September 23, 2006
Opinions, U.K.

Why wind generates only bluster

WIND has the potential to supply one third of the world’s electricity by 2050, according to a report by Greenpeace and the Global Wind Energy Council. It’s an ambitious goal, but even this far off it looks hopelessly unrealistic.

Take the example of the UK, possibly one of the windiest locations in the world. Despite nine years of government support and subsidy, wind farms have been erected at a snail’s pace.

There is just 1,936 megawatt of wind power installed in UK – roughly 1.4 per cent of total UK electricity supplies. As fast as wind farms are built, electricity consumption increases.

The Government wants 20 per cent of electricity generation to come from renewable sources by 2020. Most of that capacity is supposed to be provided by wind farms. However, the target bears little relation to what is happening on the ground (or at sea).

The first major hurdle, according to Kevin McCullough, managing director of npower renewables, is the inadequacy of the electricity infrastructure. Britain’s national grid was designed around large centres of generation, rather than distributed sources of power. So the country needs to invest hundreds of millions of pounds in cabling to bring power from the remote areas of Scotland, Cornwall and offshore, which are windy enough for turbines.

The second problem is nimbyism. Survey after survey has shown that two thirds of people back renewable energy, with most saying they approve of wind farms. Yet the average time it takes to get a wind farm through planning is five years. The problem has got so bad that the industry now calls objectors the Banana brigade – building absolutely nothing at all near anything.

Off-shore wind farms were supposed to provide the solution. Just out of site, on the horizon, off-shore wind farms could use giant turbines to generate more power from higher wind speeds. English Heritage embarked on an auction of key sites four years ago, with energy, oil and gas companies competing ferociously for the pitches. Since then, development has barely begun because of problems with shipping lanes, bird life, radar interference and soaring costs.

Tax breaks in the US and Germany for investors in wind farms have caused a run on turbines, and the soaring cost of steel, required to embed giant turbines 20 metres in the sea bed, make off-shore wind farms look distinctly uncompetitive.

Now the industry is arguing that it needs greater incentives to build off-shore, incentives which can only be paid for by higher electricity prices in the long run. Wind: nice in theory but in practice so much hot air.

By Angela Jameson

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