“But what happens when the wind doesn’t blow? It’s a question anyone who’s ever advocated for more renewable energy will have heard about eleven thousand times, with the challenge invariably presented in a mocking tone that suggests the world’s best engineers, investors and policymakers have missed something. as blindingly obvious as a climate-skeptic child could spot.
The answer – assuming you can resist the urge to sarcastically reply with “are you telling me the wind isn’t always blowing and it’s dark at night, because THIS IS TOTALLY NEW INFORMATION” – is that a suite of technologies will be used to maintain grid reliability even when renewable energy generation declines.
No one is claiming the unprecedented transition to a zero-emissions network will be easy, but some of the world’s most talented engineers and entrepreneurs are devoting their careers to answering the aggressive question posed by keyboard warriors @climatechangeisnotreal. They are more convinced than ever that a mix of batteries and long-term energy storage technologies, fuel cells and hydrogen power plants, energy efficiency improvements, demand and smart grid functionality, interconnection with neighboring markets and possibly nuclear, biomass and carbon capture and storage plants can provide reliable, ultra-low emissions power at an affordable cost when the wind don’t blow.
It should also be noted that the levels of renewable energy on the grid almost everywhere in the world are still far from the level where it becomes truly difficult to manage the balance between supply and demand. With wind and solar costs significantly lower than all forms of dirty generation in most parts of the world, and gas supply security concerns painfully and tragically evident, the logical course of action is to build much more capacity renewable energy as soon as possible.
However, without wanting to be as flippant as the critics of renewable energy development, there is an alternative answer to the question “what happens when the wind doesn’t blow”. And that’s just asking, ‘what happens when the breath?’
This weekend the UK provided a glimpse of what is happening, as increased wind power generation and a sizable contribution from solar parks have seen renewables meet 60% of the demand for electricity on Saturday. With the nuclear contribution included, zero-emission energy sources met almost 80% of demand and the grid’s carbon intensity fell to just 66 grams of CO2 per kWh. The South West network has gone even further, running on 100% clean energy.
At the same time, wholesale electricity prices, which have reached historic highs thanks to the chaos in European energy markets, fell sharply on Saturday afternoon.
And, as John Taylor of the Greater South East Net Zero Hub pointed out, “British wind and solar are keeping the pounds from flowing to Putin.” Every kWh generated from renewables is kWh that does not have to be generated from gas, which means reduced emissions and, importantly, lower levels of high-cost and geopolitically risky gas imports.
But the obvious environmental, financial and safety gains seen every time the wind blows are just the beginning of the story. Because if you consider the technocratic answer provided to those who ask “what happens when the wind isn’t blowing”, it’s clear that renewable energy generation provides a key part of the answer.
Periods of increasing renewable energy production are enabling the emergence of new business models, such as those of Ripple Energy, Octopus Energy and others, which will help drive widespread adoption of energy storage systems, response to demand and flexible rates. Likewise, when the wind blows and supply begins to outstrip demand, the economic case for green hydrogen quickly becomes even more compelling, indicating how hydrogen could potentially one day supply the entire generating capacity of long-term relief that the network needs. You may also have noticed that the wind blows a lot in northern Europe, just as the sun shines a lot in the tropics.
Some have warned that these renewable energy production spikes could lead to periods of ultra-low or even negative prices that could disrupt the market. This is a legitimate concern, especially when the UK is planning an increase of several orders of magnitude in renewable energy capacity and Emmanuel Macron yesterday obtained a mandate to build 50 new offshore wind farms off the coast of France. But it’s the kind of technical challenge that also presents a huge opportunity that developers are already poised to seize. Excess cheap clean energy would prove to be an extremely valuable resource that the hydrogen industry in particular would be well placed to take advantage of. The prospect of industrial ‘offshoring’, as manufacturers seek to tap into competitive green energy supplies, is not necessarily a pipe dream.
What happens when the wind blows? Carbon emissions plummet, electricity prices plummet, innovation is catalysed, fossil fuel imports plummet, and the amount of money flowing to the Kremlin is limited. As COP26 President Alok Sharma observed over the weekend, as the UK grid achieved 74% zero carbon, “it works”.
This article was first published as part of BusinessGreen’s overnight briefing, which you can subscribe to here.