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Archive for May, 2012

I’m starting to get really worried about the wind industry. I think it’s an important industry, for several reasons:

  • It brings jobs to Scotland, even in a time of recession,
  • It allows for our dependence on imports for electricity supply to be reduced,
  • It reduces the carbon intensity of our energy,
  • It serves as a point of learning on the road to making real use of our renewable resources: solar, wave and tidal, and whatever new technology comes after.

What worries me is that the debate on wind energy, from the pro-wind side, is totally dominated by three voices: the economists/business leaders, the politicians and the green activists.

The way I see the world, politicians are there to tell us if something should be done; economists tell us if people will pay for it; and activists are there to lobby for a pre-existing set of ideas. When it comes to “can something be achieved”, that’s where you need the geeks: specifically the scientists and the engineers. And the scientists and engineers are very, very quiet on the issue of wind power.

Part of the reason for this is that wind energy for large-scale electricity is still very much in its infancy. Ten years ago, the procedure for installing a wind farm was completely unrecognisable compared to what happens today: masts were smaller, turbines were smaller and closer together, and the softer requirements like bird surveys and protection for peat lands weren’t as well established. Ten years in a career is a long time; but it’s hardly any time at all when you look at how quickly the onshore wind industry has grown. (Offshore wind has barely begun its journey yet, so I’m not talking about that.)

Within that huge rate of growth, large companies have grown from small groups of tinkering engineers, and somehow the managers, the politicians and the economists have become the dominant voices. And they say: protect our IP, don’t say anything which will bring the industry into disrepute, keep to the party line. It’s scientists who say, share data, do best practice and let people see it’s being done. But somehow the scientists and the engineers aren’t making the decisions in this industry. And where they’ve risen to the top, they seem to do so by falling in line with the industry position. Don’t question, don’t talk about any issues, don’t ever suggest there’s anything wrong. And so they become the business leaders, the economists, the politicians.

One result of this is that an industry which employs hundreds, perhaps thousands of highly-qualified engineers, and a fair few scientists too, doesn’t seem to have the geeks on their side.

I’m talking about this blog. The author of the blog is Colin R McInnes, a professor of engineering at the University of Strathclyde. As a citizen, he’s been writing to newspapers fairly often lately. His letters tend to be good engineering, as you’d expect, but they tend to come down on the anti-wind side.

He’s not correct. But, and this is important: IT IS NOT HIS FAULT THAT HE’S WRONG.

He’s an engineer. More than that, this guy researches into solar sails for a living. If you asked him about whether solar sails were worth investing public money in, presumably he’d say yes. This is frontier research: it can’t fund itself without huge subsidies. Yet this same man is essentially arguing that if offshore wind farms, a very new attempt at large-scale deployment of technology to an extremely challenging environment, can’t fund themselves commercially then they should be scrapped. So what’s the difference?

He doesn’t know that we’re here. The scientists and engineers who are tasked with building wind farms and actually making them work. He’s not in the industry, doesn’t go to conferences or meetings. He’s only engaging with the public discourse. Which is, as I stated earlier, dominated by politics, activists and the party line. He is operating in a complete vacuum of technically-literate information on wind farms.

We need to start talking in a language that the technical people can understand. That means demonstrating good practice and actually letting the numbers out there. How much are wind farms generating? Why are they being installed where they are? What are the measured capacity factors? How do we determine the layouts? What actions do we take to mitigate public concerns? How do we re-power or decommission a wind farm at the end of its life? Are we held to account if we breach our planning?

I don’t know if I can make this happen. This blog is a start, I suppose. Perhaps you can. The time for secrecy is ending; if anything I’m very concerned that we’re already too late. What might have been good for an individual company is threatening to doom an entire industry. And that industry matters.

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As I said earlier, I’ve been reading the Geek Manifesto lately. This is the sort of thing you don’t read if you want a quiet life of rolling your eyes when people are wrong rather than gathering friends to overdose on homeopathic remedies outside a chemist.

It has come to my attention that one Mr Griff Rhys Jones has recently weighed in on the wind farm question. He has been quoted as claiming that wind farms are “green tokenism”, and being “randomly deposited” across the country. (Apparently this is from a column in the Radio Times, which is not online.)

Fresh from my perusal of the Geek Manifesto, it occurs to me that there are some parallels between this occurence and the British Chiropractic Association vs Simon Singh libel case. In the BCA case, Simon Singh had claimed Chiropracters made bogus claims; the BCA then sued for libel claiming damage to their reputation. In the case of Mr Rhys Jones, a celebrity has similarly made comments which are highly damaging to the reputation of an industry.

Only I can provide all sorts of evidence that wind farms are not “randomly distributed”, and that far from being “green tokenism” they actively contribute to our electricity networks saving on fossil fuels.

(I’ve not linked to much for the first statement about not being randomly distributed because to be honest it’s a bit of a blog post in itself and I don’t think anyone’s written it yet. Basically I need to demonstrate that there are financial incentives to build in the windiest places, that there are well established procedures in the industry for establishing windiness before construction, and that these procedures are generally followed. Some of the evidence may be commercially sensitive, but certainly there’s a solid case there.)

Has the reputation of the wind industry been libelled? Well, let’s be honest, Mr Rhys Jones is no more guilty of that than dozens of journalists, editors and commentors in print and even more random people online. But maybe they are all guilty of libel. Because I see far more accusations of bad practice from random people than I’ve seen any evidence of it. I’m not saying that the industry as a whole should start suing for libel when critics make rash statements which aren’t backed up by even a modicum of evidence. Neither am I saying that the wind industry is perfect. But no industry is perfect.

I do wish that celebrities, whose opinions are magnified in today’s culture, would try to remember that if it isn’t backed up by evidence it’s only an opinion.

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“The Geek Manifesto” is a book by Mark Henderson which has been making quite a splash with a few science-minded people I know: I think I’ve had it recommended to me about four times by different people. So I bought it for my kindle and I’m now about half way through.

Because I’ve been following a lot of science people on twitter for a while, a lot of the issues raised by the book aren’t new to me. I followed the sacking of David Nutt for commenting on his scientific findings on drugs, I followed the libel reform case between Simon Singh and the BCA, and I also saw the birth of the Science is Vital campaign as a response to the 2010 Spending Review. These issues, and other similar ones are covered in the manifesto. I’m sure there’ll be others as I work my way through the book.

As a scientist, these issues do matter to me. I want decisions to be based on evidence, and I want politicians to try to compile high-quality evidence where it’s needed. It is true that it is easier in general to find examples of policy-driven evidence than evidence-driven policy; for instance, the War in Iraq was not justified by the evidence available at the time.

If there was evidence to show that wind farms don’t work — that they don’t produce power that can be used, that they fail to reduce CO2 emissions, or that they are ultimately more polluting than they save — I would want to know about it. I would want to say to my colleagues, look, it’s not working, let’s find another way, some other technology. I don’t want to bet my career on something that doesn’t work.

Of course, wind power may not be the best long-term solution to all our energy needs. That’s different, and fine by me. I’m not trying to build a panacea for all humanity’s ills, I just want to change the world a little bit to be a better world.

The truth is that the evidence /doesn’t/ say that. Wind farms produce more electricity than they use and they save enough in carbon to balance their construction costs in only a few months of their 20-year lifetime (also see here.

I wonder if part of the reason that the wind industry has failed to engage with its detractors is that most of our talking comes from the CEOs and lobbyists that are a crucial part of our industry, but who aren’t actually scientists or trained in assessing evidence objectively. That’s one reason why I set up this blog; I wanted someone to be presenting the balanced viewpoint that the energy debate demands.

Scientists are good at that, and we need to be here; we need to be heard.

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There are some people who feel that those who are pro-wind-power must by definition be anti-nuclear. This is far from true in reality: both power sources include very different challenges but actually complement one another in some ways. Most engineers will tell you that we need a variety of generation sources to keep the power flowing on demand; running the grid with wind energy only would be a recipe for blackouts unless something really changed. Like hydro, nuclear is a generation method that doesn’t burn carbon and that is basically controllable on demand. Some environmentalists argue that in fact it is essential to include nuclear in the mix if you want to reduce carbon emissions in your electricity generation.

I don’t have any moral objections to nuclear; but I appreciate that it brings enormous challenges.

Still, it’s looking increasingly like nuclear power — or at least new nuclear power stations — will not be contributing much to the UK’s electricity generation in the near future. A summary of the situation:

There’s a lot there to suggest that the privatised electricity market in the UK simply doesn’t have the stomach for new nuclear generation.

Meanwhile, the UK’s existing nuclear facilities are aging; Germany intends to stop using nuclear at all and Japan has hardly started back up after the tsunami over a year ago.

Locally and globally the message is the same. Nuclear power — fission at least — may well have had its heyday.

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Wind farms are pretty different to prior large-scale generating technology. A big way that they’re different is that we, as users, can’t choose ourselves how much fuel they need to provide us with the energy we want to use; we simply have to accept as much of the available wind energy as we can.

For some this is an insurmountable problem with the very technology. If the energy isn’t there on tap you might as well pack up and go home. To me that seems crazy. If someone offered you a £20 voucher towards your weekly shop, you wouldn’t toss it in the bin on the grounds that it wouldn’t buy your whole week’s food, you’d use it and make up the rest other ways.

Because of this intermittency problem, jobs like mine became available for the wind industry. Across the globe, whereever there are wind farms of any size, someone has to sit down with a computer and some wind measurements and try to assess what sort of production levels we can expect from them. In the early days, this was done based on some comparatively short measurement masts, using methods that were simplistic. Now, it’s a much better defined methodology, with larger masts, new technologies, and its own modelling tools to provide more accurate predictions of how the wind will vary in time and space.

The same sort of analysis techniques are used by the Energy Traders, who sell the generated energy under the system of the UK electricity market. Similarly, analysis of operational wind farms really benefits from that sort of detailed knowledge of the wind because it’s still key to understanding how far the wind farm is performing as expected.

So there are lots of benefits to the wind industry from this sort of work then. (Might be worth mentioning that these sorts of jobs are high skill, high demand and generally filled by people who live and work in the country in question.)

Even the most strident wind power advocate, though, doesn’t foresee a time when 100% of an electrical grid’s supply comes from wind power; not unless there’s a major leap forward in electricity storage. It is likely that other technologies like wave and tidal will start to mature to large-scale deployment.

When they do, those renewable resources will also need their resource assessed. And very similar techniques will be involved: make some measurements, assess their quality and representativeness, model where you have no measurements, and then feed through information about your machine and its output.

The national grid that was originally conceived to carry electricity from large-scale power plants to every home, factory and office was an astounding feat of engineering. However it was designed to match the supply to demand. The requirements of matching a variable supply with a variable demand are relatively new. Because wind power is the first renewable technology to get a substantial penetration into the generation market, the grid is learning to be more flexible. As we begin to use other renewable technologies — and we will — those lessons will transfer and we’ll have a system that can cope with the demands we ask of it.

Wind energy doesn’t have to be 100% of the answer to be a very important part of today’s and tomorrow’s technology mix.

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