Q4 2016: Highs and lows for wind power

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by Dr Iain Staffell – Imperial College London 

Wind power surpassed 10 GW for the first time in Britain, but output over the quarter is down 7% on the previous year, and fewer new projects were developed. 

Storm Barbara brought high winds across the whole country, raising peak wind output to 10.8 GW on the 23rd of December, beating the previous record of 9.4 GW set back in 2014. Overall, wind spent 24 hours producing over 10 GW during December, but equally it spent as many hours producing less than 0.7 GW. While the wind never stops blowing over the whole country, it does vary over nearly the whole range from 0–100% output (see below left).

Average wind output over the quarter was 7% lower than in Q4 2015. This is part of the natural year-to-year variability in the weather. Fewer winter storms meant wind speeds over 2016 were down 15% on the previous year, their lowest since 2012. This variability can be seen in the historic productivity of Britain’s onshore and offshore farms (see below left).

Britain’s average wind capacity factor has risen steadily from around 27% in the 2000s to 31% so far this decade. Turbine technology is improving, and a growing share of capacity is now offshore (35% in 2016). Britain’s offshore wind farms produce a third more energy per unit of capacity because they use bigger machines on taller towers, with access to much better wind resources.

The range of capacity factors for Britain’s wind farms during 2016 (right), and the historic annual averages from both onshore and offshore farms (left): 1

Despite improving productivity, fewer wind farms were brought online in 2016 than in previous years. Installed capacity grew by 6% to 15.2 GW, down from 25% annual growth from 2010 to 2015. This reflects the near-halt of new onshore building in light of policy changes, and a hiatus in the large ‘lumpy’ investment in offshore farms between Round 2 finishing and Round 3 starting.

Globally, ‘investment in renewable energy fell 18% in 2016’, the largest drop on record during the hottest year on record.  The UK bucked this trend though with a 2% increase in investment, making it the largest renewables investor in Europe for three years in a row.

Authors: Dr Iain StaffellProfessor Richard GreenDr Rob Gross and Tim Green

1: Includes data and analysis from Staffell & Pfenninger(2016). See https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360544216311811 and BEIS Energy Trends.

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