Strategic deployment of new wind farms in Europe could “almost eliminate” weather-related variability in the continent’s wind power output, researchers have claimed.
While the EU’s drive toward renewables expansion has been marred by the ever-present problem of intermittency and the corresponding need for more flexible baseload power to balance fluctuations in renewable output, the researchers say the real problem is neither the weather nor wind technology, but a lack of cooperation between European member states.
In a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change, researchers from Swiss science and technology university ETH Zurich used 30 years of weather data from across Europe in combination with wind and solar power production data to claim that since regional wind lulls are likely to extend to neighbouring countries but do not reach across Europe, siting future wind capacity in regions with contrasting long-term weather patterns could maintain steady generation.
For example, while most of Europe’s wind farms are currently located in countries that border the North Sea and thus are all subject to the same weather patterns, building future plants in areas such as the Balkans, Greece, the western Mediterranean or northern Scandinavia could help to balance wind output during North Sea lulls, as well as increasing the average fleet-wide generation.
Power production from Europe’s operational wind farms can vary from 22 GW to 44 GW depending on weather patterns according to the researchers, who said the North Sea wind farms currently in the planning stage would require 100 GW of non-wind power capacity to balance their expected weather-related variability.
A strategic pan-European approach to wind project development could reduce this requirement to 20 GW. “There is hardly a weather situation in which there is no wind across the entire continent and thus all of Europe would lack wind power potential,” said Christian Grams, the study’s lead author.
The report nixed the idea of using either electricity storage or solar power to compensate for long-term lulls in wind power. Storage was seen as a non-starter since there is simply not enough of it currently available and today’s storage technologies “are more suited to compensating for shorter fluctuations of a few hours or days”. And in order to use solar power to balance variable wind output, current installed capacity would need to be increased by a factor of ten.
If member states continue to follow their own national plans, the researchers said, wind farms will continue to be built around the North Sea. This would lead to “even more extreme fluctuations”, with the difference between high production in favourable wind conditions and low production during a lull amounting to as much as 100 GW.
In the end the researchers argued for a pan-European renewables network and significant, coordinated grid expansion. ETH Zurich summarized their findings succinctly with: “If European countries cooperated better in the field of wind energy, wind power output would fluctuate less”.