Last Saturday, my Twitter feed was a curious combination of sentiment. During the 2015 Labor party conference, about 90% of the tweets in my feed consisted of genuine dissatisfaction with the Labor party’s policy of turning back asylum seeker vessels. 9% consisted of somewhat hushed celebrations of the Labor party’s climate policies, including a 50% by 2030 renewable energy target, and an emissions trading scheme (1% was a stream of once-amusing but increasingly-unfunny Bronwyn Bishop helicopter memes).
The ALP conference ratified the climate policies unanimously, and Shorten issued a stern challenge to Abbott: “We will not be intimidated by ridiculous, ignorant, fear-mongering scare campaigns that will come….if Mr Abbott wants to make the next election a contest about who has the best policy solution for climate change, I’ve got a three-word slogan for him: Bring. It. On.”
Buried among the inevitably absurd back-and-forth (sourced primarily from the back of envelopes) that’s clogged what might have been, in a parallel universe, a serious policy debate, I noticed that on Saturday, the day of the ALP’s conference, it was a particularly windy day. A little further examination revealed that wind power was its highest output on record, as I showed in yesterday’s graph of the day:
Not only did total wind power output peak at 3,378 megawatts at 20:10, the total number of megawatt hours of energy from wind farms was the highest on record. Here are the top ten days, since the start of 2012:
When demand dipped, SA came close to having demand match wind output, and excess power was exported to Victoria when demand dipped below total generation:
(To put this in context, South Australian electricity has trended towards net import as the penetration of wind power has grown, but this has to be contextualised against the growth of wind power in Victoria, and the truly impenetrable complexities of interconnector trading, transfer and dispatch, in the electricity market)
As I mentioned yesterday, these moments of high output are important.
Wind speeds vary over time, so wind turbines must be designed to capture the energy in high winds, as well as the more regular middle-range wind speeds. The lay-hater’s interpretation of a 30% capacity factor (or variations in output) is failure or under-performance, but this is simply how the atmosphere works. This is neatly illustrated by a chart that shows the amount of time the NEM wind fleet has spent at different levels of output, packaged into one hundred megawatt blocks, again since the start of 2012:
When moments like Saturday’s high winds pop into existence with increasing regularity, we know the curve is shifting to the right, up the megawatt output scale – our wind turbines are spending more time at high output. It’s a signal that not only are we capturing infrequent moments of incredibly high wind speeds – we’re also capturing a big bulk of wind at the lower ranges.
I find this incredibly uplifting. That’s a really significant amount of electrical power we’ve captured from the churning currents of the atmosphere – all of which is used instantly to power industry, residences, microwaves, mobile phone chargers. There is so much more room to fill in our energy system for wind power. This tangible, pointedly not-made-up capture and conversation process is such a profoundly soothing balm, when I’m faced with a daily barrage of columnists blurting out fictitious facts and figures. It’s my only respite, and it’s genuinely exciting.
To illustrate this ‘pushing upwards’ of newly built wind power a slightly different way, consider the same ‘hours at each 100 megawatt level’ chart, but expanded back to 2010 and broken up into each year (note that 2015 is a partial year, so the amount of time is around half of the previous years):
Our disconnect from the current and future successes of clean technology is created by the fact we’re desensitised to numbers. Alan Jones’ Qanda debacle, Joe Hockey’s confusion around carbon tax savings, or Tony Abbott’s ‘back of the envelope’ $60bn guess, are small examples in an extremely crowded, expansive and decades-old field of people simply throwing out half-truths and inventions about renewable energy.
It’s not all bad. Recently, Denmark experienced a similar event, but early in the morning. The news was incredibly popular – around 9,800 tweets were posted about the news (Europe is about 8% wind powered on average; double that of Australia’s percentage). Contained within these moments is a reminder that there are challenges ahead – hence, why wind and solar forecasting is so important. The NEM is a closed system – 140% wind power isn’t possible – so we’re going to need to dwell deeply on the technical complexities of variable output technology (thankfully, we have quite a few experts who are particularly good at confronting these engineering problems).
The Labor party still has some work to do, in terms of fleshing out a series of publicly accepted policy mechanisms that might achieve the goal of 50% renewable energy in a short time period. But we can push the percentage of wind power further upwards, with relative ease. For now, I’m going to take refuge in the solid blocks of electricity we’ve sourced directly from the efficient conversion of atmospheric kinetic energy.
Ketan Joshi is an analyst with a leading wind energy developer and operator.
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