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Steady As She Blows

The eternal question that plagues renewable power: Since the wind isn't always blowing, how could wind turbines ever hope to replace, say, coal plants as a source of steady, constant baseload power, unless we invent newfangled and possibly expensive batteries? Jon Rynn of Grist passes along one notable response:

I asked [Lester] Brown if intermittency problems could be overcome—that is, the wind doesn't blow all the time and the sun doesn't always shine. Brown cited research done at Stanford University which concluded that, if a national grid with nationally distributed wind farms were fully developed, it would in effect act like baseload capacity, that is, there would always be enough electricity being generated somewhere to fill most immediate needs.

He also pointed out that nuclear power plants have their own intermittency problems—there were over 50 shutdowns last year alone—and no one is advocating building backup nuclear power plants. A national grid with a large number of well-distributed electricity generators is constantly experiencing changes in capacity, no matter what the source.

The Stanford study mentioned above is fascinating, and concludes that between one-third and one-half of yearly averaged wind power from a network of interconnected farms can actually be used as reliable, baseload electric power, the way coal is used now. For any given turbine, the wind's not always blowing, but given a sufficiently high number of turbines, the wind's always blowing somewhere. (Also, if you connect a bunch of distributed wind farms to a single point and then connect that point to, say, a faraway city, you can keep transmission losses to a minimum.) Meanwhile, the remaining wind power, which is more inconsistent, could be used for an electrified transportation system—say, to charge plug-in hybrids, which would then store the power in their batteries. Interesting stuff. Only problem is we'd need to seriously upgrade our national grid, which, as we've discussed before, is no walk in the cabbage patch.

--Bradford Plumer