The "technical maximum" of wind power – in 1995
18 years ago, a skeptic of wind power reviewed a German book on the history of wind power in the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine (FAZ). The journalist still publishes for the paper. His comments from way back have not aged well, but they do sound like a lot of the criticism we now hear outside of Germany today.
The book itself is entitled in German "The history of the wind energy usage 1890-1990," and although it was never translated (and, indeed, it is practically impossible to find even in German now), US wind power expert Paul Gipe reviewed it on his website in 2004.
Gipe’s summary is much more positive than German journalist George Küffner's was in 1995. Küffner doubts that wind power "failed" in the 20th century primarily because, as the book's author argues, the focus in energy policy has been on central-station power plants, such as nuclear. Instead, the journalist believes that low "energy density" is one major problem – a charge that is repeated even today, most recently in a scientific paper that drew a lot of attention. But as I recently wrote in the Energy Transition blog, almost no one in Germany speaks of energy density; the Germans simply install systems and know that the real limit is not theoretical, but practical (see "peak demand parity"). It is important, however, to note that the focus on energy density has historically been a tool used by those who said renewables would never suffice.
After tossing out all of the usual anti-wind claims – they destroy landscapes, kill birds, and are loud – the journalist takes the energy density issue to its logical conclusion when he states that "it remains to be seen whether Denmark and Schleswig-Holstein will ever reach their target of 10 percent wind power, which itself represents the technical maximum."
The assessment has not aged well. Allow me to draw your attention to a new website, which is unfortunately only in German (the project manager told me today that no English version is in the works, but he will make a budget proposal for an international version). The website provides interactive graphics for renewables in Germany's 16 states. Wind power made up 26.5 percent of Schleswig-Holstein's power supply in 2011, whith renewables making up 37.6 percent. But the state is only in third place for renewable power behind Thüringen (44.9 percent) and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (57.7 percent).
Spain got 16 percent of its electricity from wind power alone in 2011 and is now headed for 25 percent, which is far below the Danish level of 30 percent for 2012. Portugal had 27 percent wind power in Q1 2013. The technical limit for the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein is apparently 300 percent.
Küffner repeats the age-old charge that "the existing fleet of conventional power plants cannot be reduced" even if we add wind turbines. This thinking has gotten the conventional sector into a lot of trouble recently, however. Germany has peak power demand of around 80 GW, and when it removed nearly 10 percent of that in the sudden nuclear phaseout of 2011, the country quickly posted record power exports (!). The conventional sector is struggling to produce electricity because so much is now offset by wind and solar. The firms are now selling large amounts of power to neighboring countries just to keep their plants running. Indeed, renewables are offsetting so much conventional power right now that all new proposals are currently on hold.
Unlike Gipe, who goes into great detail into the book's presentation of historical developments in his review, Küffner merely mentions the "roughly 20,000 windmills" that used to be used for grinding, sawmills, etc. in Germany before industrialization. Indeed, Küffner seems to be reviewing a much different work than Gipe, and we learn much more about the book from the latter than from the former – even though Gipe himself admits he is not even fluent in German.
But as wrong as Küffner was in his assessment of wind power, his ideological stance has not prevented him from pursuing a career at one of Germany's premier daily newspapers. Küffner still writes for the FAZ today. One wonders what he thinks of his claims of yore that time has treated so poorly. (Craig Morris)