The E.U.'s wind power self-deception
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Anyone who keeps half an eye on the world energy scene might have been seriously baffled by some of the recent news from Europe. Since the 1997 Kyoto Protocol agreement on climate change, no government in the world has been proclaiming its desire to save the planet from the evils of global warming more loudly than the European Union, now representing 27 nations.
The E.U. has pledged, for instance, to go far beyond its agreed Kyoto targets for reducing its CO2 output, promising to cut its emissions by no less than 60 percent by 2050 (yes, you read that right: 60 percent, in little over four decades). To achieve this highly implausible goal, the E.U. particularly looks to generating its electricity from renewable sources; to this end, it has set itself a target of producing no less than 20 percent of its energy produced from renewables, as soon as 2020.
To underline just how absurdly ambitious these targets are, the E.U.’s own latest figures (2005) show that the amount of its energy it is currently generating from renewable sources is less than 7 percent. This leaves a mighty distance to span if it is to achieve that 20 percent target by 2020. Furthermore, in the past two years, far from reducing its output of CO2, the E.U.’s carbon emissions have actually risen by 1.5 percent. Meanwhile, according to Department of Energy figures, the U.S., which the E.U. loves to revile for having failed to sign Kyoto, reduced its 2006 emissions by 1.6 percent.
To understand how such a weirdly unreal situation has come about, it is necessary to appreciate two rather important features of this strange entity, the E.U. First, regardless of what the E.U. claims to be doing, it has only one real underlying agenda: to constantly extend the range of policy areas where it has the power to lay down the law for all member countries. To this end, it is always looking for headline-making issues which it can seize on to justify its “integration” process. Of these issues, none are more obvious than its constantly proclaimed desire to save the planet by “protecting the environment.” It is this above all which has led the E.U. to so ostentatiously embrace the cause of global warming.
The other key to understanding how the E.U. works is to learn always to distinguish between theory and practice: between what the E.U. claims to be doing and what it is actually achieving. This is because, almost invariably, the two are very different. The E.U.’s response to the supposed challenge of “climate change” vividly illustrates both these points.
In 1997, when the Kyoto Protocol was drawn up, the E.U. was quick to promise that it would go even further than the agreement required. There wasn’t much the E.U. could do about some of the chief sources of man-made CO2 emissions, such as deforestation (the second largest global CO2 emitter, responsible for 18 percent of the total). But easily the largest single source, accounting for 40 percent, is power generation. This was the E.U.’s particular focus when it first pledged to reduce its carbon emissions to four-fifths of their 1990 level by 2020.
How was this to be achieved? The most obvious “carbon neutral” source of energy was nuclear power, but at that time the E.U. and most of its members were dead set against building any more nuclear power stations (even though one of its leading members, France, derives nearly 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear reactors built in the 1970s).
The only remaining hope therefore was a huge boost to its “renewable” energy sources. Even today, according to the latest available figures, the E.U. derives only 6.83 percent of its energy from renewables. Two-thirds of this comes from “biomass,” mainly the burning of woodchips which are a by-product of the Scandinavian timber industries. Just over a fifth, 22 percent, is hydro-electric power, mainly concentrated in the few countries with mountains. Almost at the bottom of the list, comprising less than half of 1 percent of the E.U.’s total energy production, is wind energy. Yet initially it was in wind power that the E.U. saw its best hope of achieving a truly dramatic increase in its renewable energy supply.
Backed by lavish (if largely hidden) subsidies, three E.U. countries led the way, building thousands of wind turbines. One was Spain; another Germany, which now has 31 percent of all the installed wind power capacity in the world; and the third, little Denmark, which in 2002 was claiming that it could then produce nearly a fifth of all its power from the monster turbines dominating its flat landscape and coastline. They were followed by other countries such as Ireland and the U.K., which claims to have the world’s greatest potential wind resources, due to its geographical position.
But gradually the realization dawned that wind power is not all it had been cracked up to be by Al Gore-style environmentalists, its most obvious drawback of course being that wind is so unreliable. This creates three separate but related problems.
First, turbines produce only a fraction of their “installed capacity” (in the U.K., around 25 percent), so the amount of power they actually provide is derisory. To achieve the same quantity of electricity that a conventional 2,000 megawatt power station generates would require covering hundreds of square miles of countryside or sea with giant windmills.
Second, so unpredictable are the instances when the wind blows at sufficient strength that conventional power stations must be kept permanently running, ready to step in at any moment to maintain a consistent power supply. Unless this “spinning reserve” is provided by nuclear reactors, this means that any supposed CO2 savings from wind power are largely if not entirely negated. Thus the chief argument to justify the E.U.’s great drive for wind power turned out in practice not to exist.
The third problem, thanks to this unpredictability, is that the more a country comes to rely on wind energy, the more it risks destabilizing its grid through sudden surges or drops in the energy from its turbines.
The first E.U. country to recognize these problems was Denmark. It discovered that, although on paper, wind power represented nearly 20 percent of its generating capacity, in reality the turbines were generating only 6 percent of its electricity (a staggering 84 percent of which then had to be exported to Norway, because when the wind was blowing, much more power than Denmark could use was created). In 2002, Denmark put a moratorium on building any more turbines, followed by Ireland in 2003.
On the evening of Saturday, November 4, 2006, a large part of western Europe experienced a black-out due to a massive power surge from thousands of turbines in Germany into the “pan-European grid.” From Holland to Italy, it was reported that “a real catastrophe” had just barely been averted.
All this is risked to generate so little power that the 0.05 percent of the E.U.’s total electricity consumption it supplies still scarcely registers, while achieving virtually zero in terms of CO2 emissions reductions. Yet the E.U. inhabits such a land of make-believe that in March 2007 its 27 government heads gathered in Brussels to repeat their pledge that the E.U. will derive 20 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2020. The European Commission president, José Manuel Barroso, even had the chutzpah to proclaim that “Europe is now able to lead the way on climate change.”
One after another the E.U.’s green dreams of cheap, planet-saving renewable energy have been hitting the brick wall of reality. Solar power in Europe is insignificant. Biofuels are increasingly derided by the environmentalists themselves, not least because of the devastation they wreak on tropical rainforests, felled to provide inefficient alternatives to oil. As Europe’s energy experts look to a future where the E.U. becomes largely dependent on imports of gas from Russia and other politically unstable sources overseas, it is hardly surprising they are begging their governments to build a whole lot more nuclear power stations before it is too late. Right now, however, most of Europe’s politicians are still lost in the cloud-cuckoo land of those Al Gore-style green dreams. Reality, and the ability to resist a fashionable cause, have never been the E.U.’s strong suits.
Christopher Booker, a columnist with the London Sunday Telegraph, is known for his highly critical reports on the workings of the European Union. His recent book The Great Deception: Can the European Union Survive? (co-authored with Dr. Richard North) has been acclaimed as the most authoritative history of the “European project.”
17 August 2007
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