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The myth of renewable energy ‘intermittency’



You’ve probably heard the intermittency myth before. “The wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine, so we can’t rely on renewables to meet our energy needs”, they say. It may have even made you think twice about the UK’s renewable transition.

But the intermittency myth is just that: a myth. It overstates the basic ‘problem’, overlooks the reality that renewables are already deployed in large numbers, and ignores the innovations that mean we can get close to 100% renewables in the future.

So whilst the variability of the wind and sun may pose challenges, it’s certainly no barrier to a renewable energy future.

The problem is overstated

The fact that some renewables – namely wind turbines and solar panels – do not generate power all of the time is not in dispute. But listen to some renewable critics and you’d be forgiven for thinking renewables hardly ever produce power when we need it.

In fact the reverse is true. In the UK it is usually most windy when power demand is highest, during the dark winter months. A 2006 Oxford University study found a positive correlation between UK wind speeds and periods of high demand over 30 years – a finding backed up by recent modelling by the UK’s independent Committee on Climate Change. You could see this yourself last month, one of the stormiest on record, when 10% of our electricity was generated by wind turbines exactly when we needed it.

What’s more, when different renewable are deployed together over large areas, the peaks and troughs in generation associated with one particular technology or location are reduced. Because it’s often sunny when there’s no wind and windy when there’s no sun, the reality of renewable intermittency across a country such as the UK is less than is sometimes claimed.

The flipside of the coin is that conventional fossil fuel generators are not as reliable as you might think. They break down and when they do a massive amount of power can “trip and fall off in a matter of milliseconds”, according to head of strategy at the National Grid, Richard Smith. At the time of writing, for example, two SSE coal-fired plants are out of action due to unplanned outages.

For this reason Smith argues that wind (with forecasting that is now 95% accurate within 24 hours) can be seen as more predictable than nuclear and coal plants. In parts of the US, the recent extreme cold has left 20% of conventional thermal generators (coal and gas) out of action, whilst the increasing amounts of wind output stayed online and helped prevent blackouts.

This is not to say there aren’t times where demand is high and renewable generation is low. There are; the usual example being a windless cloudy week in January. And of course we need other forms of more flexible generation to step up at such moments. But such rare events should be put in their proper context, and the basic issue of renewable intermittency should not be overstated.

The facts on the ground are overlooked

It’s also a fact that the UK is already coping well with increasing amounts of wind and solar power. In 2012 these sources delivered over 5% of our electricity with not one blackout as a result.

If 5% doesn’t sound like much, consider that other countries have already gone much further. Germany now gets 13% of its electricity from wind and solar. Not to be outdone, Spain generated a massive 21% from wind last year, according to the country’s grid operator, meaning it overtook nuclear as the country’s biggest single source. And despite what some sceptics say, the evidence showing a reduction in overall carbon emissions as a result is growing by the day.

How is this possible? The answer is simple – we already have the infrastructure in place to fill the gaps when wind and solar are not generating power. In the UK, the extensive network of pylons and wires that make up our National Grid already connect homes across the country to a diverse range of generators. These include flexible hydro plants which can provide power within minutes and flexible gas plants than can ramp up within hours.

In fact even in the absence of renewables our electricity system must deal with significant amounts of intermittency. Not only do ‘reliable’ nuclear and coal plants stop working at short notice, but the nation’s power use can spike in a matter of moments when millions of kettles get turned on after a big football match. Yet the lights don’t go out. Grid operators balance supply and demand. The system copes.

Again this is not to deny there are challenges in introducing greater amounts of variability into power networks designed for a different era, but we should recognise that it can be done even within the confines of contemporary energy systems.

Yet advocates of the intermittency myth overlook these facts on the ground.

Ingenuity and innovation are ignored

Further into the future we will need bigger structural and behavioural changes to achieve very high amounts of variable renewables. But once again renewable critics too often ignore the innovations that will allow this to happen, many of which are already underway.

In recent years a large body of research from academic institutions, government-backed bodies and NGOs have tracked the latest technological developments and mapped out the strategies we will need to move towards an energy system dominated by renewables. The UK’s Committee on Climate Change has identified four critical areas:

Demand response – Large users of electricity already voluntarily power down to help balance the grid when demand is high. Supermarket freezer warehouse chain McCulla, for example, can turn off its coolers for short periods whilst getting paid for this service; which is also a cheaper solution for the UK as a whole than building more power stations. In the future, households and businesses will also be able to alter their usage depending on the availability of electricity, using smart technologies to control appliances and take advantage of variable energy prices.

Storage – The UK has limited scope for expanding what is currently the cheapest form of storage – pumping water up mountains and releasing it when needed. However rapid innovation in new storage technologies means other methods will become economical and widespread. When they do, one idea is to use the nation’s future fleet of electric cars as a giant battery to store energy when lots is available and release it back into our homes when we need it.

Interconnection – More interconnectors between the UK and Europe will mean that renewable energy can be transferred large distances from where it is abundant to where it is needed at any given time. A 2010 PwC report even suggested that a European supergrid could integrate wind from north-west Europe, hydro from the Alps and Scandinavia, solar from southern Europe and biomass from eastern Europe, allowing us to get all of our electricity from renewables in the future.

Balancing generation – Finally, a specialist fleet of highly efficient and flexible generators could provide the back-up we need for the times when these other solutions cannot balance supply and demand. This might include gas plants but also biomass plants, which if fitted with carbon capture and storage technology could even be ‘carbon negative’.

According to National Grid, these kinds of strategies mean we could get over 50% of our electricity in the UK from renewables by 2035 – a massive increase on today. The Committee on Climate Change says even 80% is possible by 2050. And it’s not just here. Similar assessments have been made in the USEurope and elsewhere.

The problem with the intermittency myth then, is not that it doesn’t contain any truth at all. Variable renewables do pose challenges for conventional ways of thinking about energy and managing our electricity system. But the fantasy is that these challenges are not being overcome in the present, and that they can’t be overcome in the future.

It’s time to consign the intermittency myth to history.

Sam Friggens is a writer for renewable energy funding platform Abundance Generation. You can follow him on Twitter: @Sam_Friggens. This article originally appeared on Abundance’s blog.

Further reading:

Bad jokes aside, Bradley Wiggins’ success is a lesson for renewable energy innovation

Keeping the crowd in crowdfunding as ‘big finance’ arrives

Five renewable energy lessons from Germany’s Energiewende

How renewable energy can help us beat inflation

Sam Friggens is a writer for renewable energy funding platform Abundance Generation. You can follow him on Twitter: @Sam_Friggens.


New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035



renewable energy policy
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Eviart /

New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.

New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.

Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.

Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”

The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.

Zero net emissions by 2050

Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.

Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.

She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.

Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”

A worldwide shift to renewable energy

Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.

Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.

Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.

Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.


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How Going Green Can Save A Company Money



going green can save company money
Shutterstock Licensed Photot - By GOLFX

What is going green?

Going green means to live life in a way that is environmentally friendly for an entire population. It is the conservation of energy, water, and air. Going green means using products and resources that will not contaminate or pollute the air. It means being educated and well informed about the surroundings, and how to best protect them. It means recycling products that may not be biodegradable. Companies, as well as people, that adhere to going green can help to ensure a safer life for humanity.

The first step in going green

There are actually no step by step instructions for going green. The only requirement needed is making the decision to become environmentally conscious. It takes a caring attitude, and a willingness to make the change. It has been found that companies have improved their profit margins by going green. They have saved money on many of the frivolous things they they thought were a necessity. Besides saving money, companies are operating more efficiently than before going green. Companies have become aware of their ecological responsibility by pursuing the knowledge needed to make decisions that would change lifestyles and help sustain the earth’s natural resources for present and future generations.

Making needed changes within the company

After making the decision to go green, there are several things that can be changed in the workplace. A good place to start would be conserving energy used by electrical appliances. First, turning off the computer will save over the long run. Just letting it sleep still uses energy overnight. Turn off all other appliances like coffee maker, or anything that plugs in. Pull the socket from the outlet to stop unnecessary energy loss. Appliances continue to use electricity although they are switched off, and not unplugged. Get in the habit of turning off the lights whenever you leave a room. Change to fluorescent light bulbs, and lighting throughout the building. Have any leaks sealed on the premises to avoid the escape of heat or air.

Reducing the common paper waste

paper waste

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By Yury Zap

Modern technologies and state of the art equipment, and tools have almost eliminated the use of paper in the office. Instead of sending out newsletters, brochures, written memos and reminders, you can now do all of these and more by technology while saving on the use of paper. Send out digital documents and emails to communicate with staff and other employees. By using this virtual bookkeeping technique, you will save a bundle on paper. When it is necessary to use paper for printing purposes or other services, choose the already recycled paper. It is smartly labeled and easy to find in any office supply store. It is called the Post Consumer Waste paper, or PCW paper. This will show that your company is dedicated to the preservation of natural resources. By using PCW paper, everyone helps to save the trees which provides and emits many important nutrients into the atmosphere.

Make money by spreading the word

Companies realize that consumers like to buy, or invest in whatever the latest trend may be. They also cater to companies that are doing great things for the quality of life of all people. People want to know that the companies that they cater to are doing their part for the environment and ecology. By going green, you can tell consumers of your experiences with helping them and communities be eco-friendly. This is a sound public relations technique to bring revenue to your brand. Boost the impact that your company makes on the environment. Go green, save and make money while essentially preserving what is normally taken for granted. The benefits of having a green company are enormous for consumers as well as the companies that engage in the process.

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