A rapid expansion of wind energy could achieve a reduction in global warming of 0.3ºC to 0.8ºC by the end of the century, according to a new study. While this would have to be complemented with other emission reduction strategies, it could put the world on a closer path to delivering the Paris Agreement on climate change, the researchers said.
The energy sector remains as one of the main drivers of global greenhouse gas emissions. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that CO2 emissions from coal combustion was responsible for over 0.3ºC of the 1ºC increase in global average temperatures since pre-industrial levels – making coal the main source of temperature rise. So if we want to tackle climate change, replacing coal with renewable energy is a great way to start.
Renewable energy, particularly solar and wind, has seen a remarkable increase over recent years. But it’s not enough yet. In absolute terms, fossil fuels are still the main dominant component of energy demand in every area and globally. That’s why the decarbonization of the energy sector remains a major goal in order to meet the Paris Agreement.
With this in mind, researchers at Cornell University wanted to explore what it would mean in terms of temperature increase for wind energy to continue growing. Onshore wind is a proven and mature technology that has gradually become one of the cheapest energy sources of electricity generation, soon followed by offshore wind.
“Early action will reap dividends,” Rebecca Barthelmie, the lead author of the study, said in a statement. “In terms of averting the worst of climate change, our work confirms that accelerating wind-energy technology deployment is a logical and a cost-effective part of the required strategy. Waiting longer will mean more drastic action will be needed.”
The expansion of wind energy
Wind turbines are currently deployed in over 90 countries. The researchers estimate that a total 742 GW of wind energy capacity was installed by 2020, 35 GW of which was offshore. A group of 12 countries has an installed capacity (IC) above 10GW and twenty above 5GW. This is mainly dominated by Asia (mainly China), Europe (mainly Germany), and the US.
Although hydro currently dominates renewable electricity generation (4325 TWh, around 16% of total electricity supply), the largest growth rates and most future scenarios envisage major expansion in the wind and solar energy. Wind energy production has expanded from 104 terawatt-hours (TWh) in 2005 to 1273 TWh in 2018.
The recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a leading group of climate experts, suggests that “major reductions” in all sectors are needed to meet the Paris Agreement targets. This is where wind energy enters, capable of driving greenhouse gas emissions down thanks to its fast expansion and lowering costs.
The most aggressive deployment scenarios of wind energy would reduce emissions by around five gigatons by 2030 and by over 10 gigatons by 2050, the researchers estimated. This would reduce global average temperature up to 0.8ºC by the end of the century. Still, this will require a big effort from countries to expand wind energy.
Implementation of the current climate pledges by countries would lead to only a 3.6% annual increase in deployment of wind energy over 2015–2030 compared to the 8.5% per year realized between 2010 and 2016. That’s why several energy agencies have proposed wind energy and electricity generation targets that are more ambitious.
“While the scale of anthropogenic climate change is daunting, our research illustrates that wind energy can substantially reduce emissions of greenhouse gasses at the national and global scale and measurably reduce the amount of temperature increase,” Barthelmie said. “Both technically and economically, advanced deployment scenarios are feasible.”
While up to 85% of a wind turbine’s parts can be recycled, its blades have remained a constant thorn in the industry’s side. While that remaining 15% might not seem like a big deal, it’s worth remembering that wind turbines are behemoths, whose blades measure at least 40 meters nowadays and can weigh seven tones. We expect thousands of wind turbines to be decommissioned over the next few decades, so that translates to a lot of waste destined for landfills.
Although these blades are non-toxic and, technically speaking, safe for landfills, the lack of recycling options is seen as inherently incompatible with the wind industry’s commitment to sustainability and full circularity.
But all that may change for the better. This week, Siemens Games, one of the world’s leading wind turbine manufacturers, announced “the world’s first recyclable wind turbine blades ready for commercial use offshore,” an exciting move that may finally transition turbines close to 100% sustainability.
The company’s product, aptly dubbed RecyclableBlades, measures 81 meters (266 feet) in length and is made of composite lightweight materials cast together with a special resin. Once the blades are ready to be decommissioned at the end of their lifecycle, the resin can be separated from the components thanks to its specially designed chemical structure.
“This mild process protects the properties of the materials in the blade, in contrast to other existing ways of recycling conventional wind turbine blades,” according to a press release from Siemens Gamesa.
The first operating RecyclabeBlades are scheduled to be installed at the Kaski offshore wind power plant in Germany, a joint project with RWE Renewables that is excepted to be completed from 2022 onwards. The first six ReyclableBlades have already been manufactured at a factory in Aalborg, Denmark.
Conventional turbine blades are typically made out of a combination of balsa wood, carbon fiber, and glass, bound together by stiff resin. However, this glue is too powerful for its own good, and separating the components is very costly — to the point that isn’t economically feasible to do so.
Many wind turbines currently operating in Europe and elsewhere across the world are part of the first generation that was installed in the 1990s, and are now nearing the end of their lifetime. By 2030, as many as 6,000 individual wind turbines per year could be decommissioned, resulting in massive blade graveyards.
There’s not all that much we can do about these old blades. In some cases, they can be reused for new projects, but this is only viable for a small fraction of turbines. New technologies, such as those pioneered by Spanish startup Reciclalia, which eliminates organic matter and separates the glass and carbon fibers, are also useful.
By the end of this year, Reciclalia claims it will be able to recycle 1,500 blades a year. That’s actually pretty good, but going forward the next generation of recyclable blades will make this process a lot easier, cheaper, and hopefully cover close to 100% of newly installed wind energy projects.
Once separated from the composite material, the RecyclableBlades components won’t be suitable for new wind turbine blades as they won’t be able to withstand typhoon conditions. Instead, their technical and physical properties will make them suitable for the auto and boat industry, or even for consumer goods.
Based on estimates of new offshore wind projects, Siemens Games expects that more than 200,000 blades could now be recyclable until 2050. Other companies will likely follow suit. Vestas, another leading wind turbine manufacturer, said it aims to produce “zero-waste” turbines by 2040, while GE Renewable Energy recently signed a deal to recycle blades from onshore wind projects in the United States.
When it comes to wind turbines, size does matter. As you increase a turbine’s size, it produces increasingly cheaper energy. As a result, manufacturers have designed larger and larger turbines, culminating in the latest iteration: a 16-megawatt (MW) hybrid drive wind turbine.
The MySE 16.0-242 developed by China’s MingYang Smart Energy will feature a 242-meter diameter rotor, 118-meter long blades, and a staggering 46,000 m2 swept area equivalent to more than six soccer fields. This will make it, by quite a margin, the largest wind turbine in the world.
A single turbine, which is more than twice as tall as the Statue of Liberty, is capable of generating nearly 80 GWh of electricity every year, enough to power 20,000 households. For comparison, that’s 45% more energy than the company’s previous generation of turbines with just a 19% increase in diameter.
Besides enhancement in sheer brute force owed to the turbine’s towering size, MingYang performed a number of improvements, such as relocating all power electronics and transformers into the nacelle, as well as using lighter materials. These small tweaks add up, reducing the cost of the wind turbine — something that’s greatly needed in this industry.
Offshore wind is more expensive and therefore much less common than onshore wind. However, offshore turbines have their place in the energy mix of the future. And as manufacturers build larger and larger turbines, costs are expected to plummet.
The latest analysis, from 2020, shows the offshore wind levelized cost of energy (LCOE) fell by 28% down to 49% from 2014 to 2019. The cost of wind power, both onshore and offshore, could drop by half or more over the next 30 years, according to a study from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the US. Offshore wind is expected to see the biggest fall in costs, with a median cost reduction of 49%, with the most optimistic scenarios putting it at 64%.
Bearing these forecasts in mind, huge turbines like MySE 16.0-242 may just be the beginning. The first full prototype rollout is scheduled for 2022 while commercial production is expected to commence in the first half of 2024.
Other manufacturers are applying the same ‘bigger is better’ strategy. Leading Danish wind turbine manufacturer Vestas announced a 15 MW offshore wind turbine for 2024. Siemens has its own 15MW model with a 222-meter rotor slated for 2024, while General Electric recently uprated the world’s current largest wind turbine in operation, the Haliade X, from 12MW to 13MW.
They look like airplane propellers running circles on the spot, spinning round and round all day long. Wind turbines take the kinetic energy from the wind and use their giant rotors to capture some of it turn it into electricity, and they may play a key role in saving us from catastrophic climate change. Let’s take a closer look at how wind turbines actually work.
Wind turbines are based on a simple principle, in essence: the wind turns the blades, which causes the axis to rotate, which is attached to a generator, which produces electricity. The stronger the wind, the more electricity is generated. That’s why we usually see industrial-scale wind farms with high towers and large blades across the world: larger blades can gather more power and are more efficient. But while the basic principle is simple, the technology is complex.
Windmills make the world go round
A turbine is a machine that spins around and catches some of the energy passing by. All sorts of machines use turbines, from jet engines to hydroelectric plants. In a wind turbine, the rotor blades are the “turbine” part, similar to airfoil wings on a plane. They have a curved shape and gain kinetic energy (energy of movement) when the wind blows.
Although we talk about “wind turbines,” the turbine is actually just one part of these machines. For most turbines, another key part is the generator, whose gears convert the relatively slow rotation of the spinning blades into higher-speed motion. So the wind provides the movement and torque and the generator does the rest, being an essential part of all turbines.
The longer the rotor blades, the more energy they can capture from the wind. The blades multiply the wind’s force like a wheel and axle, so a breeze is often enough to make the blades turn around. Even so, wind turbines don’t generate maximum power most of the time – a deliberate feature of their design to work efficiently in ever-changing winds.
A typical wind turbine nacelle is 85 meters (280 feet) off the ground, and there’s a good reason for this. Wind travels much faster when it’s clear of any obstructions at ground level. So if a turbine’s rotor blades are high in the air, they can capture much more wind energy than they would lower down — and capturing energy is what wind turbines are all about.
Most wind turbines have a capacity of 2-3 megawatts (MW), which can produce over 6 million kilowatt-hours (kwh) of electricity every year. That’s enough to meet the electricity demand of around 1,500 households. The faster the wind blows, the more electricity is generated – up to a certain level. If the wind is too strong, the turbines will shut down to prevent damage.
Wind farms are planned to make sure they’re in locations with a reliable amount of wind all year round. This tends to be on the summit of a hilltop with lots of open space around, and in coastal locations. A wind turbine is typically 30-45% efficient – rising to 50% efficient at times of peak wind. If they were 100% efficient, the wind would drop after going through the turbine.
Types of wind turbines
There are two basic types of wind turbines, horizontal-axis and vertical-axis, and the size of the turbine varies widely. The length of the blades is the biggest factor in determining the amount of electricity a wind turbine can generate. While small turbines can generate about 10 KW, the largest one in operation can generate up to 10MW. Even larger ones are currently in development, especially for the offshore.
Horizontal-axis turbines are the most common by far — these are the wind turbines most of us are familiar with. Most of these turbines have three blades and operate upwind, with the turbine pivoting at the top of the tower so the blades face into the wind.
Meanwhile, vertical-axis turbines are more similar to an eggbeater than to an airplane propeller. They are omnidirectional, which means they don’t have to be adjusted to point into the wind to operate. The blades are attached are the top and bottom of the vertical rotor. As they don’t perform as well as horizontal ones, they are much less common, but they do offer great promise in some situations.
Using wind turbines
Land-based wind turbines can be connected to a utility power grid, combined with a photovoltaic system or even be used as stand-alone applications by homeowners and farmers. For utility-scale (megawatt-sized) sources of wind energy, a large number of wind turbines are usually built close together to form a wind plant, also referred to as a wind farm.
When turbines of any size are installed on the “customer” side of the electric meter, they are called “distributed” wind turbines. Most turbines currently found in distributed applications are small and are used for residential, agricultural, and small industrial applications.
Having a turbine can even give you profits, as you can sell the extra energy that you don’t use (if the national grid allows it). However, installing a wind turbine is generally more complicated than something like a solar panel.
Offshore wind energy is a relatively new industry around the world. The turbines tend to be massive, even taller than the Statue of Liberty in some cases. Their components are transported by ships and barges, reducing the logistical challenges of land-based turbines. They can capture powerful ocean winds and generate vast amounts of energy.
The electricity produced by offshore wind turbines travels back to land through a series of cable systems that are buried in the seafloor. This electricity is channeled through coastal load centers that prioritize where the electricity should go and distributes it into the electrical grid to power homes, schools, and businesses. This makes offshore wind turbines more expensive to install and manage, but they also produce more energy — a common tradeoff.
Advantages and disadvantages of wind turbines
It’s hard to imagine why anyone would object to clean and green wind turbines, especially when compared with dirty coal-fired plants. But they do have some disadvantages that need to be considered carefully.
Firstly, they don’t generate as much power as conventional gas, nuclear, or coal plants. A typical turbine has a maximum power of 2MW, enough to supply 1,000 homes, if it produces energy 30% of the time. The largest offshore wind turbines can make about 13MW as winds are stronger and more persistent at sea, powering about 6,500 homes.This means we would need 1,000 2MW turbines to make as much power as a sizable (2,000MW) nuclear power or fossil fuel station. In practice, as fossil fuel and nuclear power stations produce energy consistently while wind is variable, you would need rather more. Wind power is variable and an efficient power grid needs a predictable supply of power to meet varying demand.
That’s why a mixture of different types of energy would be ideal. Some of these will make power whenever they can, like wind, some will operate continually, like nuclear, some will produce power at peak times, like hydroelectric plants and some will raise or lower the power at short notice, like natural gas. Large, efficient batteries can mend this problem but wind can’t be the only form of energy in the mix.
Wind turbines also can’t be jammed together. They have to be spaced some distance apart and take up a lot of space. Powering an entire country with wind alone would require covering a vast land area with turbines. Connecting a lot of wind turbines to the power grid can also be much more difficult than just wiring up a single power plant.
Turbines can also be disturbing to wildlife as they’re quite noisy, they bring humans to the area, and they’re a significant collision risk for birds. The design of most turbines makes them hard to see for birds, promoting impacts. That’s why studies have suggested painting one of the rotor blades in black to help birds see the turbines and avoid collisions.
On the plus side, wind turbines are a leading clean energy source. Once constructed, they don’t generate carbon dioxide emissions, which are causing global warming, or the sulfur dioxide emissions, which cause acid rain. The energy they make is limitless and free over a typical lifetime of 25 years, except for spare parts and maintenance.
Building them has some environmental impact as the towers and nacelles have metal and concrete foundations to stop them falling over. Recycling wind turbines is notoriously difficult, and acts as a sort of “Achilles heel” of wind energy.
Even so, they have among the lowest carbon dioxide emissions of any form of power generation when looking at their entire operation lifespan. They are also much cheaper in terms of kilowatt-hour of power they produce.
How big is wind energy now?
Last year was the best year in history for the global wind industry with 93 GW of new capacity installed – a 53% year-on-year increase, according to the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC). Today there’s 743GW of wind power capacity worldwide, helping to avoid 1.1 billion tons of CO2 globally – equivalent to the annual emissions of South America.
Still, this growth isn’t sufficient to ensure the world becomes carbon neutral by 2050, as agreed in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. The world needs to be installing wind power three times faster over the next decade in order to stay on a net-zero pathway and avoid the worst impacts of climate change, according to GWEC’s estimates.
Wind power will certainly play a big part in the coming years, as the world says goodbye to fossil fuel energy sources to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But how big a part will depend on where in the world you are and whether there are better alternatives. In countries with windy weather (so, the vast majority of the world), it will be definitely a strong contender.
In 2020, renewable energy sources such as wind and solar grew at their fastest rate since 1999 — and will continue expanding at a faster rate than before the pandemic, according to a report by the International Energy Agency (IEA). While China’s growth will stabilize, a large expansion is expected in the US and Europe.
Moving towards renewable sources is one of the key ways to reduce global emissions and achieve carbon neutrality. But as clean energy expanded, so did coal, the most polluting energy source. Coal demand is expected to grow 4.5% this year, approaching its all-time peak from 2014.
The amount of renewable electricity capacity added in 2020 rose by 45% in 2020 to 280 gigawatts (GW), the largest year-on-year increase in the past two decades, IEA showed. This significant increase is set to continue, surpassing previous IEA estimates by 25%.
“Wind and solar power are giving us more reasons to be optimistic about our climate goals as they break record after record. Last year, the increase in renewable capacity accounted for 90% of the entire global power sector’s expansion,” Fatih Birol, IEA’s executive director, said in a statement.
Global wind capacity additions almost doubled last year to 114 GW. While the increase won’t be as significant over the next few years, it will still be 50% larger than the expansion seen between 2017 and 2019, the IEA said. Meanwhile, solar energy projects are expected to continue expanding, with up to 160GW forecasted for 2022.
Although China has accounted for 40% of global renewable capacity growth for several years already, for the first time in 2020 it was responsible for 50% – a record level resulting from the unprecedented peak in new installations. This is expected to decline as the government phases out subsidies for new projects. But other places are lining up to compensate.
In Europe, annual capacity additions are forecast to increase 11% to 44 GW in 2021 and 49 GW in 2022. With this expansion, this year the region will break the record for annual additions for the first time since 2011 and become the second largest market after China – with Germany as the main producer of the bloc.
Meanwhile, in the US, renewable capacity growth this year and next is mainly encouraged by the extension of federal tax credits. IEA’s report didn’t consider Biden’s new climate pledge or the country’s recently announced infrastructure bill. If they are met, both would drive a strong acceleration in the deployment of renewables.
“Governments need to build on this promising momentum through policies that encourage greater investment in solar and wind, in the additional grid infrastructure they will require, and in other key renewable technologies such as hydropower, bioenergy and geothermal,” Birol said in a statement.
In a report earlier this year, IEA said global energy-related CO2 emissions are on course to surge by 1.5 billion tons this year. This would be the second-largest increase in history, reversing the decline caused by the pandemic. The key driver is coal demand, which countries are still relying on in addition to renewable energy sources. Hopefully, that will soon change — installing renewable energy is only one part of the challenge, keeping fossils fuels in the ground is what’s going to make or break our climate efforts.
The now-common sight of horizontal wind turbines might be eventually replaced by the scene of wind farms with more compact and efficient vertical turbines.
A team of UK researchers found that vertical axis wind turbines (VAWTs) are considerably more efficient than horizontal axis wind turbines (HATWs) – increasing performance by up to 15% when set in pairs.
Historically, vertical turbines have been relegated to fulfilling a small niche market in commercially available wind turbines. In the UK, for example, all large-scale wind farms with over 40 turbines use horizontal wind turbines. Nevertheless, recent studies are now showing that harnessing wind power using VATWs could also be a very viable option — and maybe even a better one.
Vertical wind turbines spin around an axis vertical to the ground, exhibiting the opposite behavior of horizontal turbines. They have their generator and gearbox at the base of the turbine, which helps service and repair. They also don’t need to be pointed into the wind, removing the need for wind-sensing and orientation mechanisms.
A group of researchers from Oxford Brookes University did a study into VAWTs using more than 11,500 hours of computer simulations to demonstrate that wind farms can perform more efficiently using vertical turbines. They found that vertical turbines increase each other’s performance if they are arranged in grid formations.
“Modern windfarms are one of the most efficient ways to generate green energy, however, they have one major flaw: as the wind approaches the front row of turbines, turbulence will be generated downstream. The turbulence is detrimental to the performance of the subsequent rows,” lead author Joachim Toftegaard Hansen said in a statement.
It’s the first study to comprehensively analyze many aspects of wind turbine performance, with regards to array angle, the direction of rotation, turbine spacing, and the number of rotors. It’s also the first research to investigate whether the performance improvements hold true for VAWT turbines set in a series – finding a 15% improvement.
For the researchers, the study makes it clear that the future of wind farms should be vertical. Iakovos Tzanakis, a co-author, explained that VAWTs can be designed to be much closer together compared to HAWTs, increasing their efficiency and lowering the price of electricity. In the long run, VAWTs can help accelerate the energy transition, he added.
The findings are then a key step to design more efficient wind farms, understand large-scale wind energy harvesting techniques and improve renewable energy technology to replace fossil fuels as sources of energy much faster. Wind power now accounts for 0.3% of the world’s energy could it’s expected to expand thanks to lower costs and more green policies. Of course, this is only a simulation — and field surveys will be required to confirm the validity of this work.
A report earlier this year by the International Energy Agency found that global offshore wind capacity could increase 15-fold and attract around $1 trillion (£800bn) of cumulative investment as soon as 2040. This is driven by the declining costs in installations, supportive government policies, and “remarkable technological progress.”
The Global Wind Report showed 2020 was the best year in history for the global wind industry with 93 GW of new capacity installed – a 53% year-on-year increase. But this isn’t sufficient. The world needs to be installing wind power three times faster over the next decade in order to stay on a net-zero pathway and avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
Renewable energy is gradually taking over fossil fuels as their costs drop and technology improves. Now, General Electric announced the world’s most powerful offshore wind turbine in the world, with two wind farms having already secured their use. This could be big news for wind energy in the very near future and according to calculations, a single spin of the turbine can supply a day’s worth of energy for one or two houses.
The Haliade-X 13 MW turbine can generate up to 64 to 74 GWh of gross annual energy production, saving up to 52,000 metric tons of CO2, which is the equivalent of taking 11,000 vehicles off the road.
It has a bigger rotor, longer blades (107 meters), and a higher capacity factor, which makes it less sensitive to wind speed variations and increases its ability to generate more power at low wind speeds. GE claims the Haliade-X can capture more annual energy production than any other offshore wind turbine.
A 13MW turbine could produce 312 MW in a day, according to the prototype set up in Rotterdam. That’s 8% more power than the previous record achieved by GE’s 12 MW version. Each blade of the turbine is long enough to cover an American football field from one goalpost to just shy of the other. Upgrading to a turbine that size has a few practical implications, said John Roger, an energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. A wind farm that uses Haliade-X would need fewer turbines, which would also mean fewer turbine sites and fewer foundations. Overall, the project would fit in a smaller area, while also offering a hefty amount of energy.
In his analysis, Roger said at full power, a turbine the size of the Haliade-X could cover a whole household’s daily electricity needs in under 7 seconds. According to GE, a single spin of the turbine could power a UK household for more than two days. In the US, it would be enough energy for the average home, since US households tend to use more energy.
The Haliade-X has already been booked for two massive offshore wind projects. The Vineyard Wind 800 MW project near Massachusetts chose GE as its turbine supplier, specifically the Haliade-X. It’s the first commercial-scale offshore wind power in the US, will generate electricity for 400,000 homes and reduce emissions by 1.6 million tons per year.
“The selection of GE as our preferred turbine supplier means that a historic American company will play a vital role in the development of the first commercial-scale offshore wind power in the U.S.,” said in a statement Vineyard Wind CEO Lars T. Pedersen. “This is a huge moment not only for the future of our project but also for the future of an industry that is poised for exponential growth in the coming decades.”
Meanwhile, in the UK, construction is ready to being on what will be the world’s biggest offshore wind park, Dogger Bank. The project will feature the Haliade-X and will be built in three phases, each with an installed capacity of 1.2 GW. Once completed, Dogger Bank will power up to six million homes annually in the UK, equivalent to 5% of the country’s electricity demand.
Even as not every day is that windy, wind power is among the fastest-growing energy technologies. Its use is growing worldwide, largely thanks to dropping costs. Installed wind-generation capacity onshore and offshore rose by a factor of almost 75 in the past two decades, going from 7.5 GW in 1997 to 564 GW by 2018, according to IRENA. As large-scale batteries or energy storage facilities continue to develop, alternating renewable energy will become even more attractive.
The amount of power that can be obtained from the wind depends on the size of the turbine and the length of its blades. The output is proportional to the dimensions of the rotor and to the cube of the wind speed. That’s why GE is placing a big bet on its Haliade-X, with massive-sized turbines with a lot of potential.
Over 75% of the energy to be installed in the US in 2020 will be wind or solar, a new report by the Energy Information Association (EIA) shows.
EIA expects the addition of 42 gigawatts (GW) of new capacity in the US in 2020. Solar and wind represent almost 32 GW of these (76%). Wind accounts for the lion’s share of this (44%), followed by solar at 32%. Natural gas will only account for 22% of this new energy.
However, it’s important to note that this represents capacity — not actual electricity generated. This means that there will be ups and downs in renewable energy, which is not the case for something like nuclear or natural gas, which are generally more stable.
Nevertheless, this is a telling story: despite interventions from the current administration, attempting to artificially support the fossil fuel industry, new energy is predominantly renewable — and coal no longer really has a seat at the table when it comes to novelty.
The expected prediction of retired energy production is also telling. Of the 11 GW set to be retired in 2020, more than half of it (5.8 GW) will be coal, much of which comes from Kentucky and Ohio. Another 3.8 set-to-be-retired GWs come from older natural gas units that came online in the 1950s or 1960s. So the bulk of the decommissioned energy will be from fossil fuels.
However, two nuclear plants totaling 1.6 GW are currently scheduled to retire in 2020.
The impact of these shifts indicate a longer trend for the foreseeable future. Most of the new energy is renewable, and most of the decommissioned energy is fossil fuel. This is also making an impact in the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. After decreasing by 2.1% in 2019, EIA forecasts that energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions will decrease by 2.0% in 2020 and by 1.5% in 2021 (under normal weather conditions).
However, while significant, this shift is not ambitious enough to set the US on a trajectory to reduce its emissions enough to avoid catastrophic climate change.
Much of the change involves renewables replacing coal — and while that’s certainly a step in the right direction, natural gas remains almost untouched. EIA projects that the share of U.S. total utility-scale electricity generation from natural gas-fired power plants will remain relatively steady, it was 37% in 2019, and we forecast it will be 38% in 2020 and 37% in 2021.
Denmark reported record-breaking wind power in 2019, covering 47% of the country’s electricity demands for the entire year.
European countries have established a firm leadership in wind energy, and Denmark is definitely among the top of the pack. Out of the 47% of the wind-generated electricity, most came from onshore (29%), although offshore also generated a healthy amount (18%).
In fact, it was the increase in offshore wind that drove the increase from last year’s 41% figure. The main contributor is the partial commencement of operations at the Horns Rev 3 offshore wind farm in the North Sea in August.
Horns Rev 3 is a 400MW offshore wind farm proposed built and operated by the Swedish state-owned energy company, Vattenfall Vindkraft. The wind farm is expected to supply power to approximately 450,000 Danish households.
Of course, Denmark’s favorable conditions also offer it great renewable potential. The country of almost 6 million people is mostly a peninsula, surrounded by water for most of its length. However, geography alone is not enough to generate renewable energy. Denmark also started investing early in wind energy, and has implemented a series of supportive policies for renewables. As a result, the country has become a leader in wind generation as well as wind turbine manufacture.
The geography of Denmark is favorable to wind energy, but then again so is that of Florida — and Florida isn’t even close to Denmark’s performance.
Denmark also doesn’t plan on stopping here. Their goal for 2020 was to generate 30% of its energy through renewables (not just for electricity), and that’s already been surpassed. The current goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 70% by 2030. The country even passed a climate law last year mandating an increase in the share of electricity sourced from renewable power to 100%. It’s not just electricity either.
According to a recent report, 38.4% of the energy consumed in the heating sector of Denmark comes from renewable sources, although the bulk of that is still biomass. Electrical cars are also increasingly popular in Denmark, and 10% of the energy for transportation comes from renewable sources.
Overall, just over 30% of the country’s energy is coming from renewables. If Denmark is successful in this, they will raise the bar and set an example for other countries to follow.
As the Horns Rev 3 wind farm continues to switch on, producing some of the world’s cheapest clean energy, there’s little reason to doubt that they will do so.
Hopefully, Denmark will set an example — one that will also be followed by other countries.
Despite it now accounts for 0.3% of the world energy, wind power is on the right track to quickly expand thanks to lower costs and more green policies, the International Energy Agency said, claiming the energy source could provide sufficient clean electricity for every person on Earth 18 times over.
The report by the EIA found that global offshore wind capacity could increase 15-fold and attract around $1 trillion (£800bn) of cumulative investment by as soon as 2040. This is driven by the declining costs in installations, supportive government policies and “remarkable technological progress.”
The report said the global offshore wind market grew nearly 30% per year between 2010 and 2018, led by the EU. There are now about 150 new offshore wind projects in development around the world, with China adding more capacity than any other country in 2018.
“Yet today’s offshore wind market doesn’t even come close to tapping the full potential,” the authors write. “With high-quality resources available in most major markets, offshore wind has the potential to generate more than 420,000 terrawatt hours per year worldwide. This is more than 18 times global electricity demand today.”
Nevertheless, the EIA says a lot of work has to be done to bring a clean energy revolution to fruition. “More and more of that potential is coming within reach, but much work remains to be done by governments and industry for it to become a mainstay of the clean energy transition,” said Faith Birol, EIA head.
Behind the growth of wind energy there’s the growing awareness of the climate crisis and political responses to environmental concerns, the report said. In just 20 years, wind could become Europe’s main source of energy generation.
Now, offshore wind capacity in the EU stands at almost 20 gigawatts, and under current policies, that is set to rise to nearly 130 gigawatts by 2040. However, if EU countries meet their stated carbon-neutrality aims, offshore wind capacity would jump to around 180 gigawatts by 2040, the report said.
An even more ambitious vision in which government policies drive an increase in demand for clean hydrogen produced by offshore wind could push European offshore wind capacity “dramatically higher,” according to the EIA.
In this scenario, electricity generated by wind turbines would be used to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen atoms, with the hydrogen then being stored and ultimately blended with normal gas supplies to heat houses or fuel vehicles. It could also be recycled to generate more clean electricity.
In the meantime, China will soon take the lead as the nation producing the most energy from offshore wind. The technology is particularly attractive in China, where major efforts are underway to reduce air pollution.
“By around 2025, China is likely to have the largest offshore wind fleet of any country, overtaking the United Kingdom,” the IEA said. “China’s offshore wind capacity is set to rise from 4 gigawatts today to 110 gigawatts by 2040. Policies designed to meet global sustainable energy goals could push that even higher to above 170 gigawatts.”
Bolstered by government support and falling costs, global renewable energy capacity is set to rise by 50% in five years’ time, according to a new report, which especially highlighted the expansion of solar photovoltaic installations on homes, buildings and industry.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) found that solar, wind and hydropower projects are rolling out at their fastest rate in four years. It predicts that by 2024, a new dawn for cheap solar power could see the world’s solar capacity grow by 600GW — almost double the installed total electricity capacity of Japan.
This means that the total renewable-based power capacity will rise by 1.2 terawatts (TW) by 2024 from 2.5 TW last year, equivalent to the total installed current power capacity of the United States.
“This is a pivotal time for renewable energy,” said the IEA’s executive director, Fatih Birol. “Technologies such as solar photovoltaics and wind are at the heart of transformations taking place across the global energy system. Their increasing deployment is crucial for efforts to tackle greenhouse gas emissions, reduce air pollution, and expand energy access.”
The EIA estimated that the share of renewables in global power generation will rise to 30% in 2024 (up from the current 26%) as China, Europe and the U.S. increase deployment of wind turbines and solar panels. Most of the gains, about 60%, will be due to solar.
Costs of both utility-scale and distributed solar PV generation are expected to decline as much as 35% by 2024. That will help make costs of utility-scale solar plants equal to or cheaper than new fossil fuel plants in some countries. Distributed solar, the panels that are placed on homes, offices and factories, is set to boom as costs come down.
The number of home solar panels is also expected to more than double to reach around 100m rooftops by 2024, with the strongest per capita growth in Australia, Belgium, and California. Even after that growth expected for solar, panels will cover only 6% of the world’s available rooftops, leaving room for further growth.
Renewables are also making gains in providing heat to buildings. Heating and cooling demand from buildings and industry account for roughly half of global energy consumption and is responsible for 40% of global carbon dioxide emissions.
Heating from renewable energy is set to increase by 22% by 2024, according to the IEA, with China, the EU, India, and the US contributing most of that growth. Even so, renewables will only support 12% of global heat consumption by 2024 compared with 10% now.
“Renewables are already the world’s second largest source of electricity, but their deployment still needs to accelerate if we are to achieve long-term climate, air quality and energy access goals,” Birol said.
The race against fossil fuels
Earlier this year, a report by Bloomberg showed that not only was renewable energy cheaper than building a new gas or coal plant, but that it would soon be cheaper than using existing thermal plants too.
This economic tipping point means it would save money to shut existing coal-fired power plants down and build new renewable energy projects from scratch. Abundant clean electricity could help remove the emissions from the world’s transport and heating systems too.
By 2030, Bloomberg expects demand for road fuels to peak, and coal is also expected to peak by 2026. DNV GL, a global energy advisory, believes that by the same year oil will no longer be the world’s biggest energy source, and by the end of the 2020s, the world’s demand for crude oil will begin to fall. Is this in time to avoid catastrophic climate damage? That matter is still not clear. But there are some reasons to be optimistic.
“It provides a lot of hope,” said Seb Henbest, the lead author of the Bloomberg report. “It provides a counterbalance to the doom and gloom we face, partly because it includes up-to-date data which tells a slightly different story.”
Wind farms play an essential role in humanity’s mission to transition towards a 100% renewable energy future, but although their impact on the environment is minimal compared to that of fossil fuels, wind turbines are not entirely benign. According to a new study, wind turbines have cascading effects on the food chain and local ecosystems, as if they were the new apex predators in the area.
Maria Thaker and colleagues at the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru surveyed wildlife in India’s Western Ghats, where wind turbines have been functioning for the past two decades. The researchers found that the number of predatory birds, but also the number of predatory attempts (dive attacks), was four times lower in areas with wind farms than in areas without them.
The areas where wind turbines are operational have fewer predatory birds (for example, Buteo, Butastur and Elanus species), which consequently, but have a higher density of lizards, such as Sarada superba. Not only were there more lizards around wind farms, but they also had lower levels of the stress hormone corticosterone, which allowed humans to get closer to the lizards before fleeing — another important clue that the local ecosystem is experiencing less predation.
“We found that densities of the most common lizard species were three times higher in sites with wind turbines compared with those without. We also found strong trait-mediated effects of predator release: lizards at sites with wind turbine not only had lower stress-induced corticosterone levels and anti-predator behavioural responses, but they also had lower body condition and intensity of sexual ornamentation,” wrote the authors in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.
Image credits: Indian Institute of Science.
This study suggests that wind turbines act as an additional top level in the food chain, essentially mimicking the effect an apex predator has on the ecosystem.
Close to 17 million hectares of land is currently used for wind energy generation worldwide, with more land coverage to be added as wind energy expands. Thanks to wind energy, communities can enjoy electricity without polluting the atmosphere or contributing to global warming. However, as this study shows, wind turbines can have important disruptive effects on ecosystems, something that should be taken into account when planning their placement.
While most countries are struggling to reach their renewable energy targets, others are breezing past them. Thanks to both its geography and impactful policies, Sweden is set to achieve its 2030 goals in mere months.
In 2012, years before the Paris Agreement, Norway and Sweden signed a joint agreement to increase production of electricity from renewables by 28.4 terawatt hours within eight years. It only took a few years for Sweden to realize it was ahead of schedule, and in 2017, it increased its target, aiming to add another 18 TWh by 2030. Lo and behold, once more, Sweden is moving much faster than anticipated and now there’s a good chance it will reach the 2030 goal in mere months — maybe even by the end of the year.
Sweden consumes about 150 terawatt-hours of electricity per year, out of which around 16 were provided by wind energy. But while the country generates just over 10% of its electricity from wind, that figure rose up dramatically in the past years, from 5% in 2012 and 2% in 2010. This very increase in wind energy is one of the main drivers propelling Sweden’s renewable targets forward.
According to the World Economic Forum, if things continue as planned, there will be 3,681 turbines functioning in the country by the end of the year. The turbines will have a capacity of 7,506 MW and an estimated annual production of 19.8 TWh. All in all, there are 15.2 TWh of renewable energy projects in construction today, and of them, 11.6 TWh is wind power, says Markus Selin, analyst at the Swedish Energy Agency. So most of the new energy coming in is wind power.
It’s not like the rest of the European Union is doing particularly poorly. According to the Paris Agreement, all EU countries have agreed to achieve 20% final energy consumption from renewable sources by 2020. Most of the countries are well on target or have already achieved this, but very few can compare to Sweden’s performance. So how is this happening, why is Sweden doing so well?
Certainly, the country’s geography helps. It’s mountainous and rainy, which amount to great opportunities for hydropower. Sweden also invested heavily into nuclear power, drawing 35% of its electricity from 10 nuclear reactors.
The fact that the country has a booming economy and an active, environmentally conscious country also goes a long way. But at the end of the day, this almost certainly wouldn’t have been possible without a healthy governance.
Of course, Sweden still has to find a way to manage this growth and ensure that the transition to a green grid carries on smoothly. It’s by no means an easy task, as neighbouring Denmark has recently learned — but so far, things are looking good.
Renewable energy are set to power the future in 2050. Credit: Pixabay.
The annual energy report by Bloomberg NEF (BNEF) concluded that wind and solar are set to surge to a “50 by 50” future, meaning they’ll account for 50% of the world’s energy production by the year 2050. The main driver for this tremendous growth is falling battery cost.
The 150-page report, called New Energy Outlook (NEO) 2018, was authored by more than 65 analysts from around the world. This year’s outlook concluded that the impact of falling lithium-ion battery costs will drive huge growth for new renewable energy power capacity between 2018 and 2050.
During this timeframe, the authors predict investments of $8.4 trillion in wind and solar energy, with an additional $1.5 trillion into hydro and nuclear energy.
Since 2010, the cost of lithium-ion batteries per megawatt-hour has dropped by 80 percent.
“We see $548 billion being invested in battery capacity by 2050, two thirds of that at the grid level and one third installed behind-the-meter by households and businesses,” said Seb Henbest, head of Europe, Middle East and Africa for BNEF and lead author of NEO 2018, in a statement.
These investments should produce a 17-fold increase in solar power capacity worldwide and a six-fold increase in wind power capacity. Falling power generation costs will translate to far lower electricity bills than consumers, business or residential, see today. According to the report, the levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) from new photovoltaic plants should fall by 71 percent by 2050 and 58 percent for onshore wind. Between 2009 and 2018, the LCOE for solar and wind has dropped by 77 percent and 41 percent respectively.
Today, gas-fired power plants and other fossil fuel-based energy generators provide round-the-clock electricity — the so-called baseload. However, BNEF envisions a 2050 future where gas-fired plants are responsible for backup energy rather than baseload. Gas-fired generation is expected to rise by 15 percent between 2017 and 2050, but its share in the overall global electricity is set to decline.
The report doesn’t forecast a bright future for coal, which is expected to continue in its downward spiral. BNEF predicts the amount of coal burned in power stations will fall from 56 percent between 2017 and 2050.
Since renewable energy will occupy the top slot in the energy generation mix, BNEF predicts global emissions will fall, rather than rise, past an inflection point. The report estimates emissions from the global electricity sector rising by 2 percent between 2017 and 2027, after which it will fall by 38 percent in 2050.
The New Energy Outlook based its conclusions on the modeling of power generation country-by-country, and on the evolving cost dynamics of different technologies. It assumes that existing energy policy settings around the world will remain in place until their scheduled expiry dates. It doesn’t assume additional government measures, meaning the evolution of renewable energy might actually be more aggressive if policy steps up its game in favor of more sustainable measures.
Floating wind farms could prove more lucrative than land-based turbines whose ‘sweetest’ real estate is becoming increasingly filled. A new study suggests that offshore wind turbines could provide up to three times more power than terrestrial wind farms of the same size.
Where the wind blows
More than 54 GW of clean renewable wind power was installed across the global market in 2016, marking a year-by-year growth in global wind energy of 12.6% and reaching a total of 486.8 GW.
“Wind power is now successfully competing with heavily subsidized incumbents across the globe, building new industries, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs and leading the way towards a clean energy future,” said GWEC Secretary General Steve Sawyer.
“We are well into a period of disruptive change, moving away from power systems centered on a few large, polluting plants towards markets increasingly dominated by a range of widely distributed renewable energy sources. We need to get to a zero emissions power system well before 2050 if we are to meet our climate change and development goals.”
Some countries have a much larger share of wind energy in their grid than others, for obvious geographical reasons. Uruguay, Portugal, and Ireland can boast over 20% for example, while Denmark gets a whopping 40% of its power from wind turbines.
The problem with wind, however, is that you eventually run out of it. As silly as that might sound, this is a real issue. Not only are the best spots, the ones with the amplest wind, taken in much of the Western World, but current turbines also deplete the strength of wind gusts downstream from them. The effect is called “wind shadow” and its impact is proving to be more of a nuisance than predicted. For instance, if a turbine absorbs half of the energy from a wind gust, then the turbines in the second row will get only a quarter of that initial wind energy, and so on.
Scientists at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Palo Alto, California, suggest that maybe it’s time to start looking elsewhere before we lose the precious momentum in installing wind capacity. According to their investigation, based on the latest climate models, turbines placed in the North Atlantic could produce three times as much power as existing terrestrial turbines in Kansas over the same area.
In the open sea, wind currents are about 70% stronger than on land. Wintertime low-pressure systems are mainly driving these amplified winds by mixing the energy from the faster, upper-level winds down to the surface of the ocean. Offshore turbines, of course, get wind-shadowed as well but they make up for it because wind replenishes its energy in the open sea. In other words, the upper limit of wind energy that you can capture in this conditions is much higher than on land.
“We found that giant ocean-based wind farms are able to tap into the energy of the winds throughout much of the atmosphere, whereas wind farms onshore remain constrained by the near-surface wind resources,” said Carnegie’s Anna Possner, one of the lead authors of the new study.
Were we to power the whole of the U.S. or China with terrestrial turbines, a project that would require about 6 terawatts annually, even covering much of central U.S. would be insufficient. In the North Atlantic, however, you’d only need to cover the ocean over an area three times smaller than on land to get the same results. The study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesestimates that powering humanity’s energy needs entirely from wind is possible with an installation covering 3 million square kilometers of ocean. Yes, that’s a huge area — larger than Greenland or about the size of India. In fact, we sure wouldn’t want to do it at this scale, since these many turbines could actually heavily influence the climate. The researchers estimate that the planetary-scale effects would be far-reaching, potentially cooling parts of the Arctic by as much as 13 degrees Celsius.
“While no commercial-scale deep water wind farms yet exist, our results suggest that such technologies, if they became technically and economically feasible, could potentially provide civilization-scale power,” the authors noted in their paper.
We do not have the resources to undertake such a project at this scale, but the crux of this study is that there’s a huge energy potential waiting to be tapped in the open ocean. As terrestrial wind turbines become more and more inefficient as we occupy the best spots, it’s refreshing to learn that there is still much energy we can harness by delving into the open seas.
“In the long term, I think offshore wind is a lot more robust an investment. I think the wind field is likely to be more reliable and predictable. It certainly has a greater energy density, a significantly higher energy density,” said Dr. Harvey Seim, a professor and chairman of the department of marine sciences at UNC-Chapel Hill, who was not involved in the present study. “But there is a big capital investment that has to be factored into all that. However, if it’s managed properly, it should be recouped by the facility over the long term.”
Renewable energy is continuing its surge. Three days ago, 19.8% of European electricity demand was met by wind energy.
The Fântânele-Cogealac Wind Farm is the largest onshore wind farm in Europe, located in Romania. Image credits: Sandri Alexandra / Wikipedia.
A secondary record was also reported. There was never as much offshore wind energy in Europe — 11484 MW were generated across the continent, as reported by the industry group Wind Europe on its website. Over the entire day, onshore wind produced 1,360GWh of electricity and offshore wind 251GWh of electricity, in a rather steady course over the day.
These are the countries with the highest shares of wind in their electricity production:
During that particular day, the combined output of wind and solar was above that of coal and gas.
It’s not the first spectacular day wind has had in Europe. Denmark has had several days where their entire electricity was generated by wind power, which routinely covers over 50% of all electricity demand in the coastal country. Some days, Germany also gets most of its electricity from renewables, though wind is a varying source of energy by excellence. The entire continent is making strides towards improving on the resource, though, in absolute figures, China is the world’s biggest wind energy producer.
According to the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC), these wind turbines helped the planet avoid more than 637 million tonnes of CO2 emissions, a figure which is expected to greatly rise in following years. In Europe, 90% of newly installed energy is renewable, and the trend shows no signs of slowing down.
Wind is also a good job generator. GWEC says that in the European Union, 520,000 people are expected to be working in the wind industry by 2020. So while wind still provides less than 10% of Europe’s energy demand, it’s growing fast. The EU has set 20% targets for renewable energy by 2020, and it’s on course to reach that goal.
In wind energy, bigger is almost always better. With this in mind, six leading universities and institutions have banded together to design that world’s largest wind turbine yet. Standing at 500 meters (1,640 feet), the SUMR project will be about 57 meters taller than the iconic Empire State Building. The concept features two 200-meter (650-foot) turbine blades which are twice the size of an American football field.
The proposed wind turbine will have two blades instead of the three usually employed. Credit: Pixabay.
Over the last two decades or so, wind turbines have become larger and larger. In the 1980s, the largest wind turbines had a rotor diameter of only a couple tens of meters. Today, land-based supply is dominated by turbines in the 1.5 and 2 MW range — enough to power 500 American homes — and typical wind farm towers stand around 70 meters tall. This dramatic evolution in size is no accident because power output depends on the rotor blades’ size and the wind turbine tower’s height.
The higher up the turbine is, the better the winds are and the more kinetic energy can be harvested. A taller structure can thus capture more energy. It also enables lengthier blades and a larger swept area — the circular area drawn by a blade’s rotation. Interestingly, a turbine’s power output doesn’t linearly increase with the blade’s size. Because the swept area is what matters, if a system’s blade length doubles, the power output can actually quadruple.
Wind turbine design and power output progression over the years. Credit Dong Energy.
So, all of this explains why companies and universities are going for bigger, taller wind turbines — it just makes economic sense to do so. Eric Loth, the project leader of SUMR which is directly funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA–E), says his team wants to design a 50-megawatt turbine, with blades that span up to 200 meters long. If they can make it work, their resulting turbine would be around ten times more powerful than anything that came before it.
The current largest wind turbines in the world are housed outside Liverpool Bay where 32 gigantic structures dot the landscape, each 195 meters (640 ft.) tall and carrying 80-meter-long (262-foot-long) blades that can generate 8 megawatts of power. SUMR50 would be more than twice as tall. Its turbine structure would be fundamentally different too as it will be fitted with two blades instead of the usual three to lower the weight of the structure. Typically, cutting down the number of blades from three to two would lower efficiency but the team is compensating for the loss with an advanced aerodynamic design.
“Exascale turbines take advantage of economies of scale,” said Todd Griffith, lead blade designer on the project and technical lead for Sandia’s Offshore Wind Energy Program.
What the SUMR project could look like. Credit: Chao Qin
Like today’s biggest turbines built by Dong Energy, SUMR turbines are meant for offshore deployment, as much as 80 kilometers away from the coast, where winds are generally stronger and people can’t see or hear them.
“The U.S. has great offshore wind energy potential, but offshore installations are expensive, so larger turbines are needed to capture that energy at an affordable cost,” Griffith said.
At the same time, this makes the engineering effort even more challenging. Building a half-kilometer tall wind turbine that can withstand hurricanes doesn’t sound easy at all. Loth already has some safety features in mind. For instance, wind speeds above 80 to 95 km/h will trigger the shut down of the system causing the blades to bend away from the wind instead of resisting, somewhat akin to how palm trees withstand gushing winds. According to Sandia, “SUMR’s load-alignment is bio-inspired [….] The lightweight, segmented trunk approximates a series of cylindrical shells that bend in the wind while retaining segment stiffness.”
“At dangerous wind speeds, the blades are stowed and aligned with the wind direction, reducing the risk of damage. At lower wind speeds, the blades spread out more to maximize energy production.” Griffith said.
Todd Griffith shows a cross-section of a scaled down model of a 50-meter blade already in operation, which is part of the pathway to the 200-meter exascale turbines being planned under a DOE ARPA-E-funded program. Credit: Sandia.
But there are also many other puzzling engineering problems that don’t yet have a complete solution. There are many reasons no one has built a turbine with 200-meter-long blades, one of them being it’s very difficult to put them together — and offshore, tens of miles away from the coast to boot. And while bigger is generally better for wind turbines, no one is really sure where the sweet spot is. Will SUMR50 have an optimal design?These questions and more are on everyone’s mind right now in Loth’s team.
They will learn more once they have a small-scale working prototype ready by the end of this summer. It will only be two meters in diameter so next year they’ll have a much larger version with two 20-meter-long blades to run tests in Colorado. These experiments will be crucial in establishing whether a 500-meter-tall turbine is worth the investment or the concept can be shelved as sub-optimal. It’s amazing to look back and reflect how much wind turbines have changed over the last 30 years though. Just like solar energy mega structures, today’s wind turbine design echoes rapid developments in renewable energy which, in the United States, has tripled its capacity in only nine short years. Steadily but surely, the word ‘alternative’ will stop to make sense for wind or solar — they will become the de factor energy sources soon enough despite the ‘best’ efforts of some people who wouldn’t like this to happen.
LEGO, one of the world’s most loved companies, just became even more popular after they announced that they are now fully operating on renewable energy, three years before their self-set objective.
A LEGO Wall-e — only fitting for LEGO’s environmental achievement. Image via Pixabay.
The milestone was achieved thanks to the completion of a 258-megawatt offshore wind farm in the Irish Sea.
“We work to leave a positive impact on the planet and I am truly excited about the inauguration of the Burbo Bank Extension wind farm,” said Bali Padda, CEO of the LEGO Group.
In total, LEGO has supported the development of more than 160 megawatts (MW) of renewable energy, but it didn’t come cheap. It took four years and a $6 billion investment, but at the end of the day, it was clearly worth it. In 2016 alone, more than 360-gigawatt hours of energy were used by the LEGO Group, which means that the company is saving a lot of money in the long run in addition to having a positive environmental impact.
To celebrate and raise awareness, they built a wind turbine from LEGO bricks alone, using 146,000 pieces and achieving a new Guiness World Record. The 7.5-meters tall turbine is a replica of the new 200-meter tall wind turbines of the Burbo Bank Extension wind farm, which helped LEGO achieve their sustainable goal. The new turbines are also the largest in the world.
However, the company announced that it’s not planning to rest on its laurels. They want to continue investing in renewable energy to create a better future for the next generations.
“Together with our partners, we intend to continue investing in renewable energy to help create a better future for the builders of tomorrow,” Mr Padda said.
“We see children as our role models and as we take action in reducing our environmental impact as a company, we will also continue to work to inspire children around the world by engaging them in environmental and social issues,” he concluded.
UK’s National Grid hailed a lofty milestone as it reported that Friday, 21st of April, was the first day since the Industrial Revolution that the country powered itself without coal.
Coal power is a significant part of the UK’s historical identity. Image credits: Acombmate2114.
A world built on coal
In the 19th century, Britain was leading the planet through the Industrial Revolution, and nothing would never be the same again. The shift from hand production methods to machines affected every aspect of human life. For the first time in history, the standard of life started to exhibit a solid, sustained growth, and this was clearly visible for everybody: average income and population grew wildly. It’s estimated that the world population in the early 1800s was just around 1 billion people, but the rate of increase after that was staggering. It took several centuries for the population to double from 500 million (around the year 1500) to 1 billion – yet after just one century, the population reached two billion in the 20th century, and here we are now at over 7 billion.
Coal energy powered the world through the Industrial Revolution. Image via Wiki Commons / US Gov.
All that was possible largely due to coal and other fossil fuels (oil & natural gas), which provided the necessary energy. But aside from the population growth and the increase in standard of living, the Industrial Revolution brought in another, more insidious effect: climate change. As Britain and subsequently the world became industrialized, greenhouse gas emissions started to increase and accumulate in the atmosphere. In the mid 20th century, concerns started to grow about our impact on global climate, and by the turn of the century, the situation became pretty clear: man-made emissions were having a significant, detrimental impact on the global climate. If we wanted to change that, reducing our emissions was the way to go.
So it came to be that much like the rule of the British Empire over the world had faded, the grip that coal had on humanity was starting to wane.
A day without coal
It was a clear sign of coal’s dropping power when the control room of the National Grid tweeted this on Friday:
Coal has seen a strong and steady decline in the UK, coming down from 30% in the early 2010s to less than 10% in 2016. To their merit, the UK has invested greatly in renewable facilities, although they’ve done so out of economic reasons rather than a desire to reduce emissions. Still, Gareth Redmond-King, head of climate and energy at WWF, called the first coal-free working day “a significant milestone in our march towards the green economic revolution”.
“Getting rid of coal from our energy mix is exciting and hugely important. But it’s not enough to achieve our international commitments to tackle climate change – we haven’t made anything like the same progress on decarbonising buildings and transport. Whoever forms the next government after the general election, they must prioritise a plan for reducing emissions from all sectors.” Redmond-King said.
In recent years, renewable energy has surged in Great Britain, with wind covering some 12% of the country’s electricity needs, and solar also pitching in (to a lesser extent, this is rainy Britain after all). Nuclear is also solid in the UK as a low-carbon energy source, contributing to about 20%, a figure that has remained more or less constant for many years now. But it wasn’t all low-carbon sources that compensated for coal — natural gas also stepped into the picture, and natural gas also shows a steady growth in recent years across the country. So it’s not like it’s all renewables replacing coal — a big chunk of that is replaced by natural gas, which while still an improvement, is still not the best way to go.
Getting rid of coal
Scotland’s wind energy helped a lot. Image credits: Gordon Proven.
Worldwide, coal is still used on a massive scale, especially in developing economies such as China and India. While this is an encouraging milestone for the European country, we still have a lot to go before we can say we’re on the right track. Scientists have warned time and time again that despite the Paris Agreement, the world is not doing enough to maintain a healthy track. As for the UK itself, the country seems too caught in its political woes to truly worry about the environment.
After the Brits decided they want to leave the European Union, the government just announced new general elections and that’s pretty much covering all the headlines. The country’s ongoing air crisis is largely ignored as action was delayed yet again, despite the government actually losing a trial due to this. It seems that the sheer inertia of and economic rentability of renewable energy is carrying the UK on its back — and for now, we’ll just have to settle for that.
Across all 50 states, the wind industry now employs over 100,000 people and is set to expand dramatically. According to a recent market forecast by Navigant Consulting, an additional 248,000 jobs should be generated by the wind industry over the next four years, amounting to $85 billion in economic activity.
The analysis was reported alongside a white paper released by the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). It concludes that despite unfriendly governance towards renewable energy, installed wind energy capacity is set to grow significantly, just like is the case of solar. By 2020, 35,000 MW of new wind capacity ought to come online judging from current trends.
Wind: America’s largest renewable energy source
Overall, 2016 was a landmark year for the wind industry in the United States. Turbines supplied more than 5.5% of the country’s electricity in 2016, and in states like Iowa, South Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, and North Dakota, wind covered more than 20%. There are now over 52,000 wind turbines operating in the United States. Over 99% of these wind turbines — essentially all of them — are located in rural America, thus providing a great economic boom in areas which are nowadays overlooked by investors.
“American ingenuity and hard work have driven the cost of wind down by two-thirds since 2009, propelling wind to contribute 30 percent of power plant capacity added over the last five years. The policy certainty provided by the 2015 Production Tax Credit phase down has allowed the industry to make long-term investments in the American workforce and manufacturing to further bring costs down,” said Tom Kiernan, CEO of AWEA, in a statement for the press.
Overall, the US saw $13.8 billion invested in the wind industry for the year 2016 and Navigant forecasts $24 billion in annual economic impact through 2020. Over the next four years alone, $8 billion will go to the US government as new taxes in addition to the tax revenue already being generated by existing wind projects.
All of this huge economic boom can ultimately be pinned down on job creation. The number of jobs in the wind industry grew by 17 percent in 2016 and by 2020 an additional 248,000 jobs will be generated. It’s expected 33,000 new jobs will be made available in factories supplying parts, 114,000 in construction, operation, and maintenance of the turbines, and 102,000 jobs in services supported by the wind industry.
Navigant expects developers to aggressively expand deployment of new wind capacity as the Production Tax Credit scheme is set to expire in 2020. Congress previously passed a five-year extension of PTC which also comes with a phase-out. Credit will gradually be phased out on an 80-60-40 percent schedule starting in 2017. The year 2019 will be the last year wind energy will be installed with a dedicated federal incentive — the only major source of energy in this situation in the United States. Hopefully, by 2019, someone in Congress will be brave enough to ask for a new extension or a new subsidy scheme entirely. With today’s leadership, however, nothing is ever certain.