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Resource Documents: Economics (207 items)


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Unless indicated otherwise, documents presented here are not the product of nor are they necessarily endorsed by National Wind Watch. These resource documents are shared here to assist anyone wishing to research the issue of industrial wind power and the impacts of its development. The information should be evaluated by each reader to come to their own conclusions about the many areas of debate. • The copyrights reside with the sources indicated. As part of its noncommercial effort to present the environmental, social, scientific, and economic issues of large-scale wind power development to a global audience seeking such information, National Wind Watch endeavors to observe “fair use” as provided for in section 107 of U.S. Copyright Law and similar “fair dealing” provisions of the copyright laws of other nations.

Date added:  February 20, 2021
Economics, Environment, Technology, U.S.Print storyE-mail story

Sources and Uses of Minerals for a Clean Energy Economy: Testimony Before the U.S. Senate Energy Committee

Author:  Mills, Mark

Good morning. Thank you for the opportunity to testify before this Committee. I’m a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute where I focus on the policy implications of technologies, especially at the intersections with energy, and where I have advocated for years that America’s energy policies should emerge from both the realities of the underlying physics of technologies, as well the unavoidable realities of geopolitics.

I am also a Faculty Fellow at the McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern University where my focus is on the technology and the future of manufacturing. And, for the record, I’m a strategic partner in a venture fund dedicated to startup companies in digital oilfield technologies.

Permit me to start by noting an obvious fact, but one that deserves restating in the context of this hearing. Every product and service that exists requires extracting minerals from the earth. And all those minerals must be refined, transported and converted into materials, then fabricated into products and ultimately disposed of or recycled. All of that activity entails the use of land and energy somewhere. Thus all environmental, economic, social and geopolitical consequences derive from the quantities of materials needed and where it all comes from.

As this committee well knows, the issue of America’s strategic dependencies on a small set of “critical minerals” is not a new subject. However, the issue on the table now is the potential for “clean energy” policies to inadvertently create entirely new mineral dependencies.

And, as the Committee also knows, there are advocates who claim that the wind and sun could provide 100% of America’s energy needs, compared to today’s 3% share. While the credibility of this claim is not our focus today, it bears noting that achieving that goal is simply not possible, any more than it’s possible to use airplanes to fly to the moon. And the often-used analogy, that an ostensible energy tech revolution will echo the characteristics and velocity of the information revolution is, to put it diplomatically, fallacious.

Set aside for now whether such a huge jump in the share of wind and solar is desirable or even feasible. The fact is, a more vigorous pursuit of clean energy by the U.S., especially in concert with other nations, would lead to an unprecedented expansion in global mining and chemical processing, and collaterally a radical increase in the quantities and sources of import dependencies and geopolitical risks for the United States – and it would produce astonishing quantities of waste. And this says nothing about the demonstrably destructive economic impacts.

To understand why, we must first dissect two deeply misleading tropes used in our national debate about America’s energy future: the idea that wind and solar are “free” and that the machines access those energy sources are “renewable.”

There is no such thing as free energy, at least not delivered in a way that matters to survival. The seductive idea that the air and sun are free is no more true than is the case for oil and gas. Mankind had nothing to do with creating either. In order to deliver useful energy to society, all sources require access to and use of land, and all require construction of physical hardware, all of which has costs.

Thus, there’s no such thing as a renewable energy machine. All energy machines must be built from non-renewable minerals and all machines wear out and must be disposed of and replaced. This is, not to wax philosophical, society’s central Sisyphean struggle.

More practically, these two points are the nub of the challenge for policies that propose to radically increase America’s use of energy from wind and solar machines. The clean energy path leads to astounding increases in materials use and dependencies.

These consequences do not derive from design flaws in the green machines, in effect from a failure in human engineering or imagination. The consequences, regardless of policies or aspirations, arise from the inherent nature of the physics of energy in our universe. Per unit of useful energy delivered to society, whether measured in miles of travel, tons of products, or gigabytes of data, the wind and solar path increases both land and material uses by something like 500 to 1,000 percent.

Of course we find elements like iron, chromium, silver and neodymium used to build frack pumps in the shale fields as well as in wind turbines. But the physics difference between the quantities needed is literally visible: A wind or solar farm stretching to the horizon can be replaced by a handful of gas-fired turbines, each no bigger than a tractor-trailer.

For example, to replace the lifetime energy output from a single shale rig producing gas requires building a 6-fold greater quantity of similar-sized wind turbines. Of course, the shale rig ‘disappears’ from that shale field, and is re-used to produce more energy, while the field of wind turbines stays in sight for decades, until they wear out. And consider, because wind and solar are nearly useless without storage, it takes 60 pounds of battery to store the energy equivalent of just one pound of oil. Such realities are what leads to the ‘invisible’ amplification in the quantities of materials mined upstream, somewhere.

That amplification is made particularly clear if we examine a few specific examples in terms of total fuel-cycle mineral requirements. The battery for a single electric-car weighs about 1,000 pounds. About 50 pounds of oil can provide the same vehicle range. Fabricating that single battery involves digging up, moving and processing more than 500,000 pounds of raw materials somewhere on the planet. Meanwhile, measured over the lifespan of the battery (seven years), using oil involves one-tenth as much in cumulative material weight extracted from the earth to deliver the same vehicle-miles.

Or consider one more example. Building one wind turbine requires 1,500 tons of iron ore, 2,500 tons of concrete and 45 tons of non-recyclable plastic. For an equal amount of energy production, solar power requires even more cement, steel and glass—not to mention other metals. Increasing the wind and solar share to, say, just a one-third share of America’s energy arithmetically requires a 1,000% increase in the materials already consumed to produce such machines.

The resource realities of clean energy have not escaped the attention of international organizations including the World Bank and the International Energy Agency (IEA). But it is remarkable how little attention has been afforded to the implications for U.S. energy policymaking.

It’s worth highlighting just some of the conclusions. According to IEA analyses, in order to meet current solar forecasts, for example, global silver and indium mining will jump 250% and 1,200% respectively over the next couple of decades. Similarly, world demand for rare-earth elements—which, I note, aren’t rare but are rarely mined in America—would rise 300% to 1,000% by 2050 just to achieve the Paris Accord goals.

Or, as numerous similar analyses have shown, replacing conventional cars with EVs would drive up global demand for cobalt and lithium by more than 2,000%. We’d also see a 200% jump in copper mining, along with at least a 500% rise in graphite demand. EVs, typically, use more aluminum too in order to offset the enormous weight penalty from the battery. And none of this counts the materials demand if batteries are scaled to back up wind and solar grids.

Last year a Dutch government-sponsored study concluded that the green ambitions of the Netherlands alone would consume a major share of global minerals. Considering that the U.S., never mind the world, consumes 30-fold more energy than the Netherlands, it’s unsurprising that the study also concluded: “Exponential growth in [global] renewable energy production capacity is not possible with present-day technologies and annual metal production.”

Nonetheless, many nations including the U.S. government, and numerous states, are incentivizing, if not requiring, greater use of these co-called clean energy technologies. The implications of all this are obvious in terms of environmental, social justice and geopolitical fallout.

It’s not just the need to responsibly address the environmental challenges of mining in and of itself, as you Chairman Murkowski are painfully aware vis-à-vis Alaska’s Pebble Mine fiasco. One must also consider the astounding quantity of green machines that will wear out and all that old equipment that must be decommissioned, all generating millions of tons of waste. The IEA has calculated that solar goals for 2050 consistent with the Paris Accords – which it bears remembering are a mere shadow of green ambitions now being proposed – will require disposing of solar panels that will constitute more than double the tonnage of all today’s global plastic waste.

There are collateral issues. The Sydney-based Institute for a Sustainable Future, for one, cautions that in a global “gold” rush for clean-energy minerals, mining will be pushed into “some remote wilderness areas [that] have maintained high biodiversity because they haven’t yet been disturbed.”

Then there’s the staggering increase in materials production that will lead, necessarily, to a comparably radical rise in the physical transport of energy materials on global sea-lanes, both increasing and changing the locus of geopolitical supply-chain risks. We note that those who propose to allocate a share of the U.S. Navy’s budget to the cost of protecting oil supply-chains should consider a similar calculation for green supply chains.

With respect to America’s security and import dependence, it bears noting the U.S. is a minor or non-existent player in most of the materials necessary for clean energy. As this Committee knows, today the U.S. imports over half of more than four-dozen minerals that are commonly used, and 20 of the minerals must be entirely imported.

It is extremely unlikely that any increased mineral production will come from mines in Europe or the U.S. Instead, much of the necessary additional mining will take place in nations with significant geopolitical consequence, and where in many cases labor practices are oppressive and generally not transparent. The Democratic Republic of the Congo produces 70% of the world’s raw cobalt, and China controls 90% of cobalt refining.

The desire expressed by many citizens and corporations to ensure ethical supply chains is a particularly thorny one in general, and especially so when it comes to green energy tech. For example, the World Economic Forum’s Global Battery Alliance (and numerous pieces of investigative journalism) has observed that the “raw materials needed for batteries are extracted at a high human and environmental toll.” The London Metal Exchange proposed last year to ban the sale of “tainted” cobalt. But a broad consortium of NGOs opposed that move, worried that it would simply lead to less transparency and would just increase the amount of trade conducted in “underground” transactions.

The mineral supply chain can sometimes be rendered invisible by other means. Instead of importing minerals, America imports the finished products such as solar panels and batteries. China already has nearly 60 lithium battery manufacturers accounting for over half of the world’s production, and is on track to two-thirds dominance by 2030. As a relevant aside, all that production occurs on an electric grid that’s nearly two-thirds coal-powered. And, relevant to that fact: it takes the energy-equivalent of 100 barrels of oil to fabricate a battery that can store the energy-equivalent of one barrel.

Setting aside the ethical quagmire of sourcing more of America’s, and the world’s energy materials from places like China, Bolivia, Russia, and the Congo, one might reasonably observe, as the world bank has, that greater mineral demand would be a huge “opportunity” for citizens in such nations as Chile, Canada, Australia, Brazil, Argentina, and Peru.

But that also presents for the United States at least, another ethical question: Replacing oil, gas and coal with wind, solar and batteries takes jobs and economic output away from our citizens and adds jobs and economic benefits to other nations. Some may see this as a good outcome, but we should be honest about the realities.

More than $300 billion per year of economic output comes from America’s oil and gas production. And now our nation is not merely essentially self-sufficient in energy production, but on track to becoming a net overall energy exporter. By contrast, the clean energy materials path both increases the cost of energy and radically increase the share of those costs that comes from imports. And it would of course, reverse the recent historic gains of energy independence.

Some have proposed that the massive gap in materials disparities between hydrocarbons and green energy could be closed by spending more money on improving clean technologies. Of course useful improvements are possible for creating more efficient green machines that thus use fewer materials per unit of energy produced. But we know that those gains are limited by the fact that wind, solar and battery technologies are approaching the physics limits of performance. This means that throwing more money and subsidies at these technologies won’t lead to radical improvements in material-use efficiency. Ironically, for hydrocarbon technologies, the distance to physics limits is further away, which means greater efficiency gains are still possible for oil and gas than for green tech.

However, to the extent that ‘the train has left the station’ and our nation is embarked on a path to expand clean energy, permit me to suggest four actions Congress should consider.

First, Congress should direct an examination and accounting of the full fuel-cycle upstream materials impacts of greater use of clean energy. This will improve the transparency associated with environmental, social, economic and geopolitical impacts.

Second, Congress should direct an examination of the state of recycling clean energy minerals. Notably, only three minerals in general have achieved a 50% level of recycling, according the International Union of Geological Sciences. And rather than institute economically or operationally punitive requirements for greater recycling, efforts should be directed towards research that could yield more economically efficient recycling technologies.

Third, Congress should examine the state of basic research funding associated with the development of both more efficient and new ways to use existing minerals and even the creation of new classes of products that can replace critical minerals. This research should center on the materials genome program that targets the use of supercomputers to invent new classes of alloys that can enhance mineral flexibility and minimize the use of rare elements.

Fourth, and finally, Congress should enact policies that will encourage, not impede, the investment in and development of U.S. mines.

Geological data show that the United States has a vast untapped abundance of mineral wealth. Until engineers invent an element that one might call “unobtanium” – a magical energy-producing element that appears out of nowhere, requires no land, weighs nothing, and emits nothing – we will need more mining. We should do it here if we want to enjoy the benefits and if we want to ensure the most environmentally sound approaches.

Mark P. Mills
September 16, 2019

Mark P. Mills is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a faculty fellow at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering, and author of the recent report, “The ‘New Energy Economy’: An Exercise in Magical Thinking.” Follow him on Twitter here.

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Date added:  May 18, 2020
Economics, Technology, U.S.Print storyE-mail story

How does wind project performance change with age in the United States?

Author:  Hamilton, Sofia; et al.

Wind-plant performance declines with age, and the rate of decline varies between regions. The rate of performance decline is important when determining wind-plant financial viability and expected lifetime generation. We determine the rate of age-related performance decline in the United States wind fleet by evaluating generation records from 917 plants. We find the rate of performance decline to be 0.53%/year for older vintages of plants and 0.17%/year for newer vintages of plants on an energy basis for the first 10 years of operation, which is on the lower end of prior estimates in Europe. Unique to the United States, we find a significant drop in performance by 3.6% after 10 years, as plants lose eligibility for the production tax credit. Certain plant characteristics, such as the ratio of blade length to nameplate capacity, influence the rate of performance decline. These results indicate that the performance decline rate can be partially managed and influenced by policy.

Sofia D. Hamilton, Dev Millstein, Mark Bolinger, Ryan H. Wiser, Seongeun Jeong
Energy Technologies Area, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of California, Berkeley, California

Joule 4, 1–17 (2020). doi: 10.1016/j.joule.2020.04.005

Download original document: “How does wind project performance change with age the United States?

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Renewables, land use, and local opposition in the United States

Author:  Gross, Samantha; and Brookings Institution

Decreasing greenhouse gas emissions in the electricity sector is crucial to avoiding the worst impacts of climate change. The American public overwhelmingly favors renewable power, and the costs of wind and solar power have declined rapidly in recent years. However, inherent attributes of wind and solar generation make conflicts over land use and project siting more likely. Power plants and transmission lines will be located in areas not accustomed to industrial development, potentially creating opposition.

Wind and solar generation require at least 10 times as much land per unit of power produced than coal- or natural gas-fired power plants, including land disturbed to produce and transport the fossil fuels. Additionally, wind and solar generation are located where the resource availability is best instead of where is most convenient for people and infrastructure, since their “fuel” can’t be transported like fossil fuels. Siting of wind facilities is especially challenging. Modern wind turbines are huge; most new turbines being installed in the United States today are the height of a 35-story building. Wind resources are best in open plains and on ridgetops, locations where the turbines can be seen for long distances.

Even though people like wind and solar power in the abstract, some object to large projects near their homes, especially if they don’t financially benefit from the project. Transmission for renewable power can also be unpopular, and even more difficult to site when the power is just passing through an area, rather than directly benefiting local residents. This is an issue today building transmission to move wind power from the Great Plains and Upper Midwest states to cities in the east.

Technological and policy solutions can lessen the land use impact of renewable power and the resulting public opposition. Offshore wind eliminates land use, but it raises opposition among those concerned with the impact on the environment and scenic views. Building on previously disturbed land and combining renewable power with other land uses, like agriculture or building solar on rooftops, can minimize land use conflicts. Community involvement in project planning and regulations for land use and zoning can help to alleviate concerns. Nevertheless, there is no perfect way to produce electricity on an industrial scale. Policymakers must recognize these challenges and face them head-on as the nation transitions to a lower-carbon energy system.

Download original document: “Renewables, land use, and local opposition in the United States

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Date added:  January 13, 2020
Economics, ScotlandPrint storyE-mail story

Decade of Constraint Payments

Author:  Renewable Energy Foundation

2019 was the tenth year in which British wind farms have received constraint payments to reduce their output because of electricity grid congestion. There has been a total of £649 million paid out over the decade for discarding 8.7 TWh of electricity. To put this in context, this quantity of energy would be sufficient to provide 90% of all Scottish households with electricity for a year.

Because of a rapid growth in wind farms, particularly in Scotland, the total paid has tended to increase year on year in spite of grid reinforcements and new grid lines such as the £1 billion Western Link from Hunterston to Deeside, which was built specifically to export wind power from Scotland to English and Welsh consumers. Figure 1. displays this trend, showing payments rising from £174,000 in 2010 to a new record cost of more than £139 million. The quantity of electricity discarded in 2019 was also a new record at 1.9 TWh.

Figure 1: Annual constraint payments to wind farms via the Balancing Mechanism. Source: Balancing Mechanism, REF. Chart by REF.

Scottish onshore wind farms are far and away the largest beneficiaries of constraint payments, receiving 94% of the total in 2019, and approximately the same proportion averaged over the last ten years (see Figure 2). Scottish onshore wind received nearly £130 million in 2019, and more than £607 million over the decade. The remaining 6% of payments has largely gone to English offshore wind farms, with smaller fractions for Welsh onshore and Scottish and Welsh offshore wind farms. No English onshore wind farms have received constraint payments via the Balancing Mechanism.

Figure 2: Share of wind farm constraint payments 2010-2019, by wind location (onshore or offshore), and country, SC = Scotland, EN = England, WA = Wales (Rounding accounts for the sum not being equal to 100%). Source: Balancing Mechanism, REF. Chart by REF.

The number of Scottish windfarms receiving constraint payments has increased from three in 2010 to sixty-eight in 2019. The largest increase in wind farm numbers occurred in 2017, when eighteen new windfarms received constraint payments for the first time.

Figure 3: Wind farms receiving constraint payments for the first time, an animated geographical display. Click the play arrow on the map above to track the increase in Scottish wind farms receiving constraint payments over the decade 2010–2019 and their location. Each wind farm is coloured yellow and named in the year that it first received constraint payments.

Of the sixty-six onshore wind farms in Scotland receiving constraint payments over the decade, two large windfarms – Whitelee and Clyde – received nearly a third of the decade’s total, taking £108 million and £80 million respectively. The animated bar chart (Figure 4) shows how the costs of constraints to windfarms have accumulated over the decade from a slow start in 2010 when payments were made on only three days, increasing to eighty-two days in 2011, with a peak in 2017 when constraint payments were made on 244 days of the year. Wind farm constraint payments were made on 229 days of 2019.

2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019

Figure 4: Cumulative constraint costs by year for the top ten earning wind farms, an animated bar-chart race. Click the play button above the bar chart to view the animation. The colour of each wind farm indicates the year it first received constraint payments. Note that the intra-month costs are linearly interpolated for the purposes of the animation and the costs on each bar are shown to 2 significant figures only. (Animation adapted from Observable Bar Chart Race.)

It is perhaps unsurprising that Whitelee, being the largest UK onshore wind farm and one of the earliest entrants into the constraint market, has received the largest constraint payment total. However, recent years have seen newer and smaller wind farms overtaking Whitelee, suggesting that the sites currently being chosen for wind farm development are in locations with poorer grid connection. Whether this is a deliberate choice, designed to maximise average earnings per MWh generated, is open to debate.

The animated bar chart below shows how constraint costs grew in 2019 and reveal that Kilgallioch, which was built in 2017 and is less than half the size of Whitelee, has received more in constraint payments in 2019. Similarly, Stronelairg, built in 2018 and also less than half the size of Whitelee, has risen immediately to fourth in the annual league table of constraint payments.

2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019

Figure 5: Cumulative constraint costs in 2019 for the top ten earning wind farms, an animated bar-chart race. Click the play button above the bar chart above to view the animation. The colour of each wind farm indicates the year it first received constraint payments. Note that the intra-month costs are linearly interpolated for the purposes of the animation and the costs on each bar are shown to 2 significant figures only. (Animation adapted from Observable Bar Chart Race.)

In 2019, six wind farms were responsible for 50% of the constraint payment receipts, namely Clyde, Kilgallioch, Whitelee, Stronelairg, Fallago Rig, and Dunmaglass. It is particularly notable that of these six highly constrained wind farms:

a) Stronelairg received planning permission in spite of being behind a grid bottleneck and was subject to a Judicial Review due to its impact on wild land. Moreover, there are currently two further neighbouring applications in process for Glenshero owned by the GFG Alliance, and Cloiche, which is proposed by SSE, the operator of Stronelairg.

b) Whitelee, which opened in 2007 with a capacity of 322 MW, and was one of the first wind farms constrained off in the Balancing Mechanism, has been extended very significantly, with a further 217 MW entering service in 2012.

c) Clyde was completed in 2009, but permission to extend the site with an additional 74 (172.8 MW) turbines was granted in July 2014 and completed in 2017.

d) Fallago Rig is currently seeking an extension to add a further 12 turbines.

e) Kilgallioch is also seeking an extension.

Wind farm owners charge more per unit to reduce output than they earn through generating. For wind farms subsidised under the Renewables Obligation (RO) the income foregone when instructed to reduce output is the value of the Renewable Obligation Certificates (ROC). Typically, wind farms ask to be paid much more than the lost income, and in the early days of wind farm constraint payments, the premiums charged for not generating were very high indeed. For example, in 2011, Crystal Rig 2 charged £991 per MWh to reduce output compared to the value of the ROC at that time of £42 per MWh. Kilbraur, Millennium, Farr, An Suidhe were charging between £200 to £320 per MWh constrained-off in 2011.

This was regarded as an abuse of market power, and the Government introduced the Transmission Constraint Licence Condition (TCLC) in 2012, which sought to prevent excessive bid prices in the event of a constraint. While there can be no doubt that the TCLC resulted in a reduction in prices, they are still well in excess of the subsidy foregone in 2019 as Figures 6 and 7 demonstrate.

Figure 6 shows the five onshore wind farms which received the largest premiums above the subsidy forgone and the five which received the smallest premiumin 2019. It is interesting to note that Andershaw, Blackcraig, Beinneun, Cour and Sanquar, which are receiving a high premium over lost income, are newer wind farms accredited after the ROC banding for onshore wind was reduced such that they receive 0.9 of a ROC per MWh in subsidy. Assuming the 2019 ROC value will be approximately £55, these wind farms would receive £49 per MWh if generating but ask for and receive £96-£98 per MWh not to generate and thus get a premium of £47–£49 above the subsidy when constrained off. The five wind farms with the lowest constraint prices are older wind farms which receive 1 ROC per MWh. In 2019, they were setting constraint prices of £64-£69 per MWh to reduce output, thus getting a premium of £10-£15 per MWh.

Figure 6: Average premium price (per MWh, above the foregone Renewables Obligation subsidy) paid to reduce output when constrained off in 2019 for the five most expensive and five least expensive onshore wind farms. The calculation assumes a ROC value of £53 for Jan-Mar 2019 and £55 for Apr-Dec 2019.

The RO-subsidised offshore windfarms which received constraint payments fall into various subsidy bands: 1, 1.5, 1.8 and 2.0 ROCs per MWh. Taking these variations into account, it is again the newer wind farms that are charging higher constraint payments with the most expensive five offshore wind farms making £52 – £74 per MWh more than the site-specific subsidy forgone. The five least expensive received £20 – £38 per MWh over their subsidy.

Figure 7: Average premium price (per MWh, above the foregone Renewables Obligation subsidy) paid to reduce output when constrained off in 2019 for the five most expensive and five least expensive offshore wind farms. This calculation assumes a ROC value of £53 for Jan-Mar 2019 and £55 for Apr-Dec 2019.

It is difficult to see any justification for compensation over and above the subsidy lost, and indeed REF has suggested, as many economists would argue, that constraints are a normal and entirely foreseeable commerical risk and should not be compensated at all. Indeed, REF infers from the data presented above that constraint payments are actually encouraging the siting of onshore wind farms in grid constrained areas. This is clearly not in the public interest, and entails a significant cost to electricity consumers, who ultimately fund constraint payments through their bills.

Finally, it must be remembered that the cost of mislocating wind farms in areas with weak grid connection or behind constraints is much greater than the direct payments to wind farms themselves, large though these are. When a wind farm is constrained off the grid on one side of a grid bottleneck, National Grid as the system operator is required to make up the short fall in electricity by paying other generation (usually gas-fired) to increase generation on the other side of the bottleneck. Over the last ten years, the overall cost of constraints has risen by nearly 400%, from £165 million in 2010 to £636 million in 2019, reflecting the expense and difficulty of integrating a large wind fleet, and increasingly a large solar fleet, into the GB electricity grid.

Figure 8: Running twelve month total cost for all grid constraints from January 2010 to December 2019 demonstrating the four-fold increase over the decade.

30 December 2019

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