In interviewing Yet-Ming Chiang for a story I’m doing about wind energy in Hawaii, I got a glimpse into the complexities of the issues. Most people would think once a wind turbine goes up there’s a large source of energy to tap into, electricity prices eventually go down (factoring in initial installation costs) and the environment is saved by “green” energy. The fact of the matter is, there are a lot of variables that must be factored in to the efficiency of a wind turbine system.
The reason Chiang was interested in Hawaiian wind turbines in the first place was his mother in laws electricity bill. When he saw how high it was he asked why the locals were still paying so much money when a wind turbine had been built just a few miles away. The problem was, wind was being generated during the day but not so much at night. This was problematic because at night most people want to turn on their televisions, their air conditioners, their dishwashers–it’s a time of high energy consumption but no energy production. But what about all the electricity being made during the day? Well, there was no way to store it. Chiang, being a professor of batteries and ceramics, started dreaming up ways to store the energy being generated.
He explained to me that this was not the only option. Energy, like a lot of things, was very dependant on the location you were in. Each power source must be tailored to the locations capabilities and needs. He gave me the example of Denmark, the world’s leading producer of wind energy. “Now Denmark, they’re doing it completely differently,” he said.
Starting in the 1980s Denmark became concerned with the high levels of CO2 emissions produced by their country. In 1988 they adopted a target to cut their emissions by adopting alternate sources of energy. Now nearly 25% of the country’s power comes from wind energy. Recently, in September of this year, the largest offshore wind farm to date was inaugurated, adding another 111 wind turbines to Denmark’s production.
Denmark has the same issue Hawaii does but at an even larger scale. What do you do when you have a surplus of energy and no way to store it? Chiang is looking to batteries for the answer but Denmark opted to export its excess power. Now Sweden, Norway, and Germany all receive greener energy because of Denmark. There have been criticisms of these export practices, however, the only formal study to date was found to be funded by oil and coal lobbyists in the United States. It was later rejected as a critically flawed study. Because of this, it is difficult to evaluate criticisms of the system since so many may harken back to this study.
Of course, as Chiang had told me in our conversation, exportation isn’t the practical option everywhere. England likely couldn’t use this model because of it is an island and wouldn’t be able to properly interconnect with surrounding countries. The same would go for Hawaii. There are many other factors to take into consideration– if wind is too high the turbines would need to be shut down to prevent damage? If wind is too low there might be be enough energy to source, Is there an infrastructure for repair and upkeep? Basically, what I’m trying to highlight is that wind energy is not a fix-all band aid. It is a complicated system that does not yet have all the technologies in place to have it function at a highly efficient capacity. There is also no “one solution fix all” to the problems, namely storage. Just something to take into account if you ever hear enthusiastic praise of wind energy. It has it’s kinks that need to be worked out, just like any other developing technology.