The UK's wind power capacity could reach 50GW by 2030 but will present major technical challenges, according to a report published today by the Royal Academy of Engineering.
The GB electricity grid can currently accommodate up to a 20% contribution from wind power, which is likely to be reached in the next decade, without the need for significant upgrades to the system and using existing balancing mechanisms.
Beyond 20%, however, the report said managing the system will become increasingly difficult and key long-term planning decisions are required if the UK government wants to fully decarbonise its energy system.
The Academy produced its report, Wind energy: implications of large-scale deployment on the GB electricity system, to assess the potential for wind energy to contribute to meeting the government's targets of providing 15% of the UK's energy from renewable sources by 2020 and cutting 80% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
The working group considered all three aspects of the energy 'trilemma' - security, cost and decarbonisation - and found that wind power could be used to meet up to one fifth of the country's electricity demands under the current energy demand scenario.
Professor Roger Kemp FREng from Lancaster University, a member of the working group, said: "We see wind as playing a major role in the future but the task of decarbonisation represents a paradigm shift in the UK's energy system - the scale of the challenge should not be underestimated. Wind energy will be only one of the tools available alongside other generating technologies, better connectivity and demand side measures. All will need to be carefully integrated using a systems engineering approach.
"As we progress towards a low-carbon future, the energy industry and infrastructure will have to evolve ahead of or with electricity demand to accommodate more wind. This evolution is complex and will also require other forms of low carbon generation, innovations in energy storage, management and more interconnections with the electricity grids in other countries.
"This will happen only if there is clarity in the government's plans for the future decarbonisation of the country and a willingness to work together with industry in building confidence to invest in the UK energy market. Energy systems and technologies are global; several countries are ahead of the UK in developing wind energy and we will need to adopt best practice, wherever that might be."
The Academy said that if the UK is to meet its targets and further reduce greenhouse emissions by 2050, the grid will need to be largely decarbonised by 2030. It stated that fossil fuel intensive uses, such as transport and heating, are likely to be progressively electrified in the form of heat pumps and electric vehicles and will significantly increase overall electricity demand as well as fluctuations in demand, both daily and seasonally.
This follows an earlier report by the Institute of Mechanical Engineers that called on the government to work with the engineering community to develop innovative energy storage systems to cope with the intermittency and seasonality challenges that renewable sources present.