As more and more wind turbines have been installed and put into service the various asset owners have been gaining experience in some of the ins and outs of utilizing this technology for bulk power generation. One of the more interesting perspectives I have come across lately was articulated by Mr. Eamon Ryan, Ireland’s Minister for Communications, Energy & Natural Resources during one of the WFES afternoon forums. When asked how Ireland will go about meeting the midterm EU targets for the reduction of total carbon emissions, Mr. Ryan responded by sharing that he sees wind and gas power generation as well as the interconnection with other European power grids as the key elements in Ireland’s strategy to meet the EU targets. To quantify the scope and scale of this effort, Mr. Ryan then offered his take on some of the challenges Ireland has faced in growing their installed base of wind power generation.
Integrating large scale wind power generation into an existing power grid is no easy task. In recent years, Ireland has aggressively developed wind power generation projects. Today, roughly 35% of Ireland’s domestically generated power comes from wind farms. As Ireland has expanded their variable wind generation capabilities, they have learned that this type of power adds a layer of complexity to the operation of the power grid that was not present in earlier times. As it turns out, the ability to reliably operate the grid with large portions of variable wind power is a key constraint. According to the minister, migrating to high percentages of variable wind power generally requires major investments in the infrastructure of the underlying power grid. The minister maintains that these investments are so difficult to swallow, because they are not glamorous or high profile in nature.
In the future, Ireland will forge ahead with plans to continue to expand it wind generation capabilities. Continued expansion will bring along new challenges. Above a level of about 50% wind generation, Ireland will need to be interconnected to a larger system in order to maintain grid stability. This means that Ireland will need to build an interconnection with one or more neighboring electrical grids. In the past, the idea of interconnecting the European power grids has not been widely accepted, but according to the minister, this is an idea whose time has arrived. The minister shared that there has been a change in thinking among the EU’s Council of Ministers in the last three years. He feels as though the EU now understands that it needs to build an interconnected grid. He spoke of the interconnection plans that are now being drawn up at the EU Council of Ministers level. In the coming years, Mr. Ryan believes that the EU will approve and build an interconnected grid.
Ireland is an extreme case, but the challenges that Ireland has faced and will continue to face demonstrate the complexity involved in making incremental changes to the power generation mix, especially when the changes fundamentally alter the character of the existing energy system. This case also demonstrates some of the limiting factors that dictate the speed with which these types of changes can realistically be made.