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Record year paves the way for next step

Wind power took another great leap forward in 2015. Nearly 60GW of new capacity was installed and commissioned worldwide, smashing the previous year's record of close to 50GW.

According to preliminary data from the International Energy Agency, the sector provided half of all new electricity generation last year.

Impressive, but as our annual review of the world's wind power markets reveals, the global growth trends are far from uniform. Driven by a huge year in China, the Asia-Pacific region installed more than twice as much new wind power as Europe, for example. The rate of growth in China is forecast to slow over the next few years, but India and, to a certain extent, Pakistan, look well-placed to pick up the slack for the region.

Europe, for so long the leader in wind-power development, is falling back, however. This is not unexpected and can be attributed to a number of factors - from market saturation and falling demand to low electricity prices and sluggish economies. But the biggest factor is surely the political one. The UK and Poland now look set to join Spain and Italy as moribund markets for onshore wind following the election of right-wing administrations still committed to fossil fuels. It is as though the COP21 UN climate talks never took place.

Smart future

The wind industry has proved that it can add new capacity quickly, and that it can generate electricity at competitive costs. Now it has to involve itself in improving the ways in which it can contribute to the grid. In short, it has to be smart.

Wind energy's transition from niche technology to mature industry had not included, or even seriously envisaged, a role for it to provide back-up power for electricity markets. It was there to deliver clean power to the grid when the conditions were right, with its variable generation balanced by ramping up or down conventional sources.

But the news that Spanish turbine maker and wind-project operator Acciona was able and allowed to provide reserve power for three hours — and achieve this profitably — shows that things are changing.

It could not have been achieved without the advances over the years to wind-turbine and grid technology, the ability to now fine-tune and monitor project operations, extremely accurate day-ahead wind forecasting and 15-minute electricity-market adjustments. They all made it possible for the market operator to be able to turn to wind power when a thermal plant was powered down to a point where it could no longer ramp back up with any urgency.

A small step perhaps, but further evidence that the variability of wind power is not the obstacle to grid integration that many automatically assume.

A key achievement behind this is the fact that Acciona made money from the process, despite having to deliberately reduce output from the projects involved to create the reserve. The profit margins are not high and are dependent on the structure of the market and day-ahead pricing, but there are also gains to be had by extending the life of the turbines.

Spain is not the only place where integrating wind power into the grid is well evolved. Texas has used wind to balance its supply, while Denmark has shown that 50% is not the top limit for renewables supply to the network.

The wind industry cannot afford to wait for a storage technology breakthrough. It needs to keep thinking smart.

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