It seems so intuitive, so right: everyone knows from direct experience that the wind is variable, and so it really can't be a serious energy source without some form of storage, can it?
Of all of the myths about wind power (of which anti-wind folks, with their covert allies and backers in competing energy industries, are inventing new, creative additions daily), this one is probably the oldest and most difficult to stamp out. Only today, many news sources carried a summary by Reuters energy reporter Timothy Gardner of a new book, Lights Out, by Jason Makansi. The summary includes the following quote:
Wind power won't take off unless there's more investment in how to store the energy, according to Makansi.
I suppose it all depends on what you mean by "take off." Wind power generates a bit less than 1% of U.S. electricity today (it should cross the 1% line by the end of this year), so for me, "taking off" would mean getting to 10% or 20%, in the general range that natural gas (17%) and nuclear power (20%) generate today. Maybe Makansi has something higher in mind--setting an unrealistic bar is one of the easiest ways to belittle a new technology. But anyway . . .
Storage is not, repeat not, required for a significant expansion of wind power from its current level to a level 10 or 20 times as great, at which point it will be a major contributor to U.S. electricity supply. Variability of wind is best addressed by utilities in the same way they address variability in current generation and load, which is to control certain resources to match aggregate load. All existing resources occasionally shut down with no notice, and these forced outages require backup and reserves. Wind is only different in that its output changes are more gradual and can be greater in magnitude, and that is not necessarily more difficult to manage. Storage might be cost-effective for power system operators some day in the future, but is generally not cost-effective today, and is not required, either for conventional resources or for wind. As the U.S. Department of Energy puts it in an excellent short publication, Wind Energy Myths:
The utility system is . . . designed to accommodate load fluctuations, which occur continuously. This feature also facilitates accommodation of wind plant output fluctuations. In Denmark, Northern Germany, and parts of Spain, wind supplies 20% to 40% of electric loads without sacrificing reliability. When wind is added to a utility system, no new backup is required to maintain system reliability.
Ironically, Makansi's main theme is to flog something that is perfectly true: the fact that America's electricity transmission system is aging and inadequate and in desperate need of an overhaul. This is ironic because more transmission is exactly what is needed for the power system to handle more wind--the wind is always blowing somewhere, so shipping the wind-generated electricity from where it is being produced to where it can be used is key to using it as cheaply and effectively as possible.
Those who wish to dig more deeply into this topic will find an excellent collection of resources at the Utility Wind Integration Group site.
This is not to say that more storage would be bad: one of the truly exciting possibilities on the horizon is plug-in hybrid autos, which would allow wind power not just to supply electricity, but to replace a sizable chunk of the oil our nation uses for transportation. But we don't need more storage to use much more wind for electricity generation. Period.