Wind power in the UK is predictable enough that the grid can rely on it to help keep the lights on, a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) says.
Critics have said wind power cannot be relied upon at times that demand is the greatest, cannot be stored and does not cut enough carbon to make large investments worthwhile.
However, the IPPR’s report has concluded that wind power is a “potent” way of reducing carbon emissions, is reliable, does not threaten energy security and is technically capable of providing a significant amount of the UK’s electricity supply with no impact on the security of the grid.
"The reliability and security of wind power does not depend on the variability of wind but instead on how well changes in wind power output can be predicted and managed,” the report said.
Carbon savings from 15.5 terrawatt hours of wind energy in Britain in 2011 amounted to at least 5.5 million tonnes, or around 2.5 per cent of the emissions the UK has promised to cut over 2008-2012, the report said.
Statistical analysis shows that the most extreme changes in output amount to around 20 per cent of total wind generation capacity in half an hour, the report said. In the worst case, wind production could drop as electricity demand is rising.
"However it is important to reiterate that changes in wind production are to a large degree predictable: the operators can see rapid changes coming, or at the very least, be forewarned of the risk of rapid changes," the report said.
"On the rare occasions when this could cause difficulty, electricity system operators can instruct the wind generation segment of the system to limit the rate at which its output increases or to reduce its output gradually in advance of a reduction in wind speed."
Extended periods of low wind speed and cold, when power demand is high for heating, also could pose problems.
The electricity system has enough fossil fuel capacity in reserve, however, that it should still manage to provide secure supplies to meet that demand, IPPR said.
The National Grid has said it can accommodate 30 gigawatts (GW) of wind power by 2020, slightly more than the 28GW the government expects to be online by that time to help meet its carbon reduction targets. About 5GW are online currently.
More efficient energy use in homes and businesses, smart meters, electric vehicles, better energy storage and the use of natural gas to make up a capacity shortfall during a long, cold calm spell could help the grid adapt, IPPR said.
Interconnections between electricity systems should also be improved to allow the grid to tap wind resources in other parts of Britain or elsewhere in Europe when cold and calm periods occur in one area, the report said.
RenewableUK chief executive Maria McCaffery said in response to the report: "International evidence shows [wind is] wholly viable, and yet we're still not taking full advantage of it in terms of deployment.
"British families are still being hit hard by rising wholesale fossil fuel prices."
Read the IPPR’s report on wind power.