To reach carbon neutrality we need to reduce emissions from energy production significantly and fast. Out of all energy forms, electricity is the easiest to produce emission-free and during the past decade, wind power has emerged as one the most efficient — and cheapest — ways to generate electricity. Is wind power the way of the future? We asked the experts to find out.
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Major changes are happening in the energy sector as we speak. These ongoing transformations are often referred to as the energy transition — the transition to emission-free global energy production needed in order to reach the 1.5°C target set in the Paris Agreement.
Today, energy production is responsible for around 73% of all the carbon dioxide released by us humans (WRI, 2020) and the reason for this is our use of fossil fuels: by burning fossilised plants to produce energy, we release the carbon dioxide captured over millions of years back into the atmosphere where it prevents heat from reflecting back to space and heats the Earth.
Luckily for us and the planet, one of the three energy forms (heat, electricity and fuel for transport) is fairly easy to produce emission-free: electricity. According to a recent report by the International Energy Agency (IEA), renewables will overtake coal to become the largest source of electricity generation worldwide in 2025 (IEA, 2020). One of the main ways to produce electricity will be wind power.
Using wind as an energy source is no new invention. Actually, it’s one of the first external energy sources we learned to use for our own purposes. More than 7000 years ago the first sails were used to capture the wind and drive boats forward, and the first record of a windmill grinding seeds to flour by converting wind energy into mechanical energy is dated over a thousand years ago. Wind energy for electricity generation was first introduced at the end of the 19th century and the first version of the modern wind turbine was built in Denmark in 1956 with a power rating of 200 kW (about one tenth of the size of a small modern windmill). (Swift-Hook, 2012.)
Wind power plants produce electricity through the spinning of a turbine. As wind hits a turbine’s blades, it causes them to rotate. The blades are connected to a shaft, which spins a generator to generate electricity. The mechanism is similar to using fossil fuels, but instead of hot steam obtained from the burning of fossil fuels, the “fuel” that propels the turbine is clean and renewable — just air naturally flowing in the atmosphere. CO2 emissions for wind power are approximately 7g/kWh, and at best it takes under 6 months for a wind turbine to produce back the energy needed for its manufacture, transport, installation, maintenance and end of life (Haapala & Prempreeda, 2014).
Wind turbines are installed on locations where winds are often good — typically close to the shore, at slightly higher altitudes or offshore. However, despite locating the wind turbines as optimally as possible, we know the wind doesn’t blow ALL the time. That’s why wind power is called an intermittent energy source: it isn’t always available. So how are the differences between electricity production and demand peaks evened out?
“On a yearly basis, there has to be as much wind power produced as is sold. In the Nordics, the winter months are significantly windier than the summer months and that’s why most of the yearly wind power production happens during the cold months when the use of energy is also at its highest”, says Juha Sarsama, CEO of Ilmatar Windpower Ltd.
“In the moments when less wind power is produced than what is being consumed in the form of electricity contracts specifically for wind power, the deficit can be covered with electricity from other renewable power sources, such as hydropower. When it’s very windy and wind production is higher than consumption, less hydropower is in turn produced.”
At the moment, 65% of all electricity is still produced by burning fossil fuels, i.e. coal, natural gas, or oil (IEA, 2020). Wind power however is a great example of a renewable energy source becoming attractive not just climate wise but for economic reasons as well: right now, wind power is the cheapest way to produce electricity in the Nordics (IEA, 2016).
“In 2020, wind power covered 10% of the electricity consumption in Finland and the growth is just speeding up according to all scenarios. For instance, this spring Ilmatar is completing the largest wind power park, Piiparinmäki in Pyhäntä and Kajaani, to date built in Finland — when ready, it will produce 1% of Finnish electricity consumption per year”, Juha Sarsama says.
With developing technologies and dropping costs, wind power has become one of the fastest growing renewable energy technologies in the world (IRENA) and is expected to have a major role in the energy system in the future (IEA, 2016).
Switching to renewable electricity at home has a major effect on personal emissions. If you change from a contract with fossil energy to a renewable energy electricity contract, then technically, for you, your personal emissions from electricity will become zero.
However, it should be noted that saving electricity always saves emissions on a national scale. The power grid favours cheap sources (wind, hydro, and solar power) and will scale down on the more expensive ones that require a fuel, like fossil fuels, when the demand goes down. This means that the less electricity we use, the larger the share of renewable electricity we’ll get on a national level.
By switching to renewable instead of mixed electricity you can reduce your carbon footprint as much as by 8% in mere minutes. But how can you be sure that the electricity you’re paying for is renewable?
“In the EU the origin of electricity is carefully monitored. Wind power as well as all renewable electricity has to have a so-called Guarantee of Origin (GO) so that it can be sold as renewable electricity. There are only as many GOs available as renewable electricity is produced which means that e.g. wind power can’t be sold more than is actually being produced”, says Mikko Peltonen, Trading Manager at Ilmatar Windpower Ltd.
“The more GO contracts are bought, the more renewable electricity has to be produced. If you’re already buying fossil-free energy like hydropower nothing changes in the big picture. But by switching to a GO wind or solar power contract, you are contributing to the building of more renewable electricity production capacity. Ilmatar's goal is to build one nuclear power plant's worth of wind turbines by 2027. The electricity generated by these turbines will reduce the need for fossil fuels in the Finnish electricity mix.”
Check out how big a part of Hanna’s, Bettina’s and Victor’s yearly lifestyle emissions come from electricity!
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Haapala, R. & Preedanood Prempreeda, 2014