increasing wind power capacity will require a rethink of the UK's electricity grid

Increasing wind capacity presents engineering challenge

Wind power capacity in the UK could reach 50GW by 2030 but this rise will present major technical challenges.

The UK is expected to have 26GW of wind capacity meeting 20 per cent of electrical demand by 2020, according to a new report from the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng), which the grid will be able to accommodate without the need for significant upgrades to the system and using existing balancing mechanisms.

But beyond 20 per cent managing the system will become increasingly difficult and key long-term planning decisions are required to mitigate the intermittent nature of wind power generation, says the report, as the UK seeks to meet government targets of cutting 80 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Professor Roger Kemp, a member of the RAEng working group on wind energy, said: "We see wind as playing a major role in the future but the task of decarbonisation represents a paradigm shift in the UK's energy system – the scale of the challenge should not be underestimated.

“Wind energy will be only one of the tools available alongside other generating technologies, better connectivity and demand side measures. All will need to be carefully integrated using a systems engineering approach.

“As we progress towards a low-carbon future, the energy industry and infrastructure will have to evolve ahead of or with electricity demand to accommodate more wind. This evolution is complex and will also require other forms of low carbon generation, innovations in energy storage, management and more interconnections with the electricity grids in other countries.

“This will happen only if there is clarity in the government’s plans for the future decarbonisation of the country and a willingness to work together with industry in building confidence to invest in the UK energy market. Energy systems and technologies are global; several countries are ahead of the UK in developing wind energy and we will need to adopt best practice, wherever that might be.”

Demand management through a ‘smart grid’ as vital for any future energy system relying heavily on wind, according to the report, and while smart meters will be rolled out to all homes and business by 2020 a truly smart grid will require appliances that communicate with system operators and react to price signals in real time, constituting a degree of dynamic control previously unseen in grid systems.

In order to meet the targets set out in the Climate Change Act, the authors say the grid will need to be largely decarbonised by around 2030, which is likely to require much of the energy for domestic heating and transport to be electrified in the form of heat pumps and electric vehicles.

While low wind is mainly only an issue during periods of peak demand and rarely last more than a few days, the reports points out that this could become more problematic in the future if the UK is relying on wind to provide energy for heating and transport and energy storage options will need to be developed that help to cope with such events.

Greater interconnection with other European grids could offer greater flexibility to respond to variations in demand and supply, the report says, but will mean thinking of the UK grid as part of the larger EU grid with a detailed analysis of various mixes of generation required on a European basis.

The report also backs the Institution of Engineering and Technology’s call for industry and the Department of Energy & Climate Change to work together to establish a ‘systems architect’ to achieve a whole systems approach for the future electricity system.

“Wind energy has emerged as the first variable renewable generating technology to be deployed at scale on our electricity system. It elicits strong feelings and the debate has become very polarize,” said John Trewby, chair of the working group. “As I have learned in the course of this study, the issues raised by wind energy are many, novel and complex. These matters deserve debate.”

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