While the British government’s inexplicable decision to build two new nuclear reactors has dominated the headlines, Great Britain has meanwhile achieved two little-heralded milestones in renewable energy.
Revised statistics on the small wind industry indicates that the country surpassed 100 MW of installed small wind capacity in 2012. Total installed small wind capacity will approach 200 MW this year according to a recently issued report on Britain’s small wind industry by Renewables UK, formerly the British Wind Energy Association. Britain’s small wind industry is one of the world’s most dynamic.
More significantly, total installed capacity under Britain’s feed-in tariff program broke the 2,000 MW barrier at the end of August according to the Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC).
Britain is now within striking distance of surpassing the USA – once a world leader in small wind – in total installed wind capacity if growth continues at the current pace. At the end of 2012, the US had an installed small wind capacity of 216 MW.
Growth Due to Feed-in Tariffs
Through the end of 2013, Britain’s innovative feed-in tariff policy will account for four-fifths of total small wind capacity installed in the country. Feed-in tariffs for what Britain calls microgenerators were implemented in 2010.
The remainder of the small wind capacity had been installed previously under subsidy programs.
The growth rate of small wind continues to accelerate in Britain as the long gestation period for larger wind turbines is coming to an end.
It takes much longer for the larger turbines in the program to move through the planning process than those less than 100 kW.
Further, manufacturers have been delayed in establishing operations in Britain for medium-size turbines. New Zealand’s Windflow has been slow to bring its 500 kW turbine to the British market. And new entrant, Endurance Windpower, is only now setting up a plant to build NorWin’s 225 kW turbine, itself a derivative of DanWin’s design from the late 1980s.
Confusingly, Britain describes its feed-in tariff program as targeted toward microgenerators. Yet the program includes tariffs for projects up to 5 MW – hardly what most English-speakers would call “microgenerators”.
The feed-in tariffs for wind energy were originally divided into six size tranches from less than 1.5 kW up to 5 MW. The three lower tranches have since been collapsed into one.
DECC still reports data on all six tranches.
Renewables UK reports on only the first four original tranches. The largest size tranche in the report, wind turbines from 100 kW to 500 kW, exceeds the size internationally used to define small wind turbines as those less than 100 kW.
There are two further size tranches in the British microgeneration program: 500 kW to 1.5 MW and 1.5 MW to 5 MW.
These distinctions are important when weighing what are the installations rate of “small wind turbines,” medium-size turbines, and microgenerators.
In 2012, Britain installed nearly 30 MW of small wind turbines less than 100 kW. A similar amount is expected for 2013. This compares to the 18 MW installed in the US last year, down from a high of 25 MW in 2010.
Small Wind Small Player
Despite the growth – envied by installers in North America – small wind remains an extremely small player in Britain.
There was a total of 8,500 MW of wind turbines operating in Great Britain at the end of 2012. The country has been installing about 1,000 MW of new wind capacity per year for the past five years.
If growth of small wind continues through 2013 at the pace expected and if the turbines perform as expected, small wind will generate less than 0.5 TWh, accounting for about 0.1% of total British electricity generation.
The installed capacity of small wind is dwarfed by that of solar photovoltaics (solar PV) installed under the feed-in tariff program. Of the total 2,000 MW of microgeneration operating under the program by the end of August 2013, solar PV accounted for 1,800 MW.
VAWTs & “Building-Integrated” Wind Down
Probably no country has installed more wind turbines on rooftops or “integrated” into buildings than Britain. The number of new building-mounted or “building integrated” wind turbines has continued a dramatic decline since their peak in 2008. Today these applications represent 11% of the total number of small wind turbines installed.
Because building-mounted wind turbines have been typically the smallest of small wind turbines, this application probably represents much less than 11% of the total installed small wind capacity in Britain.
Unfortunately, no one knows how many of those turbines are still on top of buildings or how many – if any – are still operating. Data, or more correctly, the absence of data on the performance of these rooftop-mounted machines should put an end to the notion that somehow putting a wind turbine on top of a building is anything but a bad idea.
Similarly, despite the on going hype about small Vertical Axis Wind Turbines (VAWTs)—both in North America and Britain–they have made very little inroads into the British market. The 500 small VAWTs installed in Britain probably represent the word’s largest fleet.
Even so, VAWTs account for only 2% of the total number of small wind turbines installed in Britain, and much less in terms of total installed small wind capacity.
Though Renewables UK expects a slight increase in VAWT installations this year over last year, VAWTs still represent a fringe market after six years of development. As in North America, small VAWTs in Britain are the domain of architects using them for vanity projects or as ornamental “eye candy” in applications where the turbines are not intended to generate useable amounts of electricity. See Questionable Turbines and Siting Give Architects, LEED, Green Builders, and Wind Bad Name.
Could Microgeneration Rival Nuclear?
In light of the British government’s decision to build two new reactors, it’s appropriate to ask what microgenerators could do if given similar political endorsement.
Britain’s feed-in tariff program was launched in 2010. In 2011, more than 1,000 MW of microgeneration was installed. Under British conditions, 1,000 MW of microgeneration capacity generates nearly 1 TWh per year.
In what some have characterized as a “panicked” reaction to the success of British feed-in tariffs, the Coalition government dramatically ratcheted down the tariffs for both small wind and solar PV. New installations are now averaging 50 MW per month or a paltry 600 MW per year.
More cynical observers suggest that the government wanted to clamp down on the growth of microgeneration so that the program’s success wouldn’t overshadow the drive to build new reactors.
Currently, total installed microgeneration capacity will produce more than 2 TWh in 2013, or only 0.6% of total generation in Great Britain.
In contrast, the two new reactors announced this week are expected to generate 26 TWh in 2023 – if completed on time and if they operate as planned.
At the current pace, by 2023 the existing feed-in tariff program will have installed 8,000 MW of microgeneration capable of producing 8 TWh per year, or about one-third that of generation from the new reactors.
If the microgeneration program was stepped up to the level achieved in 2011 of 1,000 MW per year, there could be as much as 12,000 MW capable of delivering 12 TWh per year – reliably without the risk of catastrophic accident. This is nearly half of the generation that may be produced by the two new reactors
If the capacity permitted under the feed-in tariff program was expanded to include 10 MW or even 20 MW of community-owned wind, “microgeneration” could expand even faster and at a cost rivaling that of the new nuclear plants.
The wind tariff for the 500 kW to 1.5 MW tranche, ₤0.098/kWh (€0.12/kWh; $0.15 USD/kWh) is comparable to that quoted for the new reactors, ₤0.094/kWh. The wind tariff for the 1.5 MW to 5 MW tranche, ₤0.042/kWh (€0.049/kWh; $0.065 USD/kWh), is half that of the new reactors.
Lest it appear that the latter tariff won’t result in any capacity additions, it should be noted that 34 MW has already been installed at that price.
If the limit on this tranche could be lifted, the price increased modestly, there could be rapid growth of distributed, locally-owned wind, raising the prospect that the “microgeneration” program could result in an equivalent amount of generation in 2023 as that expected from the two reactors for roughly same cost—or even less.
While the media is justifiably focused on Britain’s decision to build two new reactors, they may have overlooked two modest but still significant milestones. The steady growth of small wind and microgeneration in Britain may offer better prospects for new generation at an acceptable cost than nuclear in a decade from now, but only if British politicians want it to happen.