Page last updated at 00:20 GMT, Wednesday, 1 July 2009 01:20 UK

Wind 'can revolutionise UK power'

By Roger Harrabin
Environment analyst, BBC News

Wind turbines near the Mersey

Wind has the power to revolutionise the UK's electricity industry, according to a study published on Wednesday.

Research from analysts Poyry says that the UK can massively expand wind power by 2030 without suffering power cuts or a melt-down of the National Grid.

The cost of electricity would then be determined not by consumer demand, but by how hard the wind is blowing.

When it is windy power will be so cheap that other forms of generation will be unable to compete, the report says.

If accepted by government, these key findings could strongly influence the UK's future energy supplies.

The study was done for National Grid, Centrica and others. The researchers reviewed 2.5 million hourly weather reports on wind speeds all around the UK.

Idle time

If the wind were to drop everywhere round the UK (as happened during the January high pressure cold snap), other generators would make their money by switching on back-up fossil fuel power stations for a very short time, charging extremely high prices, it predicts.

Dr Phil Hare from Poyry said these back-up generators might stand idle for years without making a profit - so the government might need to find a new way of ensuring they were funded.

Solar energy plant (eyewire)
There is no such thing as cheap green power - that is a myth
Phil Hare

The study bases its assumptions on current levels of subsidy. It concludes that, thanks to the wind subsidy through the "Renewable Obligations Certificates" issued by regulator Ofgem, electricity prices would be negative if the wind were blowing hard.

"The market will have to evolve to accommodate the wind. The average output of a wind turbine is only about a third of its full capacity. So when the wind is blowing strongly you'll have to turn some of the wind power off; otherwise it will swamp the system," Dr Hare said.

"Nuclear power stations will have to be built with variable output so they - like gas and coal plants - can occasionally cut their power when the wind is blowing most strongly. It does look as though nuclear, coal and gas are competing for the same share of the market."

Dr Hare said the study answered another key question: whether we could move to widespread intermittent power from the wind, waves and tides together.

"Some people were worried that the complexity stemming from intermittent wind with an overlay of tidal power peaking twice a day might simply have been too much change for the grid to bear. But our research shows the grid can cope."

The study investigated a scenario for 2030, in which electricity is more than 40% renewable - mostly from wind. But some experts urge caution.

Dr John Constable, from the Renewable Energy Foundation, said: "The study confirms that while very high levels of uncontrollable renewable generation are theoretically manageable, the practical difficulties are significant, and the cost will be high.

"Less ambitious levels of wind would almost certainly result in a system which is not only just as clean but is also more robust and affordable."

The study amplifies a recent paper from National Grid itself stating that a move towards wind power would not necessitate widespread investment in expensive back-up power plants fuelled by gas or coal.

This is a key finding which helps remove one of the main barriers to the advance of wind, although some will remain sceptical.

But it comes with a warning. Dr Hare said: "It will cost more. There is no such thing as cheap green power - that is a myth."

The authors of a report from the Royal Society this week made the same point. But politicians are still reluctant to pass on this message to the public.

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