What Europe’s exceptionally low winds mean for the future energy grid


Shaggyphoto / shutterstock

Through summer and early autumn 2021, Europe experienced a long period of dry conditions and low wind speeds. The beautifully bright and still weather may have been a welcome reason to hold off reaching for our winter coats, but the lack of wind can be a serious issue when we consider where our electricity might be coming from.

To meet climate mitigation targets, such as those to be discussed at the upcoming COP26 event in Glasgow, power systems are having to rapidly change from relying on fossil fuel generation to renewables such as wind, solar and hydropower. This change makes our energy systems increasingly sensitive to weather and climate variability and the possible effects of climate change.

That period of still weather badly affected wind generation. For instance, UK-based power company SSE stated that its renewable assets produced 32% less power than expected. Although this may appear initially alarming, given the UK government’s plans to become a world leader in wind energy, wind farm developers are aware these low wind “events” are possible, and understanding their impact has become a hot topic in energy-meteorology research.

A new type of extreme weather

So should we be worried about this period of low wind? In short, no. The key thing here is that we’re experiencing an extreme event. It may not be the traditional definition of extreme weather (like a large flood or a hurricane) but these periods, known in energy-meteorology as “wind-droughts”, are becoming critical to understand in order to operate power systems reliably.

Recent research I published with colleagues at the University of Reading highlighted the importance of accounting for the year-to-year variability in wind generation as we continue to invest in it, to make sure we are ready for these events when they do occur. Our team has also shown that periods of stagnant high atmospheric pressure over central Europe, which lead to prolonged low wind conditions, could become the most difficult for power systems in future.

Climate change could play a role

When we think about climate change we tend to focus much more on changes in temperature and rainfall than on possible variations in near-surface wind speed. But it is an important consideration in a power system that will rely more heavily on wind generation.

The latest IPCC report suggests that average wind speeds over Europe will reduce by 8%-10% as a result of climate change. It is important to note that wind speed projections are quite uncertain in climate models compared with those for near-surface temperatures, and it is common for different model simulations to show quite contrasting behaviour.

Colleagues and I recently analysed how wind speeds over Europe would change according to six different climate models. Some showed wind speeds increasing as temperatures warm, and others showed decreases. Understanding this in more detail is an ongoing topic of scientific research. It is important to remember that small changes in wind speed could lead to larger changes in power generation, as the power output by a turbine is related to the cube of the wind speed (a cubic number is a number multiplied by itself three times. They increase very fast: 1, 8, 27, 64 and so on).

World map with dark blue (less wind) in Europe, North America and China
Change in wind speed compared to 1986-2005 if we were to limit global warming to 1.5C. Areas in blue will have less wind; areas in green, more wind.
IPCC Interactive Atlas, CC BY-SA

The reductions in near-surface wind speeds seen in the above map could be due to a phenomenon called “global stilling”. This can be explained by the cold Arctic warming at a faster rate than equatorial regions, which means there is less difference in temperature between hot and cold areas. This temperature difference is what drives large-scale winds around the globe through a phenomenon called thermal wind balance.

With all the talk of wind power being the answer to our energy needs, amid spiralling gas prices and the countdown to COP26, the recent wind drought is a clear reminder of how variable this form of generation can be and that it cannot be the sole investment for a reliable future energy grid. Combining wind with other renewable resources such as solar, hydropower and the ability to smartly manage our electricity demand will be critical at times like this summer when the wind is not blowing.The Conversation


This blog was written the Cabot Institute for the Environment member Dr Hannah Bloomfield, Postdoctoral Researcher in Climate Risk Analytics, University of BristolThis article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Your planet needs you!

We are under attack. Our assailants threaten to kill millions of people, destroy our homes and wipe out our crops. Who are these fiends?


The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) focusses on how we can stop runaway climate change before it’s too late.  Despite our “best efforts”, anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have continued to increase at an alarming rate. The IPCC estimates that without any additional effort to reduce emissions, we’re looking at a rise in temperature of between 3.7 and 4.8°C by 2100, although variability in the effects of climate change mean the rise could be as high as 7.8°C. Anything over 2°C means we risk runaway climate change with catastrophic effects felt around the world.

A call to action

The UK energy secretary Ed Davey responded to yesterday’s IPCC press conference by stating,

“we need a worldwide, large-scale change to our energy system if we are to limit the effects of climate change”

and called for an international effort to reduce carbon emissions by 2015.

The question is, are politicians willing to put in the effort needed to reduce emissions by 40-70% in the next couple of decades? It’s hard to put a price on the cost of mitigation, but as Professor Ottmar Edenhofer, co-chair of the IPCC team, stated “Climate policy is not a free lunch”. His colleague Professor Jim Skea was more optimistic, saying that,

“it is actually affordable to do it and people are not going to have to sacrifice their aspirations about improved standards of living”.

That’s the kind of thing that politicians like to hear.

Change doesn’t happen unless something dramatic happens to force us to act. The increasing frequency of extreme weather events doesn’t seem to be working, so what would? As the IPCC brief states, “Emissions by any agent (e.g. Individual, community, company, country) affect other agents”. We need to invoke some Blitz mentality; we ARE facing a deadly enemy and we ALL need to do our part to stop it.

How to mitigate climate change

The IPCC used 10,000 scientific references to ensure that their models are properly founded in science and all the uncertainty that entails. The IPCC defined mitigation as “a human intervention to reduce the sources or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases”, and look at a range of scenarios to find the most effective and efficient methods.

The report particularly favoured low carbon energy sources as a major way to reduce emissions, using natural gas as a transition fuel into renewable energies. Encouragingly, renewable energy comprised over half of all new electricity-generating developments globally, with wind, hydro- and solar power leading the way. The costs of renewable energies are falling, making them viable for large scale deployment in many areas, and Professor Skea enthused that

Renewables are going to be ubiquitous no matter which part of the world you look at”.

Cities will play a big part in reducing CO2 emissions too; a combination of better urban planning to incorporate public transport and compact walkable city centres will be vital. The report also recommended high speed rail networks between cities to reduce short haul air travel and its associated high emissions.

Replanting forests will be an important way to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Plants take in CO2 for use in photosynthesis, but can also be used to remove pollutants from the air and soil, as well as preventing soil erosion and providing important habitats for other plants and animals.

It is important for all nations that mitigation does not mean a halt to economic development. Dr. Youba Sokona, IPCC team co-chair, said, “The core task of climate change mitigation is decoupling greenhouse gas emissions from the growth of economics and population”. This will be the main challenge for governments around the world, but the overwhelming message from the IPCC is that mitigation is affordable, whilst doing nothing is not.

Social justice

There has been an undercurrent of unease alongside the IPCC report; the sticky question of who, exactly, is going to pay for this mitigation? A few days before its release, pressure from unspecified developed nations led to the removal of a section in the IPCC report stating that developing countries should receive billions of dollars a year in aid to ensure that they grow their economies in a sustainable way.

The argument centres on whether developing nations should have the right to exploit fossil fuels to expand their economies, as developed countries were able to do. Dr. Chukwumerije Okereke, one of the lead authors of the report, said that this “is holding them down from developing”, believing that “this is reinforcing historical patterns of injustice and domination”. I would argue that with the impacts of climate change predicted to affect those in developing countries most drastically, perhaps we should adopt the mentality that we are all in this together and help each other to overcome the problem.

Act now

The take home message from the IPCC is that if we act now, we can probably prevent hitting the 2°C temperature increase that would have disastrous consequences for us all. The mitigation strategies suggested are affordable and certainly cheaper than dealing with the consequences of climate change. Will politicians and all the rest of us do our parts to drastically reduce carbon emissions? Only time will tell. A lot of hope rests on the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, which is hoped to yield a global agreement on climate to avoid passing the 2°C safety threshold.

Cross your fingers and turn off your lights.


This blog is written by Sarah JoseCabot Institute, Biological Sciences, University of Bristol


You can follow Sarah on Twitter @JoseSci 
Sarah Jose