Lets get smart about renewables

This is a blog by planning expert Mitch Cooke. Mitch is Founder of environmental planning consultancy Greengage Environmental LLP. He previously led the environmental planning teams for WSP and WYG.

One of the main arguments against the use of wind as a renewable energy source is that the energy that is generated is very peaky. This means that any excess energy that is being generated in very windy conditions cannot be stored for use when energy is in more demand. Whilst the UK struggles with coming up with a plan to deal with this – or any political drive to have investment directed away from traditional fossil fuel dependency – a Danish project has demonstrated the benefits of smart grid technology for balancing demand with high levels of renewable generation.

DONG Energy and local partner SEV have become the world’s first energy firms to roll out a smart grid system capable of balancing intermittent renewable supplies and rapid changes in industrial electricity demand, and it is hoped that the project will point the way for a larger more scalable scheme that can be applied in the UK.

National Grid are already looking at the development of a Smart Grid as part of their business strategy, but it is lacking in the detail of what the technology is – and to be fair to National Grid, it is the industry as a whole that is lagging behind the idea and not National Grid.

But in the Faroe Islands, where the scheme has been implemented, 10 per cent of total demand can be switched off in less than a second if there is a power plant failure or wind energy drops suddenly. The fear of the politicians has always been countrywide blackouts, but the Faroe Islands scheme allows for alternative power sources to be brought online if needed. And the system appears to be simple in its approach, consisting of the Power Hub IT system, which is operated from Denmark, linked to boxes optimising output from each generation source and matching these to demand.

The UK – where politics and rhetoric are focused on energy security and energy independency – must be looking to their northern neighbours on how they are doing it. The islands plan to boost wind generation to 24 per cent of total capacity by 2014, and in doing so will avoid the blackouts that it used to suffer; but it has come with a price tag to make the most ardent of supporters wince.

The scheme is part of the European Commission’s Twenties project and was launched in 2010 with a total budget of €56.8million. Whilst the specific costs of the Faroe Islands smart system are yet to be published, the bigger question in my mind is how this compares to the costs associated with the new generation of nuclear power stations?