Thursday, June 17, 2010

European Wind vs Fossil Fuel use

Climate Progress yesterday pointed to data on European wind power growth, including an estimate for 2010.  This date comes mostly from a European Wind Energy Association report.  I was interested to compare this to fossil fuel usage in Europe to see how much progress is being made towards a fossil-fuel free future.  First I plot here the total installed nameplate capacity of wind power, as well as the new addition each year:

Looking at the annual growth rate in the installed capacity, that gives the following:

Growth is slowing down (as one would expect: it's always much harder to grow a big thing than a small thing), but the second derivative is dropping also - growth is not slowing as fast as it did.

To compare this to fossil fuel use, I computed the oil, coal, and natural gas usage for the EU-15: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.  That data  looks as follows, expressed in millions of barrels/day of oil equivalent.

(Here I used BP data and converted from MTOE to MBOE via a factor of 7).

Comparing the wind power to the fossil fuel usage in a fair way is not straightforward.  On the one hand, windmills produce below the nameplate capacity a lot of the time, with capacity factors often in the range of 20-30% (I don't have good Europe wide statistics).  On the other hand, at least the output is electricity which can generally be put directly to use with 80-90% efficiency after accounting for transmission and conversion losses.  Fossil fuel power plants and internal combustion engines have thermodynamic efficiencies that can range in the ballpark of 15%-60%, and if it's a power plant, there is then the same electricity transmission and conversion issue.

Since I don't have the data to account for these things fully, I just directly divide the wind power by the fossil fuel usage to produce a "Simple Wind/Fossil Ratio".  I would guess that favors the wind slightly - that the average wind capacity factor is lower than the average fossil fuel conversion efficiency), but it will get us in the right ballpark.

That ratio looks like this:

Europe is up to wind being about 5% of fossil fuel consumption.

If we then project that out, assuming as a very rough approximation that growth from here on out is at an average of 10%/year, we would get:

Note - this is not a forecast, it's a rough extrapolation to get the general scale of things.  It seems to me unlikely that Europe is big enough to run entirely on wind power - it's not sufficiently above the synoptic scale, so a renewable Europe would probably have to run on a mix of renewables, and probably trade power with North Africa etc.

But still, it gives some sense of the scale of a possible European renewables build-out.  It's not crazy to think of a fully renewable powered Europe by 2050, on the present rate of progress.


MisterMoose said...

If wind (or solar) power are still not economically competitive with fossil fuel, the various governments will have to cover the cost difference with some kind of subsidies (tax breaks, or whatever). If the tax payers don't have the money to keep paying for the government workers in Greece, or generous retirement benefits in France, will they be able to continue subsidizing wind and solar? Spain seems to be reconsidering the whole solar power issue in a big way, for precisely this reason. Every "green" job that Spain recently bragged about has evidently come at the expense of two traditional jobs.

Although it is probably physically possible to replace fossil fuel power with wind power in a couple decades, is it economically possible?

Maybe the Europeans can convince Col. Kadhaffi to cover a couple thousand square miles of the Libyan desert with solar panels, and build superconducting electric power lines across the Med...

Mike Aucott said...

Because of its intermittancy, there's no way wind could supply 100% of electric power unless some vastly improved method of energy storage is developed.

There's also the question of how many suitable sites are available.

Considering these and other aspects, such as cost, it seems unrealistic to assume that anything close to an exponential rate of growth in wind capacity could be maintained until 2040.

Lars-Eric Bjerke said...


The Swedish Academy of Science have estimated that wind power can supply a maximum of 17 % of the electric energy in Sweden. The estimates are similar for most European countries. In nothern Europe we have an integrated net and an open market.

Alexander Ac said...

Hi Stuart,

How can anything grow (or at least sustain growth rates) if the best energy available (oil) is declining and, at the same time, debt is spiraling out of control?

BTW, I started with climate change (10 years, since available), followed by peak oil (3-4 years - mostly theoildrum, energybulletin, Greer etc.), and finished with financial crises (1-2 years, mostly reading The Automatic Earth) - and all these are pretty much interconnected.

Kind regards,

Stuart Staniford said...


I'm well aware of this general issue- that's what I meant about Europe being too small relative to the synoptic scale to run solely on wind. For the whole world to run on wind and/or solar, we'd need either lots of storage or grid integration above the synoptic scale to average over multiple regions with uncorrelated weather.

17% is probably low for the whole of Europe though. The Eastern Wind Integration and Transmission Study looked at one scenario involving 30% of energy from wind in the Eastern US, and concluded that could be done with enough transmission. Europe would presumably be similar.

MisterMoose said...


With enough transmission capacity (probably requiring room-temp superconductor wire?) we could theoretically link North and South America across several time zones from Brazil to Alaska, using a combination of wind and solar in the most appropriate locations. This would presumably reduce the need for lots of storage, but building thousands of square miles of wind and sun farms plus tens of thousands of miles of transmission lines would require more money than is currently available on the planet. I'm really afraid that the archdruid is right, and we're all going to be much less well off in the forseeable future...

I'm thinking the transition away from FF is going to require a massive change in the way we structure our whole society, with lots of small, local power sources (i.e. rooftop solar, backyard windmills, plus much less consumption), rather than concentrated power plants with long transmission lines. If sunlight and wind are dispersed, it would probably be a waste of money to try to duplicate the concentration we currently have with FF, hydo and nuclear.

My personal choice would be to mine the moon and asteroids, move most of our heavy, energy-intensive industry off-planet, build solar power satellites to beam down all the power we need, and live happily ever after for the next billion years or so, but that would be even MORE expensive than the alternatives. So, I guess we'd all better start building our own back-yard windmills...

Stuart Staniford said...

Alexander: see today's post.

Stuart Staniford said...

Mister Moose:

I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations of what would be required for a global solar transmission grid a couple of years ago at The Oil Drum. It's certainly expensive - ballpark 5% of global world product - but certainly not impossible if we were motivated enough. Also that 5% is a gross figure - fuel savings would offset a lot of it in the out years.

pacpost said...

Regarding storage: the Nordic countries (especially Norway and Sweden) are already acting as electricity storage sites with their high percentage of hydro dams. Austria and Switzerland are adding pumped hydro storage sites with relish (they will be paid both to store electricity and to provide it in peak-demand times), and Germany is slowly adding to/upgrading its own pumped hydro sites.

Renewable Energy integration: research at the IWES Fraunhofer Institute in Kassel has been undertaken to show that wind, solar and other RE sources can be integrated into the European grid in the coming decades:

Cost of wind power: Wind power is already leading to reductions in the utility bills of consumers in Germany and Texas:

BTW, thank you Stuart for the post. Good work.

pacpost said...

Quick follow-up on the second point: what I meant to say is that renewable energy sources can provide a much higher proportion of electricity in Europe in the coming decades, according to IWES research (nearly 50% in Germany alone by 2020).

Unknown said...

I made a Hubbert approximation on installed wind-power in Germany a while ago, it can be seen here:

Suitable areas for wind are saturated fast and the off-shore investments are cut during economic hardship. Solar government subsidies are also cut in Germany because of the same reason. Industrial civilisation is thightly bound to fossil fuels and all new fancy technology is a fossil fuel derivate.

But thank you for your article anyway.