other, potentially more viable alternatives. As Richard Tol points out in a recent post on the Irish Economy blog: "nuclear and wind power do not mix well, because the amount of wind that Ireland is committed to requires a power plant that is more flexible than nuclear can be."

As the rock salt shortage is proving, trends that appears inexorable in the long run (global warming, apparently) may be entirely confounded by events in the short run. Gas prices may be the least of our problems in if we end up with an entirely 'unsustainable' renewable energy system in just ten years' time. Or even one month's time …


  1. I agree that the inability to store electricity generated by wind-farms is a major problem in terms of supply. The high-pressure systems associated with arctic conditions are usually calm. However, I would be interested in your views on the Spirit of Ireland consortium and their plans for combined 'pumped hydro storage' facilities, making use of our huge river estuaries on the South-West coast to pump water when the wind is blowing and release it for power generation in calm weather. Using existing bodies of water avoids the cost of building reservoirs. It seems a good idea. Also, a business group in Co. Antrim are raising money to store wind-generated energy in salt formations or as compressed air, solving the 'intermittent' problem of some wind energy. What I'm suggesting is that wind is free, clean and renewable, so perhaps we should try a bit harder to find the other part of the puzzle - how to store it.

  2. I did comment on it last year Hugh, here:

    and here:

    I'm not convinced by the economics of what they propose - though I agree: if there is an economical (and energy) efficient way of storing electricity then it might leave me less anxious about our 40/2020 target.


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