Last week, amid the clouds of self-righteous humbug billowing out from Bali, Gordon Brown committed us to what I do not hesitate to call the maddest single decision ever made by British ministers. It was announced by John Hutton, Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, that we are to build 7,000 giant offshore wind turbines round Britain’s coast by 2020, to meet our EU target on renewable energy. It will be the largest concentration of such industrial monsters in the world, enough, claimed Mr Hutton, to power every home in the country.
No matter that Mr Hutton’s officials warned him in August it was not conceivable that we could achieve even a much lower target. So keen was Mr Brown that Britain should “lead Europe on climate change” that Mr Hutton was told to ignore his officials – and the media reported his claims without questioning whether such a megalomaniac project was remotely feasible.
For a start, no one mentioned costs. Mr Hutton spoke of his turbines, equivalent to one every half mile of coastline, as having a capacity of 33 gigawatts (GW), a hefty chunk of the 75GW of power we need at peak demand. But with the cost of giant offshore turbines, as tall as 850 feet, estimated at £1.6 billion per GW of capacity, this represents a bill of more than £50 billion – equivalent to the colossal sum earmarked last week by central banks to shore up the world banking system.
But of course the point about offshore turbines is that, because wind blows intermittently, they only generate on average at a third or less of capacity. So Mr Hutton’s 33GW figure comes down to 11GW. To generate this much power from “carbon-free” nuclear energy would require six or seven nuclear power stations and cost, at something under £20 billion, less than half as much as the turbines.
This, however, is only the start of the madness. Because those turbines would generate on average only a third of the time, back-up would be needed to provide power for the remaining two thirds – say, another 12 nuclear power stations costing an additional £30 billion, putting the real cost of Mr Hutton’s fantasy at nearer £80 billion – more than doubling our electricity bills.
But we must then ask whether it would be technically possible to carry out the most ambitious engineering project ever proposed in Britain. As pointed out by energy expert Professor Ian Fells, this would require us to raise from the seabed two of these 2,000 ton structures every working day between 2008 and 2020. Denmark, with the world’s largest offshore wind resource, has never managed to build more than two a week, and marine conditions allow such work for only a third of the year.
It is not only on this count that Brown and Hutton’s dream is unrealisable. The turbines’ siting would mean that much of the national grid would have to be restructured, costing further billions. And because wind power is so unpredictable and needs other sources available at a moment’s notice, it is generally accepted that any contribution above 10 per cent made by wind to a grid dangerously destabilises it.
Two years ago, much of western Europe blacked out after a rush of German windpower into the continental grid forced other power stations to close down. The head of Austria’s grid warned that the system was becoming so unbalanced by the “excessive” building of wind turbines that Europe would soon be “confronted with massive connector problems”. Yet Mr Hutton’s turbines would require a system capable of withstanding power swings of up to 33GW, when the only outside backup on which our island grid can depend is a 2GW connector to France (which derives 80 per cent of its electricity from nuclear power).
Nothing better illustrates the fatuity of windpower than the fact that Denmark, with the highest concentration of turbines in the world, must export more than 80 per cent of its wind-generated electricity to Norway, to prevent its grid being swamped when the wind is blowing, while remaining heavily reliant the rest of the time on power from Sweden and Germany.
The Danes, who decided in 2002 to build no more turbines, have learnt their lesson. We British have still to learn it. Every time we hear that over-used term “green” we should remember it has another meaning: someone who is naively foolish and dangerously gullible.
by Christopher Booker
16 December 2007
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