Get a grip - wind is here to stay

As a new year starts unfolding before us, it is time to unveil good intentions and perhaps make some wishes, too. Having suffered through the global economic slowdown, the wind energy sector must now stand proud and confirm its status as a fully paid-up member of the international energy community.

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My main wish for the energy debate this year is that it moves away from the ideological battlefield pitting old thermal, new nuclear and "alternative" sources against each other to the place where it needs to be: how a sensible energy mix, with degrees of variation depending on local circumstances, can deliver a secure, reliable and cost-effective electricity supply.

The Cancun climate summit, just before Christmas, ended the climate-change deniers' hopes that the inevitable arguments over who should pay for what might sweep the whole issue under the carpet. While climate negotiators were once again unable to agree on the details, the idea that the global community needs to cut carbon emissions is today as firmly established as the awareness that millions of people around the globe still have no access to electricity.

The carbon-reduction imperative makes wind farms a crucial source of electricity in the years to come. And yet the doubters remain. Arguments over wind farms' social acceptability, environmental impacts and downright usefulness appear with worrying frequency in the mainstream press. I suppose it is a measure of the sector's success that it has partly migrated from the inner circles of expert debate to the general media - although this means that all sorts of myths about wind energy are propagated.

What I wish for this year is a serious debate on the major perceived hurdles wind power needs to overcome. There is a need to upgrade grids, but this should not be used as a stumbling block to wind power growth. Grid experts will consistently say that - given an adequate infrastructure and the right regulatory framework - wind is no more of a problem to manage than any other energy source.

False problems

Even the famous question of variability has been shown to be a false problem. British football fans rushing to make cups of tea when a big match goes into extra time create a bigger headache for grid managers than a wind farm - usually predictably - generating no electricity for a few hours. Today's IT systems are infinitely more powerful than even a few years ago. Accurate weather forecasting, statistical analysis of energy use patterns and reliable systems to manage generation peaks, troughs and surges can deliver a reliable electricity supply even when wind power is a significant element of the energy mix.

As for the money, the time when financial and other institutions looked at wind with suspicion is over. While more regulatory stability and better clarity on policy are both essential, there is no shortage of investors ready to fund an industry which has proved its financial viability over the years.

Finally, a new year's message for the dinosaurs of the energy industry who are still peddling hugely expensive - and frankly pie-in-the-sky - technologies such as carbon capture and storage in the hope of keeping coal at the heart of the world's future energy mix. Wake up, grow up and face up to it: wind power is here to stay.

Nadia Weekes is editor of Windpower Monthly

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