Tailwind for wind
Wind is still an undeveloped source of energy in large parts of the world. Photo: CERTs CC BY-NC
Wind power is coming of age. It supplies one-fortieth of the world’s electricity, and has grown tenfold in 10 years. There is room for much more. China and the US now lead the world.
At the end of 2012 wind power accounted for 282 GW of global power generation, according to new statistics from the Global Wind Energy Council and European Wind Energy Association. That is ten times more than 2002. About 2.5 per cent of the world’s electricity comes from the wind, about the same as the output of 100 nuclear reactors. (There are about 400 reactors in the world.)
2.5 per cent wind power is not enough to stop global warming, but if the breakneck pace of installation goes on for a few more years, it will open up a very real opportunity to roll back coal power. The US obtained 3.5 per cent of its electricity from wind power in 2012, which explains part of its big CO2 emissions drop in 2012.
China installed most wind power in 2012 (13.2 GW), a whisker ahead of the United States. Between them they installed 60 per cent of new global capacity.
China has more capacity (75.6 GW) than the US (60 GW), but the US produces more energy, about 140 TWh, compared to 100 TWh in China 2012. This is because China built so fast that grid expansion has not been able to catch up. Some new mills have not been connected, others have been “curtailed” to avoid melting power lines. The situation is improving, though.
Wind power is already the third biggest source of electricity after fossil and hydro but just ahead of nuclear power. That is quite an achievement, as China currently has by far the biggest nuclear programme in the world, with 29 reactors under construction on top of the 17 already operating.
Over the last 10 years world wind power has grown by on average 25 per cent a year, and much faster in China.
Can this go on? A look at the statistics gives a hint that it actually can.
Wind power is extremely unevenly distributed. Germany operates 31 GW of wind power. Poland has 2.5 GW, though growing fairly fast. Russia has only 0.015. There is very little wind power in Japan, South East Asia, Africa and the former Soviet republics outside Russia.
It is not mainly a question of rich versus poor countries. India is a poor country but was both a pioneer of wind power in the 1990s and ranked fourth for new installations in 2012. Within India, almost half of the country’s wind power is in the state of Tamil Nadu. Some parts of India have hardly any.
There are striking differences even among nations, which have otherwise much in common. Denmark, the world pioneer, still leads the Nordic countries with 4.2 GW, though Sweden (a very much larger country) is closing in. Finland, on the other hand, has just 0.3 GW.
The cost of wind power is falling (20–40 per cent in capital costs since 2008–2009, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, while coal and nuclear tend to get more expensive even without any specific policy, though they also meet a lot of political resistance in many countries. Natural gas power is much cheaper to build than anything else, but the future price of gas is unknown, and has a security-of-supply issue in importer nations. New hydro is a limited option.
This leaves wind and solar as preferred options for new power in much of the world.
As for climate and air quality, the fast development of wind and solar is obviously very encouraging. EWEA records the changes in electric production capacity in the EU-27 for 2012. The clear winner was solar photovoltaics with almost 16.8 GW added, followed by wind 11.4 GW, and gas 5.5 GW. Biomass added 1.3 GW and concentrated solar thermal power 0.8 GW. The losers were oil, coal and nuclear, which decreased their capacity by 3.2, 2.4 and 1.2 GW respectively.
The rapid growth in gas and renewables, and decline in fossil fuels and nuclear, has been the pattern since year 2000. But new gas, which used to be the first choice for new capacity dropped to a poor third place in 2012.
Wind and solar have an intermittency issue, but it is not insurmountable.
Denmark got 30 per cent of its power from the wind, and Spain got 23 per cent from wind and solar in 2012.