Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Do UK wind farms decline "very dramatically" with age?

In December 2013, Christopher Booker in the Telegraph discusses a study by Gordon Hughes, published by the Renewable Energy Foundation in December 2012, which is said to show, due to wear and tear on their mechanisms and blades, the amount of electricity generated by wind turbines "very dramatically falls over the years". Booker asserts that "Hughes showed his research to David MacKay, the chief scientific adviser to the Department of Energy and Climate Change, who could not dispute his findings." This is not true.
In fact, I doubted Hughes's assertions from the moment I first read his study, since they were so grossly at variance with the data.
Figure 1: Actual load factors of UK wind farms at ages 10, 11, and 15.
a) Histogram of average annual load factors of wind farms at age 10 years. For comparison, the blue vertical line indicates the assertion from the Renewable Energy Foundation's study that "the normalised load factor is 15% at age 10."
b) Histogram of average annual load factors of wind farms at age 11 years.
c) Histogram of average annual load factors of wind farms at age 15 years. For comparison, the red vertical line indicates the assertion from the Renewable Energy Foundation's study that "the normalised load factor is 11% at age 15." At all three ages shown above, the histogram of load factors has a mean and standard deviation of 24% ± 7%.

Moreover, by January 2013 I had figured out an explanation of the underlying reason for Hughes's spurious results. I immediately wrote a technical report about this flaw in Hughes's work, and sent it to the Renewable Energy Foundation, recommending that they should retract the study.
I would like to emphasize that I believe the Renewable Energy Foundation and Gordon Hughes have performed a valuable service by collating, visualizing, and making accessible a large database containing the performance of wind farms. This data, when properly analysed in conjunction with detailed wind data, will allow the decline in performance of wind turbines to be better understood. Iain Staffell and Richard Green, of Imperial College, have carried out such an analysis (in press), and it indicates that the performance of windfarms does decline, but at a much smaller rate than the "dramatic" rates claimed by Hughes. The evidence of decline is strongest for the oldest windfarms, for which there is more data. For newer windfarms, the error bars on the decline rates are larger, but Staffell and Green's analysis indicates that the decline rates may be even smaller.
I will finish this post with a graphical explanation of the flaw that I identified (as described in detail in my technical report) and that I believe underlies Hughes's spurious results.
The study by Hughes modelled a large number of energy-production measurements from 3000 onshore turbines, in terms of three parameterized functions: an age-performance function "f(a)", which describes how the performance of a typical wind-farm declines with its age; a wind-farm-dependent parameter "ui" describing how each windfarm compares to its peers; and a time-dependent parameter "vt" that captures national wind conditions as a function of time. The modelling method of Hughes is based on an underlying statistical model that is non-identifiable: the underlying model can fit the data in an infinite number of ways, by adjusting rising or falling trends in two of the three parametric functions to compensate for any choice of rising or falling trend in the third. Thus the underlying model could fit the data with a steeply dropping age-performance function, a steeply rising trend in national wind conditions, and a steep downward trend in the effectiveness of wind farms as a function of their commissioning date (three features seen in Hughes's fits). But all these trends are arbitrary, in the sense that the same underlying model could fit the data exactly as well, for example, by a less steep age-performance function, a flat trend (long-term) in national wind conditions, and a flat trend in the effectiveness of wind farms as a function of their commissioning date.
The animation above illustrates this non-identifiability. The truth, for a cartoon world, is shown on the left. On the bottom-left, the data from three farms (born in 87, 91, and 93) are shown in yellow, magenta, and grey; they are the sum of a age-dependent performance function f(a) [top left] and a wind variable v_t [middle left]. (The true site 'fixed effects 'variables u1, u2, u3 are all identical, for simplicity.) On the right, these identical data can be produced by adding the orange curve f(a) to the site-dependent 'fixed effects' variables u1, u2, u3 (shown in green), thus obtaining the orange curves shown bottom right, then adding the wind variable [middle right] shown in blue (v_t).


Unknown said...

When I saw the original report of the REF study I found it hard to believe. After all, wind farms are paid by results. It made no sense that they should not get the same quality of maintenance as other capital-intensive generating plants. Thank you for getting to the heart of it.

Roddy said...

I'm very disappointed with ref. I thought better of them.

Wookey said...

(Hi chas - small world).

Yes, cheers for this work David. I too read that report and thought that it seemed unlikely to be correct, but it wasn't at all clear where the errors lay. Stats is tricky that way. There are not enough competent statisticans in the world to go round debunking all the biased (and often well-publicised because if it) reports. Or maybe there are but they are usually busy doing proper work.

Tamino's 'open mind' blog does a great job of this sort of work too, for anyone who's not come across it.

Helen Highwater said...

I finally got a letter in the press last week, in fact I got 2 in 8 days! This one appeared in the Rossshire Journal AND the Northern Times 4 days ago:

RenewableUK had a press release on the first of this month boasting about how wind power records were broken in August (though on 1st August the total UK wind output fell to about 1% of supposed capacity). To this I say “so what”, as they built more and more turbines it’s inevitable that records will continue to be broken.
However they have egg on their faces just now as we are near the end of a 3-week very low wind period and on about 13 of those days UK wind output fell to around that 1% level again. But no record was broken as records of recent years show low wind periods of up to 4 weeks, at times during very cold winter spells. Yet again it has been demonstrated that the idea that the wind is normally blowing somewhere in the UK is problematic and incorrect.
I wonder if Mr Salmond, who enthusiastically promoted these things, had time to look from his notes whilst in his campaign helicopter and ponder all those turbine blades which weren’t doing much spinning.
Hopefully the Windustry can perform better in the coming winter months when many “proper” power stations, which were operating during the last cold winter, are currently in mothballs or closed for repair.