Is wind power stable?

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This week’s New Scientist has a comment piece entitled Wind power delivers too much too ignore. Written by Reg Platt of the left of centre think the IPPR it perpetuates a number of not quite true talking points that wind advocates for some reason think are worth airing.

For example, in response to claims about intermittency, Platt writes the following:

Output is surprisingly stable across the country’s entire network of wind farms: when the wind isn’t blowing in one area, it usually is somewhere else.  The relatively small changes that do occur are well within the capabilities of existing systems for balancing supply and demand on the grid.

The “when the wind isn’t blowing in one area, it usually is somewhere else” line is a horrid cliché, and I find it hard to take seriously anyone who uses it. It should be the reserve of waffling politicians, not policy analysts. And how about the surprising stability of the output from the UK’s nature of windfarms? Well, below are 6 consecutive months of hourly output from the UK’s wind farms from October 2011 to March 2012



One would have to set the bar rather low to call this stable. Yet Reg Platt says it is stable, and The New Scientist saw fit to publish this claim. There is a good case to be made for wind power in the UK, but wind advocates continue to prove incapable of making it.

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29 thoughts on “Is wind power stable?

    Geoff Russell said:
    January 22, 2013 at 4:33 am

    Robert … please give data source(s).

      Robert Wilson responded:
      January 22, 2013 at 12:21 pm


      There was a problem with the link for some reason. Now fixed. You can also get them for a few European countries at this site. UK is available from here as well, but it is only wind data, whereas the link in the article gives output for all power sources.

        MarcoMC said:
        January 29, 2013 at 8:46 pm

        A few years ago more than half of the UK’s nukes were offline due to failure or maintenance. Using the logic you apply to wind power then you must admit nukes are not stable.

        You should also know that at this moment wind power is producing more than all nukes in the UK (9.1 GW versus 8.5 GW).

        These fundamental failures of knowledge and logic suggest this blog is not a serious source of energy analysis.

        Robert Wilson responded:
        January 29, 2013 at 9:00 pm

        Thank you for your comic replies.

        You going around my blog telling me about my “fundamental failures of knowledge and logic”, while only revealing your own ignorance is fine and entertaining. However it grows a little tiresome by the third comment.

        Please desist from commenting in future.

    Steve said:
    January 22, 2013 at 9:26 am

    I think that it is probably worth remembering that New Scientist is published internationally and I doubt the article was written with the UK grid solely in mind. Similar data showing wind output at European or North American scale would be interesting

      Robert Wilson responded:
      January 22, 2013 at 12:25 pm


      I think the opening paragraphs of the piece makes it clear it is aimed mostly at a UK audience, not a global one. In fact the word “UK” appears in almost every paragraph of the piece.

      Also I was showing UK output in response to what the piece said specifically about the stability of UK wind output. I really do not see how American or continental European windfarms are relevant at all to this post.

        Steve said:
        January 22, 2013 at 1:08 pm

        My apologies, I had a glance at the article yesterday and commented without re-reading.

        Re: the data, that’s fair enough.

        My point is that the UK is a pretty bad example of increasing grid stability with geographic dispersion of wind energy, a look at the data (if available) for larger inter-connected grid systems would help answer the question “Is wind power stable?”

        Steve Jones said:
        January 22, 2013 at 1:15 pm

        Yes, (different Steve here). I find the most used cliche is “when wind isn’t blowing in this country, it will be somewhere else in Europe. A continental super-grid will solve all variability problems”.

        Not the point of this post perhaps, but seeing how wind does vary over whole Europe (or USA) would be interesting IMO.

        Robert Wilson responded:
        January 22, 2013 at 2:23 pm


        Yes, I have seen proposals for such things. As far as I know there have been very few real studies in to how much wind would actually vary on a continental scale. Instances of low wind speed throughout more or less all of western and central Europe do occur, so the “wind not blowing here, blowing elsewhere in Europe” is not always true.

        There are also no serious attempts to get a super grid off the ground. Most new interconnections can only go from one country to another. Getting the things built would also be a nightmare. On land interconnectors between Scotland and England are now so difficult to build that an interconnector from Scottish windfarms to England is actually being built in the Irish Sea.

    Adam said:
    January 22, 2013 at 4:36 pm

    I want to echo what the first Steve said. Geographic distribution does decrease overall variability, and the UK isn’t quite big enough to be a good case study. However, I think these charts would look totally different with higher levels of offshore wind. Dont have the numbers, just a thought.

      Robert Wilson responded:
      January 22, 2013 at 4:54 pm


      The UK already has a large amount of offshore wind, and by the end of 2011 there was 1.8 GW of capacity, which is more than one third of the capacity in these graphs ( So, the point about offshore wind is probably not that valid.

      I also don’t see how the UK is not a good case study. Can you name anywhere on the planet that has a wind network spread over a huge area with interconnection enabling it to smooth out intermittency? Supergrids currently exist, but only on paper. And in Europe it appears that countries are pursuing far too divergent policies to make such a thing feasible any time soon.


    roddycampbell said:
    January 23, 2013 at 11:22 am

    Robert is clearly correct when he says: ‘I also don’t see how the UK is not a good case study.’ It is in itself clearly about the best case study you could have, as he says, and that together with the data he shows surely make it improbable that just getting larger will smooth materially.

    Intermittency is real and material and has to be dealt with. Denying that doesn’t help the case for wind.

      Robert Wilson responded:
      January 23, 2013 at 5:51 pm


      That isn’t my point. Spreading wind farms out over a larger area will smooth it out. My point is that no such scheme is under serious consideration anywhere in the world. And in general they are only proposed by people who are adamant nuclear power plays no role in the electricity grid.
      It’s also revealing that people who spend a lot of time talking up “soft energy” then go on to suggest that we need a super grid for renewables to power Europe. So, on the one hand we are told that we will have locally owned and generated renewable energy, but on the other hand that to make this work we will need to put in place one of the largest and most complex infrastructure projects on earth. Now, that’s to say this is a bad idea, but the amount of hypocrisy on the issue can be bewildering.

    roddycampbell said:
    January 23, 2013 at 6:21 pm

    Yes I see I may have misread/conflated.

    I thought UK *did* already have a decent geog spread of wind, inc offshore, and that therefore your graphs above are a decent case study in themselves of real world.

    And that further increases within UK of diversity of wind source would have diminishing impact on smoothing – the graphs above wouldn’t improve dramatically. Is that wrong? I thought some years ago that predictions of very uncorrelated wind activity in the UK were too convenient.

    I note your local ownership of generation clashes with the necessary Europe-wide grid point – while renewable fans often keen on eg local ownership I think it’s a red herring here, there never will be material local ownership, everyone lives in cities. Local ownership a hippy idea for me.

    Your last ten or so words apply quite often I think.

      Robert Wilson responded:
      January 23, 2013 at 6:49 pm


      The UK’s windfarms are probably spread out enough to be very indicative of the variability in future. I think the original point was that you would need to think about this on a continental scale, where it may be flatter. This is an interesting idea, but the idea it can make an impact of the necessary timescales seems pie in the sky. Such schemes have been proposed by all of the major NGOs. And they all involve the UK getting most of electricity from outside the UK when it is not windy. And they somehow believe this can all be done by 2030.

      The push for local ownership again shows the inconsistency of many greens. Unless there are a few billionaires living on the coast offshore wind will never fit the bill. High penetration renewables require huge amounts of storage. It’s hard to imagine local ownership of such things. They are most likely to be eyesores that people will want to live without.

    Steve Jones said:
    January 24, 2013 at 6:45 pm

    That website is great – thank you.

    Some quick Excel-ing lets you add together wind output from GB+Ireland+Denmark+Germany+France+Spain during 2012.

    You get a smoother line from day to day, but still massive highs and lows.
    Max 42.1GW, Min 1.4GW

      Robert Wilson responded:
      January 24, 2013 at 7:37 pm


      Did you standardise them in some way first. Germany’s capacity is far higher than the UK’s, so just adding them together will give very misleading results.

        Steve Jones said:
        January 24, 2013 at 7:55 pm

        Agreed. No I didn’t. But the minimum is the more interesting number and less misleading than the max.

        Robert Wilson responded:
        January 24, 2013 at 7:58 pm


        You would really need to standardize it. UK wind capacity is 15% of German capacity, so the averaging you are getting is essentially meaningless.

      Steve Jones said:
      January 24, 2013 at 11:56 pm

      I disagree with meaningless.I think you’re wrong that Germany would distort things as much as you suggest. More wind energy was produced in Spain than Germany in 2012, and wind turbines were more densely distributed in Denmark than in Germany.

      That the output of these 6 countries combined EVER falls to just 1 or 2 GWs, suggests to me that there is such a thing as a still day in Europe, requiring of storage/backup. That’s only of interest because there are people out there who say there’s no such thing – it evens out. It does, and still days are rare – but you’d have to make your catchment area even larger than western europe to guarantee wind from what I can tell.

      But I agree, far from perfect and just a quick look. Thanks again for the link, as the numbers will be useful in all sorts of other ways.

        Robert Wilson responded:
        January 25, 2013 at 12:04 am


        There are very good reasons for thinking you not to standardize the output from each country. For a start Germany’s wind output are strongly correlated with Denmark’s. Whereas the UK’s aren’t very correlated with Germany’s or Denmark’s.

        It’s also incredibly easy to standardize this as well. Just divide each country’s hourly output by the average hourly output. 2 minutes of work in Excel. In fact it would have taken you less time than writing your comment telling me you disagreed with me.

        Robert Wilson responded:
        January 25, 2013 at 12:09 am

        and Steve

        In future if you want to get in to these issues please get your own blog and do so there. I want to keep things on topic and not get dragged off by you telling me you had a quick look at something in Excel.

        I plan to blog on the potential of smoothing out wind power across Europe in the future. If you want to chime in on then please do, but keep it on topic here.

        Steve Jones said:
        January 25, 2013 at 12:21 am

        A little harsh, but my apologies.

    MarcoMC said:
    January 29, 2013 at 9:11 pm

    This ‘analysis’ is highly misleading and raises the suspicion that it is intentional given the pattern of ‘mistakes’ made by the author.

    1. First, only about 50% of the UK’s wind power fleet is metered. Ref.

    2. “Low wind speeds affecting 90% or more of the UK would occur in around one hour every five years during winter.”

    3. The wider the geographic spread, the more reliable a wind system becomes.

    4. No one is suggesting that the UK relies entirely on wind, so the argument that wind is not constant therefore it is not reliable is simply a strawman. No informed person is suggesting the UK builds only wind power and hopes for the best.

    5. Contrary to the claims made by this blogger, there is really not that many offshore wind farms in comparison to the network that could be built – especially if deep water was exploited with the new floating turbines.

    For those who want to read serious, expert analysis the following will give reliable information: – it shows the massive benefits wind power could bring the UK. Unfortunately those benefits threaten the existence of the polluting fossil and nuke corporations.

      Robert Wilson responded:
      January 29, 2013 at 9:19 pm

      You imply that I am some kind of shill. However you are the one using a fake IP address to comment on my blog.

        MarcoMC said:
        January 30, 2013 at 12:20 pm

        I no longer think you are a shill because the nuclear lobby would probably not pay someone to be so insulting as you. You actually harm the nuke agenda with this behavior.

        I do not understand what you mean by fake IP address but it makes you seem quite paranoid.

        Do you have any response to the facts presented that show your commentary is highly flawed and misleading?

        Robert Wilson responded:
        January 30, 2013 at 12:43 pm

        The thing is, Mr. MC, WordPress gives the IP addresses of every comment. And unless you are transporting yourself across the continent between posting each comment you are using an IP address blocker.

        Now go bugger off under a tree.

        MarcoMC said:
        January 30, 2013 at 4:23 pm

        Perhaps my company routes traffic from different offices. I do not know.

        But still you ignore the facts which expose your commentary is highly flawed and misleading. It is very clear by now this is not a serious source for energy or climate information – particularly when your response to civil debate is to become childishly angry and offer insults.

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    February 7, 2013 at 11:34 pm

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