Monday, July 06, 2009

The wind that destroyed the Spanish Armada

Andris Piebalgs, EU energy commissioner defends wind energy in his last blog post (July 3, 2009)

In late August 1588, the navy that Spain had gathered for the invasion of England was destroyed by stormy winds blowing towards the coasts of Scotland and Ireland. When King Felipe of Spain heard about the wrecking of the vessels of the Armada he bitterly said: “I sent my ships to fight against men, not against the elements”. For her part, Queen Elisabeth of England ordered to coin a commemorative medal to mark the defeat of the Armada with the following quote Flavit Jehovah et Dissipati Sunt (God blew and they were scattered). The winds of the North Sea, on that occasion, played a determinant role in changing history. They can do it again.

The wind resources over Europe’s seas represent a vast, indigenous source of clean, renewable energy. This is particularly so in the North Sea. The same winds that destroyed the masts of the Spanish Armada can now be used to generate clean electricity, reduce our foreign dependency and combat climate change. Winds are typically stronger and more stable at sea than on land, resulting in significantly higher production by each unit installed. At sea, wind turbines can be bigger than on land. The logistical difficulties of transporting very large turbine components from the place of manufacture to their final destination are less difficult by sea than by road. Wind farms at sea also have less potential to cause concern among neighbouring citizens, because very often they are not visible from the shore. In fact, wind farms at sea may be advantageous in protecting marine ecosystems and may generate synergies with other emerging uses of the sea such as offshore aquaculture, which can benefit from the sub aquatic structures of wind farms.

Today, the potential for offshore wind energy is largely untapped: even excluding potential deepwater deployments based on floating foundations, the potential exploitable by 2020 is likely to be some 30-40 times the current installed capacity, and in the 2030 time horizon it could be up to 150 GW, or some 575 TWh. However, the variability of wind, together with other technical, political or economic challenges and constraints in practice determine the pace and extent to which the significant potential is harnessed. A proactive policy is necessary to ensure that this opportunity is seized.

Napoleon said once that if you want something not to be done, you have to create a committee to study the issue. If you want something to be done, you have to entrust the task to a person. We want this to be done, and therefore we followed the Napoleonic approach. Our man for the task is Georg Adamowitsch, former German minister, and currently coordinator for Baltic and North Sea off-shore wind connections. He has done a great job (see report link) in identifying the necessary investments to be made in interconnections and infrastructures. Now the necessary investment should follow. A famous Roman statesman, Marcus Tullius Cicero said that “The sinew of war is money” and I think that his reflexion is valid for many other human endeavours, including off shore wind farms. In consequence, the Commission in its recovery plan has earmarked 500 million € to push forward five off shore wind projects, most of them, in the same waters that saw the troubles of the Spanish Armada.

Some historians consider that Felipe II of Spain made a fatal mistake in not taking into account the powerful meteorology of the North Sea when he sent his so called, “Invincible Armada” against England. Four centuries later, we have also embarked in a combat, this time, against climate change and we cannot afford to commit the same mistake. Solar energy, higher efficiency, clean fossil fuel technologies like CCS can all play a role in saving the planet. But I believe, like Bob Dylan, that part of the answer –my friend- is blowing in the wind.

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