Those who dismiss wind as a source of energy are misguided, says the industry. Keith Orchison reports it's no fledgling
Almost the only certain thing about the future of wind power in Australia is that it is strongly in need of a fresh burst of energy. After almost a decade of debate and development, wind farms account for a miniscule share of national electricity generation capacity -- with barely 1,000 megawatts likely to be installed by the end of 2008.
This capacity will enable wind farms to supply about 3,200 gigawatt hours of power to Australian consumers out of a total demand exceeding 200,000 GWh.
Even with the support of the Australian Government's mandatory renewable energy target program -- which requires retailers to include a relatively small percentage of new renewable power in their purchases -- the wind industry has struggled to become more than a niche player in the national power system.
The bugbear for wind farmers and other renewable industry developers, including solar power, is the very low price of coal-fired power in Australia -- for industrial consumers, who use half the power produced, coal plant prices are some 38 per cent cheaper than the average for industry in the rest of the developed world.
Without a much larger incentive than the Howard Government's MRET scheme or a substantial carbon charge, the near future for wind farm development in Australia is less than bright.
Meanwhile, in Germany, the world leader in embracing wind power, a decade of subsidised development has seen capacity reach 16,400 MW -- about the same as the total generation capacity of Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia combined -- and is projected to treble by 2020.
With nuclear power being strongly pushed by the Australian Government as the big ticket answer to rising national greenhouse gas emissions, with solar developers winning substantial government subsidies and with a growing acknowledgement of geothermal energy as the great green hope to provide large amounts of baseload power within the next 20-25 years, should the wind farmers face up to the bitter fact that their time centre stage has gone without it ever really happening?
Rob Jackson, technical director of Renewable Generators of Australia, is among a number of voices arguing that this bleak future ain't necessarily going to be wind's fate.
Jackson points to ongoing substantial technological development in wind generation and declining capital costs through economies of scale in manufacturing. The size of wind turbines now commercially available is three times what it was hardly more than a decade ago.
Jackson says the potential for wind in Australia remains large -- recent studies suggest as much as 10,000 MW, more than the current total generation capacity of Victoria, could be installed under a policy that meets the price differential between the black coal energy price and wind power production costs.
One of the big things going for wind, he adds, is that it has no fuel supply risk, a substantial commercial advantage over other renewable options such as biomass as well as against fossil fuel plants.
The intermittent nature of wind is one of the big hurdles constantly raised against the sector's potential for growth, but Jackson argues that the issue is overblown. "Can wind provide guaranteed generation across the year?" he adds. "No, of course not -- but neither can even coal-fired generation. With growing installations across a greater geographic area in southern Australia, the percentage of wind that can be considered 'firm' in market delivery terms will increase and so will its ability to contribute to meeting peak demand. Wind does not start and stop at the same time all across the east coast of Australia; even the biggest weather fronts move slowly across the country."
Costs and other problems with connecting wind farms to the transmission grid are also perceived as hurdles to wide-scale development, but Jackson argues that the practical approach Australian wind developers are pursuing is to concentrate projects where there is existing network capacity.
In some regional communities there has been strong antagonism to wind farm development because of perceptions of impacts on the local environment. Jackson retorts that the only physical emission of a wind turbine -- noise -- is inaudible beyond several hundred metres except under rare topographical conditions.
The impact of turbine blades on wildlife -- birds and bats -- is also exaggerated, he claims, with Australian studies indicating a lower level of bird deaths here than has been experienced in the northern hemisphere. An important factor may be that Australia does not experience the same concentrations of bird migration as in the north.
An advantage of siting wind farms in rural and regional areas, Jackson adds, is that they are highly compatible with agriculture and provide a welcome additional source of income for host farmers and their local communities.
"No-one is suggesting running all or even a major part of an electricity supply system on wind," he says, "but, if the question is can wind make a strong contribution to Australian power generation, the answer is a definite yes. The key to the wind industry growing rapidly in the next 10-25 years is an energy policy that recognises its immediate greenhouse gas abatement value."
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