It was a claim that sent shockwaves through the wind-farm industry: the UK’s turbines are being built in the wrong place, far from the strong winds that would make them efficient sources of electricity.
Wind farms attract controversy, wherever they are proposed, with strong opinions on both sides, but it appeared this latest claim was being made not by the usual anti-wind lobby but by an eminent figure within an international renewable energy group.
At stake was the reputation of a burgeoning multimillion-pound industry and the people who champion it. Or so it seemed, at least.
For the revelations resulted in the outbreak of bizarre feuding within the World Renewable Energy Network (WREN), which described its own policy committee chairman as an “oil and gas” expert, his views as “stupid” and his theories akin to imposing a Communist-style command economy.
The ensuing furore would see claim and counter-claim, bouts of personal sniping and eventually draw in the television presenter Noel Edmonds.
The debate might be bizarre, but there is no doubting the seriousness of the issue: wind energy has become a mainstay of the renewable sector, which supporters say is vital to cutting greenhouse gases and saving the planet.
They also argue it will make the UK more secure by providing electricity without the risk of politically motivated cuts by countries such as Russia or sudden large price rises on the international market.
The latest attack was serious, coming from Michael Jefferson, the chairman of the policies committee of WREN, in a BBC Radio 4 programme, Costing the Earth, which was broadcast last night.
He suggested the UK wind-rush had taken the country in a potentially dangerous direction and promised a future beset by problems caused by fields of inefficient turbines.
Mr Jefferson said too many wind farms were being built in places such as the Home Counties of England, where there was relatively little wind, rather than places like the west coast of Scotland.
But he insisted he was seeking to ensure wind farms were built in the best places and that he was not against them in principle.
Some wind farms were producing a pitiful 7.6 per cent of their potential because the wind was so light, the BBC reported, citing an expert study written by Jim Oswald, an independent engineering consultant, for the Renewable Energy Foundation (REF).
Mr Oswald said he had found that, at times, the wind could drop so low in the UK that wind farms across the country would be producing just 3.3 per cent of their potential electricity.
This large fluctuation of supply would force other power generators – probably fossil fuel ones – to power up and produce more electricity, generating more carbon dioxide than they would if they ran smoothly.
But Scottish Renewables said other studies had shown that wind could provide more than 20 per cent of this country’s power, and pointed to Denmark, where this level had already been achieved.
Jason Ormiston, chief executive of the industry body, said: “I’d question the work Jim Oswald has done. The industry has accepted the growing levels of capacity will require additional back-up [from constant sources of power], but it’s not as big as some of the critics are saying.”
He also pointed out the REF had been the brainchild of Noel Edmonds, and Mr Ormiston said it had been “set up to make the case against onshore wind” and promote other forms of renewable energy.
Indeed, Mr Edmonds said shortly after the REF was founded: “Wind turbines simply do not work and are not the answer to the challenge the UK faces in terms of renewable and sustainable energy.”
Within hours of Mr Jefferson’s remarks to the BBC being reported, his own organisation was busily disowning him.
“We are a little concerned about this,” a spokeswoman said.
“I think Mr Jefferson is making his own personal point of view – it’s not one representative of the WREN. We are fully in support of wind energy. He is not a wind energy expert. His expertise is in oil and gas.”
She said the WREN expert on wind energy was Professor Donald Swift-Hook, a visiting lecturer at Kingston University, described as an “apologist” for wind by Mr Jefferson.
Speaking from Austria, Professor Swift-Hook did not hold back. “The big thing he [Mr Jefferson] is on about is people are putting up wind turbines that are uneconomic and they shouldn’t be allowed to do so,” he said. “But it’s a free society; they should be allowed to do what they want, otherwise you have a command control economy. In principle, what he’s talking about is bad economics.”
While some sites in England might not make as much power as available sites in Scotland, the professor said this should not mean those wind-farm projects should be banned.
But what about the wind farm that can produce only 7.6 per cent of its potential? Surely that was evidence, proof positive, that some sites were simply not windy enough.
Actually that so-called “farm” was a single turbine in Hertfordshire on top of a building housing Renewable Energy Systems, a wind power firm.
Dr Ian Mays, chief executive of the the company, said: “The turbine was never intended to generate huge amounts of electricity but simply to provide power for our head office, a job it does well.”
WINDS OF CHANGE AS FARMS FALL SHORT
Just how much power a wind farm produces depends, obviously, on how hard the wind blows and how often.
Developments are often rated by the amount of power they would produce if they turned at optimum speed all the time. But the average wind farm in the UK will produce about 30 per cent of its capacity.
Turbines in the windy and exposed Shetland Isles are perhaps the most efficient, producing 50 per cent of their capacity, with Orkney and the outer Hebridean isles not far behind.
However they are far away from population centres and electricity is lost in the form of heat as it is carried down cables. This means there is a balance to be found when siting a wind farm between the strength of the wind and the distance to where the electricity will be used. Ofgem, the regulator, is currently considering making power generators far away from population centres pay more for their connection to the National Grid in recognition of this.
Another issue is that remote, windy locations are often areas of outstanding natural beauty or valuable wildlife habitats, which limits the number of available sites.
By Ian Johnston
31 August 2007
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