Energy policy in Great Britain has been a shambles for years. Cowardly governments have turned a blind eye to repeated warnings over prices and supply. Disaster has been avoided thanks only to lucky escapes rather than good stewardship. A case study in the stupidity of the British government’s attitude to energy – aided and abetted by the European Union – is its continuing obsession with wind farms, a so-called sustainable source of energy which is costly, inefficient, unreliable – and ultimately unsustainable.
The official line from London and Brussels has always been that wind turbines produce energy more cleanly and cheaply than any conventional alternatives ever could. Try telling that to the inhabitants of the Scottish island of Lewis, who are currently fighting Amec, an engineering consultancy, and British Energy, a giant electricity group. Both are intent on converting the tiny Hebridean Island into one of the world’s largest wind farms. Aside from how 181 turbines covering the northern half of the island will look, the farm will upset Lewis’ fragile ecology, and spell disaster for numerous rare animals. There is a grim irony to the island’s predicament: “environmentally-friendly” measures threatening to visit irreparable damage upon a natural environment.
The real solution to Britain’s energy problems is much more nuclear power, not wind. Until now, coal, oil and North Sea gas have provided most of Britain’s electricity. But thanks to increasingly stringent environmental regulations, coal is becoming much more expensive (ensuring that carbon dioxide is captured at source through chimney-scrubbing technology will skew the cost argument more in favour of nuclear); and with supplies of North Sea gas running out, Britain will be forced to rely on imported natural gas to produce its electricity, much of it coming from some of the most unstable and unsavoury regions of the world, including autocratic Russia.
The Lewis case is rightly triggering a long-overdue debate in Britain about wind power. Even the military is having its say (wind turbines block radar signals, creating “holes” in the national defence network). But the most devastating case against wind farms is to be found in Christopher Booker and Richard North’s recent book, Scared to Death.
The facts are clear: the United Kingdom’s 165 wind farms have failed to deliver on their promises: they are not significantly cleaner; they are certainly not cheaper; and they are already draining the pockets of the consumer, hitting the poor and needy hardest of all.
Wind is, by its very nature, unreliable: sometimes it blows, sometimes it doesn’t. So wind farms sometimes produce a surfeit of electricity; and sometimes they produce next-to-nothing. There needs to be a contingency plan, lest consumers be left without electricity when the wind turbines stop turning. So coal-fired power stations are kept running in the background, ready to step into the breach at a moment’s notice. The CO2 emissions generated by keeping these power-stations on stand-by aren’t counted in the “carbon reduction” totals for wind farms. At best this is an oversight; at worst it’s grand hypocrisy – the big business equivalent of cycling to work while a car follows behind, carrying your bags.
The background-running of power stations adds to the cost of wind-farmed electricity. Figures from the Royal Academy of Engineering show that the cost of a kilowatt hour of electricity from an onshore wind turbine, including the cost of stand-by generation, was 5.4p. The corresponding figure for an offshore turbine is a daunting 7.2p. By contrast, gas, nuclear and coal-fuelled power stations could produce the same quantity of electricity for 2.2p, 2.3p and 2.5p respectively.
But instead of pricing the wind turbine operators out of the market, their higher costs are working in their favour, in typical “economics of the madhouse” fashion. The reason is the government’s “Renewables Obligation” handout scheme, by which energy suppliers are – in effect – forced to buy a certain percentage of their electricity from wind turbine owners. Currently, electricity suppliers must purchase some 7.9% of their electricity from renewable sources, rising to 15.4% by 2015.
In a remarkable but largely ignored development, the subsidy paid to renewable power generators through electricity bills is set to surge from £600m a year to £3bn a year by 2020 (this, needless to say, doesn’t appear on anybody’s electricity bills). The owners of existing wind farms are already making a fortune. According to astonishing figures from Ofgem, they could be making more than £100 per megawatt hour; the bigger energy companies are already pocketing up to £90m a year each. But the bonanza is just beginning.
Wind farms are fast becoming millionaires’ playgrounds. Indeed, wind power is the perfect business investment: it adds a splash of green to any bulging portfolio, ticks the “corporate responsibility” box and rakes in bulging fiscal rewards as surely as any hedge fund or coffee franchise.
The Renewables Obligation is being used to generate profits for turbine owners without leading to the intended increase in wind-farmed electricity. Despite the vast subsidies available, the extra wind capacity added in 2007 was less than three-quarters of that built the year before. Wind turbines do not yet make a significant contribution to electricity production, accounting for just 0.75% of the national total. The government is committed to building more wind farms, with promises that wind energy will “make the main contribution” to the electricity produced by renewable sources. But Britain’s antediluvian planning laws seem to be getting in the way, as those who want to turn Lewis into a wind farm are discovering.
Those that succeed in building wind turbines, however, can make a killing and quickly join the ranks of the green energy fat-cats exploiting ordinary consumers – especially the most disadvantaged who pay a larger chunk of their incomes on energy than average – who are paying for the cost of the Renewables Obligation via increased energy prices. When Alistair Darling, the Chancellor, recently asked energy suppliers to explain soaring energy bills, the suppliers hit back by revealing that around 50% of the increases are directly attributable to the green agenda imposed by London and Brussels.
Some estimate the Renewables Obligation adding over £1bn a year to electricity bills, at the worst possible time for consumers already under huge pressure from soaring mortgages, higher taxes and increased inflation. Energy prices are rising by between 10% and 20%. Throw in high oil and fuel prices and you have a nasty recipe for public impoverishment. People are struggling to pay: according to Ofgem, power disconnections have more than trebled over the past two years.
Things are only going to get worse. In line with European Commission stipulations, the government is committing to increase Britain’s proportion of renewable energy to 15% in 2020. The main driver of this is the requirement that Europe must cut CO2 emissions by 20% by 2020, compared with 1990 levels, put forward by the European Commission as part of Brussels’ measures to tackle climate change.
It is not only national and European politicians who continue to pass absurd and counter-productive edicts: during the 2007 Scottish Parliament election campaign, the Labour Party promised that by 2020 Scotland would be producing no less than 40% of its energy from renewable sources. At the time, Scotland was producing some 12% from renewables, almost all of it from hydroelectric schemes built 50 years earlier; hardly anything was coming from the country’s 640 turbines.
To achieve the new target the Scottish government would have to build at least 8,000 more turbines, covering a ridiculous 7% of Scotland’s entire land area. Even these would generate only 3,300 MW of electricity, roughly the same as the coal-fired power station at Didcot in Oxfordshire. All of which only adds weight to the case of the Lewis islanders. Not only will those wind turbines damage the local environment, they will prompt higher energy bills without offsetting carbon emissions all that much.
Yet, assuming that Britain wishes to remain a developed and civilised country, it will always need electricity. With gas and coal supplies dwindling or from the wrong parts of the world, and existing nuclear plants reaching the end of their lifespan – what’s the alternative? Building more nuclear power plants is the best way forward, not just to replace the old stations that will soon go out of service but also to increase the share of nuclear in total energy output.
The positives are overwhelming: cheaper energy prices; negligible carbon emissions; and none of the inconsistencies of wind power. The Chernobyl disaster has been exploited by the green movement for two decades. But the latest generation of nuclear power station is safer, cleaner and more efficient. There’s no reason to hold back.
The biggest improvement in nuclear technology in recent years has been the drastic reduction in the volume of waste it produces: if modern plants were commissioned to replace the existing stations, Britain would be able to maintain its 20%-25% share of nuclear-generated power and add only roughly 10% to the UK’s volume of existing nuclear waste over their 60-year operating lifetime. Current levels of electricity output from nuclear power could be maintained by ten 1,000-megawatt nuclear stations based on the latest techniques; 40 would quadruple it and solve virtually all of Britain’s energy problems.
Like all of Gordon Brown’s other grand plans, his decision to take up the nuclear standard, pledging to deliver a new series of power stations to replace the current ones in a decade, is too little, too late. There is much that is wrong about the way France manages and directs its economy; but its huge investment in nuclear power is a model worth following. In fact, many European countries depend more heavily on nuclear power than Britain: in France about 75% of all electricity is nuclear-generated, in Belgium 55%, Finland 27%, Switzerland 40% and Sweden 50%.
Britain should increase its reliance on nuclear power to European levels; failure to do so risks devastating consequences for the British economy and will damage consumers very badly. But most urgent of all, Mr Brown (and Brussels) should stop wasting time and taxpayers’ money with wind farms.
6 February 2008
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding