Wind turbines are pretty useless when there’s not much wind. That’s what the wind power industry learned in 2015 when lots of subsidized turbines were installed, but there was less wind to generate electricity.
Average wind speeds were 20 percent below those of the previous year, and the trend appears set to continue in 2016, according to a Monday report by New Scientist. As a result, the amount of electricity produced by wind turbines dropped 6 percent even though lots of new turbines were built, according to Energy Information Administration (EIA).
“Low-wind conditions have returned to the US,” Michael Brower, a wind industry consultant, told New Scientist. “The possibility of a prolonged wind drought is on the minds of many in the wind industry.”
Meteorologists say that unusually slow winds are due to a persistent high pressure system that is diverting storms into the Arctic. The cause is unclear because the high pressure system does not appear to be linked to major climate events.
Globally, less than 30 percent of total wind power capacity and 20 percent of solar capacity are actually utilized; the disparity is due to the intermittent and irregular nature of green energy. The relatively slow growth of wind power capacity means that large numbers of people simply are not getting much of their electricity from wind. Wind power produced a mere 4.4 percent of all electricity generated in the U.S. during 2014 before average speeds dropped according to EIA.
The growth of wind power will continue to slow, according to a 2015 report by the International Energy Agency. The wind industry is growing at it slowest rate in years due to changes in the structure of subsidies, issues with reliability, and consistently high prices. Investment in wind power is expected to substantially decline due to slowing growth.
Electricity from new wind farms is still three times more expensive than power generated from existing conventional power plants and four times more expensive than power from nuclear reactors. Wind power has been heavily subsidized since the 1980s and still gets 69 times more in subsidies than coal, oil, and natural gas per watt.
Wind power still isn’t capable of providing electricity at predictable times. The output of a wind power plant is quite variable over time, but the times when wind power generates the most electricity don’t coincide with the times when power is most needed. Peak power demand also occurs in the evenings, when solar power is going offline.
Since the output of wind turbines cannot be predicted with high accuracy, grid operators have to keep excess reserve running just in case. Adding power plants which only provide power at intermittent and unpredictable times makes the power grid more fragile.
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