The rise of wind power has brought great environmental benefits and is already helping governments towards meeting emissions goals such as the Paris Agreement, or the European Union’s 2020 targets. However, it also introduces challenges.
A major issue with wind power is its intermittency — the fact that wind power can only produce when the wind is blowing (on average, wind turbines are only providing electricity at their full capacity just 36 percent of the time). This means that in order to integrate wind power into the grid, a backup supply of electricity generation is required for periods of low wind.
In most cases, this backup is best provided by natural gas.
Due to the unrivaled capacity of gas-fired power plants to ramp up and down quickly, gas-fired power generators are much more adept at adjusting output based on residual demand resulting from wind power than other hydrocarbons such as coal. Accordingly, natural gas electricity generation is increasingly employed to support wind power as the latter continues to grow.
As the market share of wind power increases, the amount of fuel needed to provide backup to wind will also increase. This means that natural gas power and wind power are likely to be tightly linked in the short-to-medium term.
Several studies have highlighted the mutual compatibility between natural gas and wind power.
Most recently, a 2016 study in the journal Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews investigated what the authors called the “mostly ignored” relationship between natural gas generation and wind power.
In the work, researchers from Queen’s University Belfast conducted an extensive review of the technical and economic factors affecting natural gas and wind power, before concluding that “natural gas generation is crucially important in the continued growth of wind power.”
Another prominent 2016 study highlighted the close connection between natural gas power and wind power. Published by the United States National Bureau of Economic Research, it found a close relationship between the development of natural gas power and that of renewable energy, including wind power, across 26 countries.
The study concluded that natural gas and renewables such as wind “appear as highly complementary, and that they should be jointly installed to meet the goals of cutting emissions and ensuring a stable supply.”
This complementary nature of natural gas and wind power will soon extend to hybrid power plants containing both technologies in tandem. The world’s first such plant, containing a blend of wind, solar and natural gas generation, is currently under construction by GE in Turkey.
Although gas and wind power fit well, there is room for improvement. The International Energy Agency, while admitting that “natural gas technologies seem to be best suited to support wind power in the future,” also notes that natural gas support for wind is likely to be needed “only a very small fraction of the time… making instruments such as natural gas storage or LNG regasification capacity relatively expensive sources of flexibility.”
Furthermore, there are signs that in some locations an increasing wind market share strongly decreases the capacity factor of gas-fired generation, thereby increasing the levelized costs of electricity of electricity production by gas-fired generation technologies.
Although this and other issues remain, the outlook for both wind power and natural gas is bright. Natural gas generation expected to rise from its current level of around 22 percent of global electricity generation to 28 percent in 2040, while renewables are predicted to increase from their current level of around 22 percent, to 29 percent in 2040. On this time frame at least, it seems that natural gas and wind power are set to remain mutually beneficial technologies.
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