By Nick

Screen shot from taken at 8:00am EDT on the 4th April, 2012

A friend and colleague of mine posted this pretty cool link last week on a popular social networking site, which I definitely was not browsing whilst at work, honest. Its a map of current winds in the United States, and I think its rather awesome, and strangely hypnotic.

It got me thinking about wind energy and the problems it faces. Opponents of renewable energy point out, quite rightly in fact, that wind power is just too unreliable to become a realistic source of electrical energy for the world. Its too variable in how much it blows, when it blows and where. Too little wind, nothing,  too much wind, nothing. We need constant smooth electrical output to the grid, and let’s face it, renewable energy such as wind and solar, just don’t deliver.

Yet. They just don’t deliver YET. And this is where brilliant people and boring people differ in the world.

Boring, unremarkable, lazy people will take this as an excuse to ditch renewables and go back to their cosy, oil and coal fuelled lifestyles and pretend not to worry about the greatest risk to humankind, largely by pretending the problem doesn’t exist. Brilliant, dynamic, inventive people decide that if there’s a problem, then there must be a solution. And here I present two solutions that I’ve come across recently.

Earlier in the year I saw an excellent talk given at a conference I attended in Sydney: The Australian Meteorological and Atmospheric Society annual conference. The big meeting for all those in Australia who work on climate related science. The talk was given by an Engineering PhD student at UNSW, Ben Elliston, who was, and is, investigating wind farm siting to improve wind contribution to the Australian grid.

First, he showed how, in simulations, a range of different energy sources (100% renewables), can provide enough power to meet 2010 demand with the same kinds of reliability experienced today with fossil fuels. The major challenge was found to be in winter evenings, when demand is high, but solar and wind power generation are relatively low, requiring biofuels to take up the slack. The new paper is here!

The issue with wind power is mainly that wind doesn’t blow constantly all the time. But Australia is a very large country, the wind blows somewhere in Australia all the time. At the moment, most of Australia’s wind turbines are in or near, South Australia. This is the most economical place to put them in terms of consistency of wind. But what happens when the wind doesn’t blow in Southern Australia.

What Ben Elliston did was use a model detailing Australian wind patterns to find places that have wind speeds with a negative correlation to the current wind turbine sites. I.e. those with wind when the current turbines aren’t blowing. Now these sites may not be the most efficient sites on their own but increasing the market share of wind is about being efficient across the entire grid, not in isolated spots. Ben also looked for areas which are windy at about 6pm, when demand is high. This is the time when, unfortunately, Australia’s current wind-farms just aren’t performing reliably.

His conclusions: future wind farms need to be located at least 1000km from the current batch of farms in South Australia. The best location he could find: Queensland.

Moving away from Climate Sciences, and heading firmly into the Engineering camp, for the second solution: this very interesting video I was watching one lunchtime. It was a TED talk, I love TED talks, and you should too – check them out. This one particularly caught my attention, and it gives some hope, that technology is on its way to help solve some of our biggest problems. If you can stand the  presenter (we’re not allowed to dish out personal remarks on this blog) then its worth a watch.

The presentation reveals that we are close to developing giant batteries that can store electrical grid amounts of energy, that can therefore smooth the erratic output of renewables and bring them into mainstream electricity generation. An idea that will save the world.