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Insight into climate effect on wind power

UK: The EC has launched a study aimed at demonstrating the impact that climate change may have on power-generating technologies such as onshore and offshore wind.

The results are keenly awaited by a wind industry that is increasingly concerned about the effects of extreme weather on turbines. Publication is expected towards the end of the year.

A consortium led by Dutch analysts Ecorys will carry out the research for the commission. The results are likely to be used in the EU's 2050 roadmap setting out a path to a low-carbon economy. The research will be based on a survey, sent to utilities and other relevant bodies, aimed at assessing the effect that potential impacts of extreme climate change will have on such aspects of power generation as the electricity each wind turbine produces every year, the percentage of time that plants are able to operate, and investment costs.

The European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) believes that the impacts are unlikely to drastically deplete the global potential wind resource, says EWEA head of policy analysis, Gloria Rodrigues. But she notes that there is a growing debate over what effect climate change will have on where the wind blows, as well as on variations in wind strength within annual cycles and from year to year.

Sytze Dijkstra is an official at the Energy Production, Networks and Markets unit at the Energy Research Centre of the Netherlands, which is collaborating on the research. He says that while it is possible that wind patterns will change over time, Europe may have so much wind generation capacity installed by late this century that the resource will not go to waste. "But our research focuses on the impact of a single turbine or wind farm," he stresses.

Design issues

Rodrigues says there is also growing discussion of the effect of severe weather events on wind turbine design. "Extreme wind speeds can have an impact on the wind turbine load and consequently affect the performance and lifetime of a turbine," she says.

While this is clearly important in the long term, Rodrigues believes that in the short term, manufacturers have little to worry about. "It is important to underline that the 20-year lifetime of wind turbines is not so long that climate change may impact their design and operation," she says.

The research is partly a follow-up to a paper published last year by scientists from Indiana University in the US. Researchers Sara Pryor and Rebecca Barthelmie determined that in northern Europe, where wind energy has already gained a strong foothold, climate change will have an effect on wind power but is unlikely to impede its growth.

Pryor and Barthelmie's analysis in this region indicates that until around 2050, changes in the wind resource, as well as the occurrence of extreme wind speeds caused by natural shifts in climate, will be more pronounced than those from climate change attributable to human activity. There will likely be a decline in the frequency of ice forming on turbine blades and the formation of ice floes and ice sheets at sea, both of which will benefit the wind industry, they wrote, adding: "By the end of the 21st century, there is evidence for small-magnitude changes in the wind resource ... for increases in extreme wind speeds and continued declines in sea ice and icing frequencies."

The researchers conclude: "The current state of the art suggests no detectable change in the wind resource or other external conditions that could jeopardise the continued exploitation of wind energy in northern Europe, though further research is needed to provide greater confidence in these projections."

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