The strength of the wind blowing across northern Europe has fallen by as much as 15 per cent on average in places this year, according to data compiled by Vortex, an independent weather modelling group.
The cause of the decrease is uncertain, say scientists, but one possible explanation is a phenomenon called global stilling. This is a decrease in average surface wind speed owing to climate change.
“Near-surface wind speed trends across the globe found that winds have generally weakened over land over the past few decades,” said Paul Williams, Professor of Atmospheric Science at the University of Reading. “This suggests that the phenomenon is part of a genuine long-term trend, rather than cyclic variability.”
One explanation for this could be that “human-related climate change is warming the poles faster than the tropics in the lower atmosphere,” Williams noted. “This would have the effect of weakening the mid-latitude north-south temperature difference and consequently reducing the thermal wind at low altitudes.”
Projections from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change support this trend. Wind speeds over western, central and northern Europe are predicted to drop by as much as 10 per cent in the summer months by 2100, based on 1.5C warming above pre-industrial levels.
Less wind has a direct impact on the amount of electricity that can be generated by the many wind farms across Europe.
In March this year, Britain experienced its longest spell of low wind output in more than a decade.
The power output as a percentage of total installed capacity averaged just 11 per cent between February 26 and March 8, according to Drax, the power generation company. This accounted for less than a quarter of the average for the rest of the two months either side of this period.
Again, on September 6 in the UK, wind provided only 2.5 per cent of electricity generation compared with an average of 18 per cent over the past year. This led to two units at West Burton A, one of the UK’s last remaining coal-fired power plants, being switched on to help with the shortfall.
The trend threatens the UK’s pledge for electricity generation to be carbon neutral by 2035, as it relies on fossil fuels to supplement its energy needs.
Gas accounts for about 40 per cent of the UK’s total electricity generation presently. Record gas prices reached last week made this an expensive alternative to renewable energy sources, as a surge in demand from economies recovering from the pandemic coincided with lower than usual European gas stockpiles.
In spite of the drop in wind power, analysis by the independent Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air found that power generation from zero-carbon sources still avoided a gas bill of €33 billion across the EU as the gas price rose from July to September.
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