Wind: More Reliable, Less “Lumpy”, than Nuclear

June 4, 2011


We’ve seen how Japan’s wind turbines successfully road out the historic earthquake and tsunami, and kept on delivering power during the national crisis that followed, while conventional sources, and of course, nuclear, failed miserably.

What may be surprising to some folks, is, how even during normal times, wind systems, as a whole, are more consistent and reliable than tempermental and complex nuclear power.

Paul Gipe reports:

Critics of wind energy often charge that wind energy is too “unreliable” to generate a large portion of a nation’s electricity and suggest that base load needs “reliable” sources of generation such as nuclear power.

While wind is a “variable” resource, that is, the wind doesn’t always blow and when it does it doesn’t always blow at the same strength, wind is far more reliable than the critics charge. In fact, wind is fairly predictable on long time horizons, especially from one year to the next.

In contrast, nuclear power is “reliable” until it isn’t as the units at the Fukushima nuclear power plant so dramatically demonstrate.

The nuclear disaster still unfolding in Japan isn’t the first time the Fukushima plants have been in the news. They were at the center of the Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) documentation scandal mid decade. Several of the reactors were shut down from 2002 to 2005 for safety inspections as a result of TEPCO’s falsification of inspection and repair reports.

The Fukushima 1 plants generated, on average, 30 TWh per year. The key word here is “on average”. Despite nuclear power’s reputation as reliable base load generation, the Fukushima plants were anything but reliable over the four decades that the plants were in operation. Annual generation was surprisingly erratic or “lumpy” in the jargon of the trade.

Take Unit 6, the most modern unit, for example. In 2004 generation dropped from 4.6 TWh in 2003 to 1.1 TWh, and both were a far cry from the reported generation in 1997 of more than 9 TWh. That’s a lot of generation offline for even a big system like that in Japan that requires 1,000 TWh per year.
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German wind energy generation, on the other hand, has been far more stable from one year to the next than Fukushima 1. Throughout the last two decades more and more wind generation has been added to the German electrical system. Today, German wind turbines generate as much electricity as the entire Fukushima 1 complex at its peak.

Moreover, it is highly unlikely that an accident at one wind turbine in Germany will affect the more than 20,000 turbines operating across the breadth of the country. The loss of one wind farm with tens or even hundreds of turbines will likewise have little effect on overall wind generation in Germany. And German wind generation is expected to continue growing for the next decade at least.

Unfortunately, all six reactors at Fukushima 1 are down permanently with a loss of 30 TWh per year of generation or nearly 3% of Japan’s supply. The loss of generation from the reactors is not the only cost of the disaster. TEPCO’s stock has lost 80% of its value since the multi-reactor meltdowns and it is unlikely to survive without a government rescue. TEPCO is a big player in Japan. They account for nearly one-third of the Japanese electricity market.

Today it would be hard to imagine any Japanese electric utility “betting the company” on building new nuclear reactors. This is the heart of the debate in Japan. What generation should be added in the short-term to get through today’s crisis, and what should be built for the long-term to avoid such dependence on “lumpy” generating resources as nuclear.

My wind video further explains the truth about “unreliability” and other myths.

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6 Responses to “Wind: More Reliable, Less “Lumpy”, than Nuclear”

  1. mrsircharles Says:

    Again an excellent article from Peter Sinclair.

    Many thanks for that. I’m citing your contribution in the Politics.ie discussion, Kevin Myers on wind power in todays Sindo 31-08-2010 which is still going on and is dealing with wind energy as such.

    There are several Irish people who still think that nuclear would be cheaper and more reliable than wind energy. But as we can see, renewable energy sources – in particular wind – are cheaper, more reliable and much more safer than splitting heavy atoms into radiating isotopes. Not to forget that nuclear power is not a sustainable source of energy with a carbon footprint ten times as high as wind and almost a third of gas burning power stations.

  2. ccfoo242 Says:

    But on any given day I think you can argue that something like nuclear or coal is far more reliable for scheduling your power needs. If your city needs X mw for a day and the probability that you will have consistent power is higher for your nuclear source then you’ll base your schedule on that source. I’m not trying to argue one is better for the environment than the other, I’m just arguing that that the reliability issue is a day-to-day thing and not a year-to-year thing. If you know a plant is being shut down for a length of time then you adjust your schedule accordingly. If the wind is being “fickle” then you’re not going to rely on it for most of your power.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      on any given day, wind is blowing somewhere. the more widely dispersed your system of wind turbines is, and the better your grid is connected, the more reliable your “baseload” expectation from wind generation will be.
      Mark Jacobsen at Stanford has done the most widely recognized work on this.
      see
      http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=a-path-to-sustainable-energy-by-2030

      Of course, the addition of many more CAES and other storage facilities to the mix, and the rapid growth of solar, both concentrated (with storage) and photovoltaic, tends to even out the mix even further.
      Bottom line, nuclear is simply priced out of the US market, without massive government infusions – so making renewables work is the most likely path forward.

      • ccfoo242 Says:

        Thanks for the link, I’ll check that out.

        I made the mistake of commenting before re-watching your video. :-)

        I certainly would love to see the day when we have turbines all along the coasts, CAES. etc for storage.


  3. [...] lot of wind critics assert that wind power isn’t reliable. The wind power video above, however, does a great job of pointing out the differences between wind power variability and [...]


  4. [...] lot of wind critics assert that wind power isn’t reliable. The wind power video above, however, does a great job of pointing out the differences between wind power variability and [...]


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