Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Are Wind-Turbines 'Here to Stay' in Britain's Energy Policy?

This blog entry has taken me a fortnight to write. By sheer chance, finishing it coincided with an article in the Telegraph by Chris Huhne which warned us that 'wind turbines are here to stay'.

To be honest, I am sure they are. The government, supported by the Labour Party, is absolutely determined to go down the wind-farm route. The left and the idealistic are even more pro-windfarms. Opposition is restricted to the right, and to climate change deniers who are easily dismissed as 'cranks'.

If you are pro-wind energy, then this rant will not change your mind. But perhaps it will raise some questions.
I recently read an essay which stated that the moral case for renewables was 'irrefutable'.
It is not.

The Present Cannot Go On
First let’s start with something we all agree on; the present situation cannot go on. Britain’s power stations are not only high-carbon, they are old and about to reach their sell-by date. So we MUST build new generating capacity.

The second thing that nobody can disagree with is that Britain has made certain commitments to implement renewable energy. I suppose these could be broken, but it would be bad form.

There is also, thirdly, a general consensus that – for a variety of factors including political instability in the supplier nations and inevitable, gradual depletion of reserves – gas and oil are likely to become increasingly expensive, and that it would be wise to explore alternative sources of energy. This is coupled with a feeling that, as gas and oil decrease, there is going to be an increased reliance on, and need for, electricity.

And climate change? I really do not know what is happening to the climate and – for the purposes of this article only, of course – I do not really care who is right and who is wrong. What I do know is that, even if the Climate Change Doubters are totally right, there can surely equally be no doubt that we need to take maximum care of the environment. Fourthly, in policy terms, therefore, we need to proceed as though Climate Change was true, even if it turns out not to be so.

A ‘Renewables’ Strategy
Given these constants, the government’s energy plan looks increasingly to meet future electricity needs from renewable energy, of which it has identified eight key sources, and of which onshore wind is generally regarded as the cheapest and most viable. The capital investment will need to be met from the private sector, so part of the energy strategy involves offering the energy companies a deal sufficiently attractive to attract the investment. Nevertheless, there is a hope – given that there will be a global move to renewables – that Britain will be able to develop trade in renewable energy technology and that (perhaps from huge off-shore wind generating stations) we will even be able to export energy to the rest of Europe. In this way, there is a hope that the investment will eventually pay itself back.
Moreover, since wind and waves are free resources, there is a perception that the energy they supply will similarly be ‘free’ and – with the Prime Minister offering local communities a ‘stake’ in the revenue a local wind-farm will generate – the more sanguine pundits are predicting a future of cheap electricity and an end to fuel poverty.

The only problem with this vision is that it is mistaken.

Let’s Talk About Wind-farms
I have a number of problems with wind-farms as the great hope for a renewables future.

Now, it is true that, when I suggested on twitter that ‘to support wind-power you either have 1. not to have looked into it; 2. to be wilfully blind; 3. to be foolish’, I was given a hard time by a number of people. In particular, one critic forwarded the email address of a university professor who is an expert on wind power and asked me if I thought he was an idiot.
OF COURSE I do not think the professor is an idiot! But that does not make wind-farms the correct answer to our energy needs, and it does not make everything I say on the subject wrong.
I will email this to that professor, and will be happy for him to correct any factual errors I make.

The Problem with Wind-farms
My first beef with wind-farms, however, strikes me as factually incontrovertible – they are not a reliable form of energy.
So why are we being asked to rely on them for our energy?
I’m not interested in a detailed, essentially sterile, debate about capacity versus output – whether it is 20% or 30% – or even 40% (which it most certainly is not by the way).
No. It is more important – and incontrovertible – that wind-farm electricity has two key drawbacks:
1. output from an individual turbine can fluctuate wildly, not just from day to day, but from moment to moment, so it is NEVER a secure form of energy.
2. there are times – mostly in the middle of summer, and in the middle of winter (when we need electricity most) – when there is a high pressure system over Britain and no wind blows anywhere, sometimes for whole days at a time.

Surely, if people would just stop for a minute and be reasonable, no one in their right mind would really suggest that it is sensible to rely for our electricity on an energy source which fails, frequently, and without warning?
Would you accept a car, a bridge, a freezer, a computer, a chair, a heart-lung machine … ANYTHING else … on those terms? In a world which relies on reliability, it makes no sense to choose a power source which is inherently UNreliable.

Any apology you read in favour of wind-farms, therefore, almost immediately embarks on an investigation of how we can compensate when they are not working.

Some of the apologists admit that this backup will most likely be a gas-generator which will be ‘ramped’ up and down as necessary as the wind-farm output falls and rises.
Now there is a secondary problem with this, inasmuch as – used thus inefficiently, it seems to be the case that the reserve power station will therefore produce more CO2 pollution than it would if it had simply been used full-time at 100% efficiency. I have even heard it claimed that, used in this way, such a station produces MORE extra CO2 than the wind-farm is saving, and thus the net effect of a wind-farm is an INCREASE in CO2 emissions – but even if this is hyperbole, you get the idea.

However, you don’t have to be a university professor to appreciate the primary problem with needing backup power stations capable of supplying 100% of the electricity which Britain needs! Remember that we are talking real life – MONEY – here … so can anybody tell me what sense it makes to buy a power station to backup the wind-farms, when that power station could supply all our electricity needs on its own? I know there are rich people who have a bicycle, and get their chauffeur to drive behind in case it rains, but most of us can only afford the one car, and we drive it ourselves. So why are we doing the equivalent for our electricity-production? Given the costs involved, surely it is a bonkers policy! Whatever we put in place as the RELIABLE generation-source to backup wind-farms, surely we need to ditch wind-farms and just go with that?

I have noticed recently certain writers, perhaps realising this Catch-22, are starting to offer other, ‘sustainable’ suggestions about what the backup-for-wind-farms might be. The WWF (apparently the country’s largest NGO) and Ecosys (a renewables lobby) have proposed an interconnected system covering all Europe; the wind, goes the argument, MUST be blowing somewhere in Europe, so when the wind stops blowing in Britain, we will simply pipe in the electricity from where it IS blowing.
Now – apart from the political reservations I might have about relying on e.g. the Serbs or the Greeks for the electricity to power our operating theatres, and apart from the fear that there might, indeed, come a time when there was, for a limited period, no wind ANYWHERE in Europe, and apart from the worry about the cost of having to buy, for substantial portions of the year, our electricity from continental suppliers – have you seen the biggest flaw in this scheme? It requires substantial OVER-capacity across Europe. For, if we are going to supply Europe when the wind is blowing here but not in Europe, we are going to need enough wind-farms, not just to supply ourselves, but to supply (when it comes to it) ALL EUROPE.

It surely has to be a daft idea which suggests covering each area of Europe with enough wind turbines to supply all Europe. By my reckoning we are going to need at least ten times as many wind-farms to meet our own targets AND THEN SOME MORE to supply Europe. You are not going to able to move for wind turbines. It is surely impracticable?

The Cost of Wind-Produced Electricity
It is true that the wind and waves are free, but the perception that the energy they supply will be ‘free’ is desperately mistaken.

Firstly, there IS a cost to producing wind-power. God knows how this is made up – maintenance costs, transfer, profit, repayment of capital investment, standby generation cost … our university professor will be able to tell us better, but I think I am correct in saying that the electricity companies are paying something in the region of £45-£50 a megawatt for it.
(For comparison, according to Chris Huhne, ‘offshore wind is assessed at £130 per megawatt hour, gas with carbon capture at £95 per megawatt hour, and nuclear at £66 per megawatt hour’. But coal is about £25 and gas even cheaper, according to the Royal Academy of Engineering).
Now I know what you are thinking. If onshore wind is twice as expensive as coal-produced electricity – might that be a price worth paying to save the earth?

Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. Since wind-power is so commercially unprofitable, and since the capital investment is so huge, the government has had to do some very costly deals to persuade the generating companies to get involved.

It is not a straight subsidy; what happens is that the government allows the electricity companies to claim ROCs (renewable obligations certificates) on every megawatt of wind-power they produce, sell them to themselves (at about £45-50 a ROC), and then TO CHARGE THAT COST TO THE CONSUMER.
Thus the ROC system works like a subsidy, but it is paid by the consumer, not the government, and it works by at least doubling the price the companies charge for renewable-produced energy.

Now, as somewhat of a ‘leftie’ politically, what strikes me about this is that it is just about the most regressive form of taxation that could have been devised by a coven of fascist Machiavellis. It is not just that the extra cost is a much greater proportion of a poor person’s income than that of the rich. It is worse than that. The rich have their cavity wall insulation, lagged lofts and new boilers – their energy needs are proportionately lower, and some of them have PV panels on the roof and are selling electricity back into the system and claiming their own subsidy! So it is the poor, with their low energy ratings, and especially the old, with their outrageous need to keep warm, who are doubly-disproportionately hit by a form of hidden taxation which at least doubles the cost of renewable energy and charges the extra … mainly to them!
To a criminally disproportionate degree, those turbines you see have been paid for by old age pensioners.
We are marching about student fees, petitioning about the NHS, striking about pensions, but supporting a ‘green’ energy plan which is taking the cost of capital investment PLUS the profit sweetener for the companies … from the aged and the deprived.
It leaves me speechless and outraged.
‘I’d do a pact with the devil to get green energy,’ proclaimed one friend.
We already have.

The Planning Cost
As I have been writing this rant, it has occurred to me that much of my hostility to wind-farms comes, not so much from the turbines themselves, which are indubitably a ‘green’ way of producing electricity (providing you can find somewhere inoffensive to put the commercially-unviable monstrosities). What angers me much, much more are the appalling governmental iniquities which are being employed to foist them upon us so that the government can meet its emissions targets.

Take, for instance, planning. Many readers will be familiar with the recent Draft National Planning Policy Framework (DNPPF), and its presumption in favour of ‘sustainable development’. What you may NOT have realised is that in the DNPFF, wind-farms are declared to be sustainable by definition (paragraph 146 declares that ‘the wider environmental benefits associated with increased production of energy from renewable sources’ are among the ‘special circumstances’ which will permit development even on Green Belt).
Even worse, in paragraph 153 it states:

‘Once opportunity areas for renewable and low-carbon energy have been mapped in plans, local planning authorities should also expect subsequent applications for commercial scale projects outside these areas to demonstrate that the proposed location meets the criteria used in identifying opportunity areas…’

This final provision amounts to wind farms by sleight of hand! What it says to developers is that, once a Local Plan has identified an area as appropriate for wind farms, they can apply to site a wind farm ANYWHERE provided that they can demonstrate that the criteria in the new area match the criteria in the designated areas – thus the DNPPF amounts to a carte blanche to build wind farms almost anywhere a wind farm would be feasible.

People like me, who dare to question the wisdom of wind-farms, are often labelled ‘NIMBYs’. ‘Not in my backyard’; it is nonsense. It’s not my backyard I’m worried about (I’ve got one coming across the road); it’s YOUR backyard I’m trying to protect.

And if you doubt my claim that, in regards to wind-farms, the DNPPF amounts to a revocation of local planning self-determination, listen to Chris Huhne speaking at the Renewables Energy Conference in October 2011:

‘We’re reforming the planning system, to ensure it’s no longer a brake on sustainable development … We have introduced a fast-track process for consents. And we will close the Infrastructure Planning Commission and return decisions on major energy infrastructure to democratically elected minister … It’s a comprehensive action plan to accelerate the UK’s deployment and use of renewable energy.’

I would only ask one question. If wind-power is so good for the environment, the economy and jobs, and if (as Mr Huhne contended) 73% of people would support a wind-farm in their area … why has it been necessary to ride roughshod over local planning powers and impose this centralised autocratic system to force through planning consent?

Other forms of Renewable Energy
I’ve been ‘green’ for a long time – probably much longer than you, reader. But if we are to go green successfully, we have to do so sensibly. Closing our eyes and hoping is NOT, long-term, going to produce anything but disaster. There is no pause for reflection, no impartial review of outcomes. No, we plough on regardless – ‘We will not heed the naysayers or the green economy deniers’, Mr Huhne assured the Renewables Conference.

But – whilst I reserve my real hostility for wind-farms – surely there is someone out there big enough to admit that many forms of renewable energy have serious, significant weaknesses.

Biomass is an effective way of producing electricity. Indeed, there is a biomass plant a couple of miles north of my house which produces as much electricity as all 45 of the wind-turbines proposed for the site a couple of miles east of where I live. (There is an increasing lobby to use biomass to ‘fill the gaps’ for wind-power.)
But waste is finite – AND we are supposed to be eliminating it – and one has to question, in a world of famine, the ethics of growing trees and, God help us, food to fuel biomass plants.

Marine power (tides and waves) is technologically not advanced enough to be a serious player. Offshore wind is hailed as the great hope, but capital investment is so great that progress is touch-and-go.

Renewables which MIGHT work
If there are any great hopes for the future, I would see them in heat-exchange technology and photovoltaic cells.
Heat-exchange technology – particularly air source heat pumps – has to be the most climate-friendly energy source of all. Whereas all other forms of heating CREATE heat (which inevitably escapes into the environment), air source heat pumps take heat out of the air round your house, from which it escapes … where? Well back into the air it came from, of course!
Neither do photovoltaic cells do anything except take energy which has already arrived on earth and harvest it for you to use in your house.

Surely any government in its right mind would now be funding frantic research into these two ‘most sensible’ forms of renewable energy, to bring down costs and increase efficiency? But neither of these sources is regarded as a large-scale solution for the problem. Photovoltaic energy is not even one of the eight forms of renewable energy identified in the government’s 2011 Renewable Energy Roadmap, and the government has recently reduced the feed-in tariff.

Towards an Acceptable Green Energy policy
So what do we do, then? Throw up our arms in despair and go back to coal? Or shrug our shoulders, accept the wind-farms, and line the electricity companies’ streets with gold?

I think it IS possible to envisage a green energy policy, but – if it is to be successful – there are a number of ‘MUSTs’:

1. Fair Funding
It is no longer acceptable to fund capital investment from the bills of the poor. If there is to be support for capital investment, it must come from increased direct taxation, where it can be progressive, as it should be.

2. Reduction in Usage
There are two sides to an energy equation. One way to meet our future electricity needs is to increase capacity; another way is to reduce usage.
At the moment, government action on this is half-hearted and directed – as always – at the consumer, who is exhorted to half-fill the kettle and turn down the heating.
A much better way would be to direct legislation at manufacturers. If government were to set ambitious energy usage targets for appliances, and ban the sale of appliances which did not meet those targets, you can be pretty sure that appliances which meet those targets will suddenly, miraculously, appear on the market.

3. Legislative action
If I ruled the world, I would change building regs so that any new building erected from 2011 HAD to have a south-facing roof covered in photovoltaic panels. I understand that there would be significant problems if the government did the same for air-source heat exchange central heating, but it should nevertheless be possible to gradually introduce penalties/subsidies which will move the building industry increasingly in that direction. Again, you can bet that industry would rapidly adapt, technology would improve, and prices fall.
Compared to the severity and impact of emissions legislation on industry, this would be small fry.

4. Carbon Capture
Carbon capture is expensive, but it is do-able. In a world where renewable energy is so obviously 'not yet there', would it not make sense to place our hope
and research funding – for the moment in improving carbon capture technology, and introducing renewables when they are viable?

Or you can carry on building hundreds upon hundreds of wind-farms.


  1. Love this piece and agree wholehertedly..

    My route to green energy is focused solely on tackling fuel poverty (apologies to the environmentalists). I receive far too many emails from my readers about eating their dinner under the duvet, or going to bed early because they cannot afford to heat the house...

    with permission I'd like to re-publish...

    let me know if this is acceptable

  2. Where to start:

    This blog says it all, and I have to admit has changed my thinking on the Wind Turbine:

    I have always thought of them as being aesthetically pleasing, added to that was the bonus of producing electricity. In short, I loved the Engineering and the evocation of an old England “Windy Miller” producing flower for bread. Only the updated version produces electricity to feed my bread maker at home. Not So any more.

    I had always understood a Turbine didn't turn all the time, and was somewhat inefficient in that sense. And then stopped thinking. Using my imagination that all would be well. You know, the green thinkers know best, they will have the capacity and so on. I always assumed that the detractors where about not having a Turbine on their local moor, hill or (Camberwick) green space. I always thought there had to be some give for the good of vital energy supply. And always assumed that local planning practices would curtail the aggressive developer or the silly location. John highlights the changes to planning law that squash that belief too. Then I could add the costs of the back up system that I had not properly thought out. Again I am convinced by John.

    Then I read this and went to do some research on the ROC's in the blog myself and I agree.

    “So it is the poor, with their low energy ratings, and especially the old, with their outrageous need to keep warm, who are doubly-disproportionately hit by a form of hidden taxation which at least doubles the cost of renewable energy and charges the extra … mainly to them!
    To a criminally disproportionate degree, those turbines you see have been paid for by old age pensioners.
    We are marching about student fees, petitioning about the NHS, striking about pensions, but supporting a ‘green’ energy plan which is taking the cost of capital investment PLUS the profit sweetener for the companies … from the aged and the deprived.
    It leaves me speechless and outraged.
    ‘I’d do a pact with the devil to get green energy,’ proclaimed one friend.
    We already have.”

    It is the massive downloading of the cost on to the most vulnerable that finally did it for me, I am unable reconcile that at all. I have changed my mind.

    Where do I sign the petition? When is the next March and where is my tent #OccupyCamberwickGreen

  3. Fair comment - one response to this has been 'I think he exaggerates the disadvantages of wind & back-up requirement. But many good points & offshore wind is v expensive.'

  4. A brilliant, must-read reply to my hyperbole from GuySays here: http://bit.ly/t84TID. I don't know whether it totally overturns my arguments, but it certainly moderates them (which is always welcome).