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The political-correct green buzz may have bet on smart grids, wind power and home-generated power, but the smart money is on gridlock, angry investors and power cuts.

‘Hamish’ lives in a remote, relatively windy, farmhouse location in Scotland. Being an unreconstructed liberal with cash to splash, Hamish decided eighteen months ago to invest in his ‘free’ wind power dream. Disgusted that his power company would not buy any excess electricity a ‘home’ turbine would produce, Hamish switched to the one Scottish power company that was prepared to buy it. By February 2011, having bought his £55,000 ($88,000) turbine and completed the infrastructure and after the power company laid the cables, Hamish received a bombshell. Having tested the system the power company refused to allow Hamish to turn it all on because variable wind surges would trip out the power grid.

Drastically out of pocket, stuck with a white energy ‘elephant’ he cannot even switch on and with the prospect of income from sales to the power company thwarted, Hamish is left considering the only route left open to assuage his financial losses: suing the power company.

Now you might think that Hamish had not done his homework. You’d be wrong. He had consulted far and wide. Not with those independent energy insiders only too aware of wind power’s frailties and the stability needs of national and regional grids you understand, rather with the bureaucrats, turbine manufacturers and, oh yes, those helpful power companies who, urged on by government, offer the unsuspecting an enticing income from excess domestic power production.

It is a cautionary tale for all considering the future of renewable energy power generation. ‘Hamish’ is of course a nom-de-plume. But this is no fairy story. Hamish is someone known to me personally and the problem is that his story is destined to be played out over and over as green ideology continues to outpace politically strategic energy planning.

Smart Grids

Oxford University economist Deiter Helm, speaking to ClimateWire, states the case starkly, “Basically, governments have allowed the build up of wind power without thinking through the grid consequences.” A conundrum to which, as Helm states, there are only two possible responses, “Stop wasting so much on the rapid development of wind and its questionable economics, or plough on regardless, in which case enormous grid investments are urgently needed.”

The problem being faced across wind pioneering Europe, especially Britain – Europe’s windiest nation – is that having poured enormous sums of public money into the renewable energy infrastructure, who is now going to stump up the $138 billion estimated to be necessary to reconstitute and upgrade existing national onshore grids to cope over the next decade? And the costs only escalate further – not to mention the daunting technological obstacles – when offshore ‘smart grids’, like the ambitious North Sea-sited ‘European Supergrid’ project, are prsented as the way forward.

The European Supergrid is considered essential in the development of Europe’s offshore wind industry. The UK, France, Denmark, Netherlands, Germany, Ireland, Belgium, Norway Sweden, even Spain and Portugal, are all signed up via the grand soundingNorthsea Countries Offhore Grid Initiative Memorandum of Understanding. Leading the way, Britain has as much as 35-40 GW (gigawatts) of offshore wind power in its long-term plans. Internationally, 170 GW offshore wind generated capacity is projected for the North Sea by the middle of the century. But for all the fine-sounding political rhetoric serious unresolved issues exist. Who will own it? Who will run it? Who will pay for it – and profit from it

In the US, the barriers to national super grids remain no less formidable than in Europe, as two reports released by the Manhattan Institute (MI) in September 2010 make clear. The twofold problem they maintain is: regional interests and the disaggregation of the electricity sector. According to Robert Bryce, my former colleague and now a fellow at MI, one report reveals how “parochial and fragmented the issue of electricity transmission has become”. In essence, Bryce notes that the report details how state and regional interests are massively “stacked against a project like the national grid”. The other paper delineates how, with power utilities being split into separate companies responsible for generation and transmission, ownership of the power lines becomes a difficult issue

Last year saw the introduction of The Global Smart Grid Federation to start co-ordinating international efforts. Also last year, in Britain, the country’s energy watchdog, Ofgem, changed its rules to encourage energy companies to push up prices to raise a further £32 billion needed to help modernize the National Grid. But international PR and ‘loaded’ energy bills aside, the obstacles ahead remain formidable

Smart Mone

In Britain alarm bells are already sounding over the potential detrimental effect to the power grid of power surges from amassing increasing volumes of highly variable renewable-sourced GW (gigawatts). Derek Birkett is a consultant UK National Grid control engineer. His new book When Will The Lights Go Out? has gained a deal of interest and makes for sober reading. Birkett has amassed a deal of grid expertise. He predicts that a UK grid with more than 6 GW of variable wind power attached will render the entire grid vulnerable to outages during severe weather conditions due to the uncontrollable stop-go nature of its generation. Around 5 GW of wind power capacity is presently linked in to the national grid. During 2011, another 2 GW of wind capacity is due to be added, with a further 2 GW per year for each of the next few years. By Christmas 2011, the UK is scheduled to have 7 GW of wind power capacity attached to the grid – exceeding Birkett’s critical 6 GW threshold

Other energy experts suggest the trip out point will not be reached until 10 GW of wind power is attached. Whoever is right, Britain’s existing national grid system is increasingly under threat from “uncontrollable variability” of additional wind power. As such Britain is not only on course to be the first to have its power grid seriously tested, it could – much earlier than previously predicted – be the first to experience power cuts as a result, as early as Christmas 2011, or during 2012. Birkett’s warning to the government is unequivocal. To avoid what he calls the “impending catastrophe”, British energy policy should “forget renewables” for the moment. If Birkett is right, the irony of national energy policies that favour renewables, particularly wind, that regularly trips the power supply is hardly not going to short-circuit public anger when it realises it has been sold a wind ‘pup’.

The political-correct green buzz may have bet on smart grids, wind power and home-generated power, but the smart money is on gridlock, angry investors and power cuts.

Just ask Hamish.

Energy Tribune, 16 March 2011