If Europe's Wind Farms Saw The Bigger Picture They'd Cover More Ground

This wind farm on Crete is small, but if larger farms were built in the area and transmission lines improved, they could allow Europe to greatly expand its wind generation without suffering day-to-day fluctuations. Patryk Kosmider/Shutterstock

Wind power can supply a quarter of Europe's electricity, but it will require builders to take a continent-wide view, rather than being exclusively focused on local wind conditions.

It's now cheaper to add wind or solar than fossil fuels almost everywhere. Most of our electricity still comes from polluting sources, however, and in large part because of fears about the intermittent nature or potential unreliability of green energy. Debates rage, however, about how much this is a problem of perception versus reality.

European nations with abundant wind power share this energy source with their neighbors. Yet according to a paper in Nature Climate Change, this isn't being incorporated into the planning of wind farms, creating potential obstacles down the road.

Consequently, the best place to put new wind farms is not necessarily where the wind blows the most, but where they can provide balance. Yet currently a mix of local conditions and national policies has seen the vast majority of Europe's wind power placed around, or actually in, the North Sea.

Using 30 years of data researchers found that Europe has seven different “weather regimes”. One regime is associated with high winds over Western Europe and calm conditions in the east, while others, which are associated with lighter winds in the west bring more air movement to Scandinavia or southern Europe.

"There is hardly a weather situation in which there is no wind across the entire continent and thus all of Europe would lack wind power potential," said lead author Dr Chrisitan Grams of ETH Zurich in a statement.

Currently, European electricity production from wind varies greatly with weather regimes, but this could be smoothed out if farms were spread to places favored by different regimes. Grams et al/Nature Climate Change

Looking forward, Grams sees the problem getting worse, as national priorities focus more farms in the same, wind-rich, areas. Scandinavia has installed little wind power outside Denmark because an abundance of hydro resources and a small population produce little local need, but it could represent a vital counterweight. Greece and the Balkans could perform a similar role, but would need foreign investment.

A continent-wide view would require increased transmission lines between national grids, as well as less myopic perspectives. Currently, Europe-wide wind production varies by about 22 GigaWatts from day to day. Grams' modeling suggests if done right, this could be restricted to 16 GigaWatts, with a quarter of Europe's power coming from wind. On the other hand, if the national blinkers stay on, the swing between high and low production days could be up to 52 GigaWatts, forcing much higher reliance on batteries or gas generators to compensate, and raising overall costs.

Solar power, on the other hand, is far more correlated on a continental scale, making it harder for one area to balance another.

Although the modeling was Europe-only, similar conclusions are likely to apply to other continents.

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