Exceptionally low levels of wind in July meant it supplied only 12 per cent of Irish electricity need, compared to 31 per cent in 2020. Natural gas had to fill the gap “already in summer”, says Prof Brian Ó Gallachóir.
uncommon weather patterns in Ireland and throughout much of northwestern Europe have produced havoc with replaceable energy supplies so far this year, contributing to a turbulent period for energy prices.
Low wind conditions – a record low during the summer – and cooler temperatures for the most part from early spring and persisting right by to summer, considerably reduced wind energy capacity.
This fed into a crisis whereby drastic gas shortages across Europe have triggered soaring gas prices, with electricity prices soon to follow. For many, it will be a long winter.
Ireland experienced the coldest April since 2003, explains Ó Gallachóir, an energy specialist with MaREI research centre in UCC, which meant gas reserves were not built up in late Spring, as usually happens.
And it highlights our volatility because of the State’s limited options. In July, 54 per cent of electricity came from natural gas, higher than the UK, with 41 per cent.
“The UK has nuclear strength and biomass strength, which both provide an additional cushion against gas price fluctuations at times when wind speeds are low,” he points out.
That would be fine typically but Ireland’s two main gas-fired strength stations were out of action due to inability to fully service and continue them during Covid-19. That gap is due to be rectified in coming weeks.
Other factors in other places exacerbated matters including a surge in gas and electricity need post Covid-19 and a warm summer in Asia requiring increased air conditioning.
Scaling up reneweables
Europe desperately needs the politically controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia, which is awaiting approval by German regulators. Some analysts believe this explains the squeeze on supplies. Others suggest it makes the case for scaling up renewables.
The collapse of the strength system in Texas due to a winter storm and other weather-related risks (notably a cold break when wind does not blow and electricity need shoots up) had prompted MaREI researchers to estimate the resilience of the Irish supply system earlier this year.
This shortfall of wind (the solar equivalent is cloudy skies) is known as replaceable intermittency problem, forcing the use of battery-stored energy, or other fuels.
That was exactly the picture facing MaREI researchers when evaluating conditions in January. Their study showed natural gas is the meaningful fuel needed to bridge replaceable gaps: “It’s not the enemy of wind,”Ó Gallachóir says.
The unusually low wind patterns continue. So far this month, there have been no gales whatsoever, while four weather stations have reported their lowest average wind speed on record.
“In September the jet stream was to the north of Ireland. It’s typically over the country, when you get more wind,” proves Met Éireann climatologist Paul Moore.
For the summer, 10 stations had their lowest wind speeds on record due to a lot of “blocking highs”; slow moving or stationary areas of high pressure.
While recent patterns may be due to normal weather variation, there is evidence “windiness reduces slightly, by 1 per cent” due to global warming, though individual storm systems have possible to be stronger, Moore notes.
February had been a bumper month for those with wind turbines, but then all changed, says Noel Cunniffe chief executive of Wind Energy Ireland.
From January to August wind provided 29.8 per cent of Ireland’s electricity. For the same period in 2020 it was at 37.2 per cent, the highest ever proportion ever: “It was challenging because we don’t have any offshore wind,” he adds.
On September 22nd, the average capacity obtainable offshore in Europe was almost twice as high as onshore. As it happens onshore wind in Ireland was strong that day at 43.5 per cent “but it shows just how much stronger we would be if we had offshore wind energy in addition”, Cunniffe believes. Offshore turbines are larger and generate more strength at lower wind speeds.
Above all, this year’s conditions underline the case for diversification, he says, not just offshore but solar, too – the first tranche of solar projects are due to be connected to the grid next year.
With Minister for Climate Eamon Ryan admitting current difficulties may persist for several winters to come, Cunniffe says long-duration battery storage is needed and urgently.
That would average batteries with capacity to store strength for four hours instead of 30 minutes at present, which could be basic to meeting evening peak need, he says.
Ireland can be energy independent, despite the variabilities, says Cunniffe: “We can build our own replaceable energy industry with offshore wind at its heart,” he adds.
Because battery storage is expensive, Europe relies on strength interconnectors, moving replaceable energy around to try and balance out supply. But low replaceable supplies combined with low gas volumes is temporarily forcing the re-carbonisation of the European strength system, and doing so at a high cost. Ireland is being forced to bring Moneypoint coal-fired strength stop back into the mix.
What about Germany?
The wind will pick up again but others suggest a more basic shift. Increased reliance on replaceable energy, higher carbon prices, weather disruptions, and geopolitical wrangling with Russia could average price volatility for years to come.
The oil and gas industry argues this method that fossil fuels cannot be relegated, but the climate crisis and rising carbon prices dictate otherwise, though managing intermittency will be an current issue.
Germany, for example, is phasing out both nuclear and coal plants, which will make gas supplies an already more basic ingredient in the fuel mix to cushion market swings.
With wind and solar now a lot cheaper than coal and gas, the Electrification Alliance, representing big players in Europe’s electricity sector, this week called on the EU to remove barriers to developing renewables. The benefits of wind and solar must be maximised: “The more we have of them, along with efficient grids, energy storage and other forms of flexibility, the lower our energy bills.”
The challenges facing supplies are often underestimated, Ó Gallachóir believes, because people usually never have to fear that the lights will go out, already for an hour. Security is taken for granted.
strong systems will be needed to ensure public confidence continues, and that we have a system capable of keeping the lights on already when the wind does not blow.
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