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Heavenly brother

Heavenly brother

July 1, 2024
Wind energy is still not talked about enough, it seems. After all, it is set to make an important contribution to the new renewable energy system, especially in winter, as a supplement to solar energy. Where the wind blows.

Source: Strom-Magazin

Don Quixote's battle against the windmills, the hostile giants: the observer of a wind turbine involuntarily makes this connection when standing under one of these energy production giants, for whose rotor blades a cargo aircraft, the "WindRunner", has even been specially designed. Depending on the intended location, the three rotor blades made of glass fibre-reinforced plastic or carbon fibres can individually reach a length of up to 115 metres (e.g. in the sea) and weigh up to 60 tonnes. At around 65 metres and 25 tonnes, local turbines are not quite as impressive.

Just as the windmills of the knight of the sorrowful figure did their work as an alternative to the water wheel in dry times with the help of celestial kinetic energy, today’s wind turbines or - on a large scale - wind farms are a supplement to electricity generation with water and solar energy. At night and in winter the wind tends to be stronger than in summer, when solar plants achieve their peak yields. But Switzerland is still a wind development country.

The contribution of wind power

The oldest windmills are known from Persia, Tibet and China and they have been in Europe since the 12th century. The beginnings of electricity generation using wind energy date back to 1883: an Austrian engineer's turbine was exhibited at the International Electricity Exhibition in Vienna. Just four years later, a Scotsman used a wind generator to light his holiday home. But production did not achieve a major breakthrough.

It was not until the 1970s, in the course of the first environmental and energy debates, that the use of wind energy and the associated research gained momentum. Danish researchers have always played a particularly important role. Accordingly, Denmark is the country with the largest share of wind power: 56 percent is a record. In Switzerland, the potential is naturally greater than the number of wind turbines: there are 47, in fact. The installed capacity rose to 169 MW in 2023.

This is still little, because a 2022 study commissioned by the Swiss Federal Office of Energy estimates the potential annual yield of Swiss wind power at 29.5 terawatt hours (TWh), more than half of which in the winter half-year. Theoretically, therefore, almost half of Switzerland's annual electricity production could come from the wind. If only 1000 wind turbines were built, this would correspond to a production of around 9 TWh of wind power per year according to the figures - almost 6 of which in winter.

Finance-driven approach

New to the Swiss wind business is the Zug-based MET Group, which is currently planning new wind power plants in Valais. It has analysed Switzerland's wind potential itself and established that Switzerland has considerable wind power potential. The special wind and weather conditions are favourable for wind turbines on the Central Plateau between the Jura and the north side of the Alps, in the foothills north of the Alps or along the Alpine passes.  The wind often blows when the rotors abroad are already turning more slowly and imports are not an alternative. This makes the electricity produced in this way particularly valuable. MET Group is driven by the wind of the energy markets. Christian Hürlimann, CEO of the Renewables division, who used to work for energy supplier EKZ, says: "Wind locations can lead to the diversification of the production mix and the value of the electricity generated."

His company's perspective is different to that of a traditional energy supplier. It wants to produce electricity that can be sold at the best price. A site must therefore fulfil many factors. Wind is just one of many. Nevertheless, for Hürlimann it is clear: "Switzerland has many optimally valuable wind locations." At the same time, however, he points out a special feature of Switzerland. It doesn't just need one production technology, but a mix of many that complement each other in terms of their characteristics. "Wind is clearly part of the family," he says, "it's solar energy's brother."

In order to go smoothly into the wind, he favours locations that have already been developed, as the discussion about individual technologies is difficult. "The energy system today is complex and no longer just one-track as it used to be. The variables are more extensive. Even as a supplier, you can no longer simply follow demand profiles with your production fleet." The new market logic is not only a technical one, but also a financial one - it is hardly possible to fully integrate the kind of base-load supply electricity such as that generated by a nuclear power plant. Precisely because the number of variable renewable production units, such as solar systems on roofs, is constantly increasing. "This is significantly reducing the value of base-load electricity on the market." Or to put it another way: at certain times, such electricity would have to be given away if there is a production surplus.

Overcoming reservations

Such an energy system in which a wide variety of technologies generate a wide variety of resistances, is no easy undertaking There are many myths and half-truths surrounding wind energy (see box). Technological progress has already debunked many of them. Even weaker winds can be utilised far better today than in the past. This has also promoted small-scale wind power (see interview).

Perhaps in future there will not be the need for a separate site for each type of production. Combined productions, which complement each other, could take centre stage. This is already being realised today in the supply of heat, for example, with heating centres based on wood chips and others based on waste heat. For Christian Hürlimann, so-called "hybrid locations" are the future. Here, wind and solar power plants work together and share access to the grid. This means that existing power plants can be expanded and equipped with energy storage systems for the temporary storage of surpluses - all at the same location. "Not all markets have the regulatory readiness for this yet," says Christian Hürlimann.

Until that time comes, the giants with the rotors will turn silently and solitarily on the landscape and Sancho Panza will draw his knight's attention to the realities of life, where more electricity than ever is needed in the future.