20 July 2020
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Dr Hunter Laidlaw
Environment and Resources
- Global electricity generation from wind has been increasing each year
and now contributes almost 5% of all generation. This is mostly from onshore
wind farms, but capacity from offshore wind farms is expected to expand in
future years. A similar proportion of Australia’s total electricity generation
is also from wind; however, this differs considerably across the country. As a
variable source, there are challenges associated with integrating wind
generation into electricity systems. However, electricity system operators
around the world and in Australia are meeting these challenges to capture the
benefits of this low cost and low emissions technology.
Australian electricity options are short briefings on the principal energy sources
and storage options being debated in Australia, including: coal, natural gas,
wind, nuclear, photovoltaics (PV) and pumped hydro energy storage (PHES).
The global COVID-19 pandemic and its economic
consequences mean that statements and projections about future demand and
pricing of energy options may no longer be reliable. Readers should note that
some figures quoted in these briefings may pre-date the pandemic.
Global wind power
Harnessing the power of wind has a long history. Wind
turbines were initially developed to mill grain or pump water but have more
recently been adapted to harness the kinetic energy of wind for conversion into
electricity. Multiple turbines may be co-located to form a wind farm, which may
be either onshore (land-based) or in offshore waters.
Internationally, wind contributed about 1,268 terawatt hours
(TWh) of total electricity
generation in 2018—or around 4.5% of total global generation and 19% of
total renewable generation. This was generated from 565 gigawatts (GW) of the world’s
estimated 2,501 GW of total installed renewable capacity. Around 95% of this wind
generation was from onshore wind farms.
Wind generation has become competitive with coal and gas
electricity generation in a number of countries. New wind capacity increases
have been relatively stable since 2016 but are expected to be lower over the
next few years as growth slows in the USA and China. These two countries have
the highest overall wind
generation and capacity, while a number of European countries have the
highest penetration of wind compared with their total electricity consumption
(in particular, Portugal, Ireland and Denmark). About 47%
of electricity consumption was derived from wind in Denmark during 2019.
During 2018, over three-quarters of the total global
increase in new onshore
wind capacity was delivered in China (19 GW), the USA (7.6 GW), the
European Union (7.5 GW), India (2.4 GW) and Brazil (2.1 GW). The
International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates onshore wind capacity could expand by
57% to reach 850 GW by 2024.
The capacity of offshore wind is expected to grow at a
faster rate than onshore wind, with the IEA forecasting a threefold increase to
65 GW over the same period. About half of the growth in offshore capacity is
expected to be in the EU, with much of the remainder in China. The IEA forecasts
wind will generate about 23% of renewable electricity in 2024 (2,135 of 9,168
TWh), with about 90% of this wind generation from onshore wind farms.
Challenges of wind generation
As with other methods of electricity generation that are
dependent on weather conditions, wind generation is variable but partially
predictable (for example, weather modelling can provide an indication of expected
generation). It can also be constrained by location, with many of the best
sites for wind farms located away from where electricity is required. Wind
generation is typically also decentralised, with more smaller generating units
distributed over a larger geographical area compared with traditional
Wind farms can suffer from a lack of social acceptance due
to perceived aesthetic, environmental and health concerns. These concerns have
typically focussed on the visual impact of wind farms in the landscape,
potential noise pollution, and their potential impact on wildlife (particularly
birds and bats). The effects on birds can be considered relative to the negative
impact of other structures (like windows), vehicle strikes, other forms of
electricity generation or predation by cats (see Taylor
for further discussion).
Some materials used in the manufacture of turbines and their
components may require mining to acquire the raw materials, and safe disposal
or recycling at their end of life.
Wind turbines can be a source of audible noise caused by the
movement of the blades through the air and components within the turbine.
Exposure to such noise can impact people living or working nearby and some
jurisdictions have therefore developed guidelines that set maximum sound limits
for wind farms. Shadow flicker can also occur.
In 2015, the National Health and Medical Research Council
(NHMRC) found no consistent evidence linking exposure to wind farms with
detrimental health outcomes. The NHMRC identified areas for further research
and has published a number of review
and information papers on this topic. A summary published by the
Environment Protection Authority Victoria on wind farms and sound can also be
In Australia, the National Wind Farm
Commissioner role was established in 2015 to help address community concerns
about proposed and operational wind farms.
Offshore windfarms have the potential to overcome some of
these aesthetic, environmental and health–related issues, but can present their
own challenges. These include issues around sea floor depth and requirements
for anchoring the foundations to withstand ocean conditions, issues of access
for installation and maintenance, interconnection to the land-based electricity
network, and potential impacts on the local ocean environment.
Benefits of wind generation
The main benefits of wind farms include having no ongoing
fuel requirement and not producing greenhouse gas emissions or other pollutants
while generating electricity. While some emissions are generated during the
manufacture, transportation, installation and decommissioning of turbines,
these are low when spread across the turbine’s lifespan and relative to gas or
coal power generation. Wind, as the ‘fuel’ for wind turbines, is freely
available and not in limited supply (beyond any variation associated with the
Site selection is obviously important in order to capture
the best and most reliable wind resource. However, such locations may be some
distance from where the electricity is used and this requires additional
transmission infrastructure (which adds additional cost to projects).
Technological improvements are helping wind generators to
integrate into the electricity network, while improvements in generation
efficiency have helped wind to become the lowest-cost form of large-scale
renewable energy in Australia. There has been a consistent trend over the last
twenty years towards larger wind turbines (both on- and offshore), with
increases in both the height of the turbine and the size of the rotor blades.
These changes have helped to increase turbine capacity and lower the unit cost
of electricity generation from wind.
Accurate wind forecasting, sufficient reserve capabilities and
connectivity across regions are all important in allowing wind generation to
operate efficiently and with minimal risk to supply security. Greater
connectivity across regions can also be used to more easily transfer
electricity to centres of demand, particularly when the generators are
dispersed and may be experiencing different wind conditions. While these
factors can allow wind generators to integrate more effectively into an
electricity grid, intermittent generation can impact other generators in the
system and these effects also need to be considered.
Wind farms can provide a sustainable way to generate
electricity that is not reliant on non-renewable sources, thus avoiding some of
the fuel security issues associated with oil, gas and uranium-based generation.
Wind power in Australia
generation from wind has grown rapidly over the last 10 years. Wind now
generates over 7% of Australia’s electricity (an estimated 19,525 GWh of
265,117 GWh total generation in 2019). This trend is shown in Figure 1
with financial year data. This equates to just over one third of Australia’s
generation of 55,481 GWh from renewable fuels, which exceeds hydro
generation for the first time.
Figure 1: Australia’s total electricity generation from
wind (and as a proportion of total electricity generation)
Source: Parliamentary Library
calculations using data from Australian Energy Statistics, Department of Industry, Science, Energy and
Resources, Table O1, May 2020.
Over 6,200 MW of wind generation capacity
has been installed in Australia. A total of 837 MW of new capacity was
installed during 2019, with an additional 5.5 GW either under construction
or financially committed as at the end of 2019.
More than half of Australia’s electricity production from
wind occurs in South Australia and Victoria. Wind is approaching 40% of total
electricity generation in South Australia with over 5,700 GWh generation in
2018–2019 (see Figure 2 and this
report). About 11% of Victoria’s electricity generation was from wind in
Developments in Australia have focussed on onshore wind
farms, with offshore options being limited to date—mostly due to relative costs
and the ocean depth in many locations. However, this may soon change with
offshore wind project proposed off Gippsland in Victoria.
As a relatively mature technology, future onshore wind
developments in Australia seem likely to be focussed on integrating the
variable generation capacity of wind into the electricity system, such as
expanding on wind energy forecasting systems and storage options.
Additionally, some turbine technologies use permanent
magnets that require rare
earth elements, the production of which may present other opportunities for
Australian mining and industry.
There is also significant interest in coupling wind and
other renewable electricity to hydrogen
generation, which could open new energy opportunities both domestically and
for export markets.
Figure 2: South Australia’s annual electricity generation
Source: Parliamentary Library
calculations using data from Australian Energy Statistics, Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources,
Table O6, May 2020. Data for 2018–19 is an estimate.
Energy Update 2019, Department of the Environment and Energy (and May
Australian Electricity Report, November 2019, Australian Energy Market
Energy Australia Report 2020, Clean Energy Council
of wind farms in Australia 2020, Ecogeneration
Resources Assessment – Wind, 2018, Geoscience Australia
farms and health, NHMRC website
Roadmap: wind energy, 2013, International Energy Agency
Analysis and forecasts to 2024, International Energy Agency
Clean Energy Progress: renewable power, 2019, International Energy Agency
Review of World Energy, 2019, BP
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