If you have a hankering to see Britain’s green and pleasant countryside or its rugged coastline, you shouldn’t wait too long. They are both likely to disappear soon under thousands of massive, swirling, 400-foot wind turbines. Recently, U.K. Industry Secretary John Hutton announced that the British government is planning 25 gigawatts of offshore wind power capacity, adding to the 8 GW already in development. A grand plan that could, in theory anyway, power all of Britain’s 25 million homes by as early as 2020.
Wind seems to be blowing in the minds of the politically correct and those on the environmentalist bandwagon. But the cost is going to be huge, no companies will plunge into it without massive government subsidies, and should the turbines actually be built, power reliability will almost certainly take a nosedive.
The extent of Britain’s wind power commitment can be shown by the fact that by itself, the 8 GW capacity under construction will give Britain world leadership in installed wind power production. So why is Britain jumping ahead?
Wind power has become the energy source du jour, the darling of (most) environmental groups and governments. Currently, just 2 percent of the U.K.’s power comes from renewable energy sources, with wind providing less than 0.5 GW of the total generation capacity. Hutton’s plan would mean an astonishing leap for the British wind power industry. Of the 8 GW in capacity that’s currently planned, the London Array, with 271 wind turbines to be built in the Thames estuary, will be the world’s largest plant, providing 1 GW of nominal capacity by itself. The London Array should be operational by 2014 and is expected to power 750,000 homes. But it would be upstaged by an even bigger project currently under consideration: the proposed $6 billion Atlantic Array, which would consist of 350 turbines off the southwest coast of England.
Hutton’s plan would literally change the face of Britain. On the BBC’s “Politics Show” he recently said the plan will result in roughly 7,000 turbines – astoundingly, one every half-mile around the entire coast of Britain. His justification: “There is no way of making the shift to low-carbon technology without there being change and for that change to be visible and evident to people.” So there will be enormous aesthetic, environmental, and economic costs – costs driven primarily by the belief that man’s carbon emissions are the main cause of the world’s global warming of 1 degree or so over the last century.
Who Will Pay for the Plan?
While the renewables-at-any-cost lobbies applauded Hutton’s announcement, the more realistic wind energy groups were a bit more circumspect. Welcoming the commitment to the goal of greater wind power sufficiency, the British Wind Energy Association’s Gordon Edge called the government’s plan “pie in the sky.” Edge’s view is that the plan suffers from one major flaw: private capital investment will not be forthcoming. Dan Lewis, of the Economic Research Council, adds his opinion that the British government is “deluding itself on a grand scale. There will be no race by investors to build offshore wind farms.” These voices recognize that, to date, the taxpayer has picked up the wind power tab.
Despite U.K. wind industry subsidies of over $500 million, so far such a massive investment has only provided less than 0.5 percent of the U.K.’s electricity needs. In August 2007, the BBC’s Radio 4 “Costing the Earth” program reported that the government’s financial incentives were encouraging wind industry firms to take advantage of massive government subsidies and build wind farms on non-viable sites across the mainland. So it seems winds are too variable even in Europe’s windiest country, with most turbines consistently underperforming as a result. (For more on the “Costing the Earth” report, see “U.K. Wind Blown Off Course,” ET, October 2007.) Jim Oswald, a consulting engineer, analyzed figures submitted to Ofgem (the U.K.’s electricity watchdog) on each wind farm’s load factor. He explained to the BBC, “It’s the power swings that worry us. Over a 20-hour period you can go from almost 100 percent wind output to 20 percent.”
A “load factor” of just over 30 percent is recommended for a wind farm to be economically viable. However, many of Britain’s onshore farms have been running at around 20 percent, with some in urban areas dropping as low as 9 percent. Oswald believes that overly relying on wind power will result in major power failures across the U.K. and an increase of up to 50 percent in electricity bills. While nothing comes close to the capricious aspect of nature itself, the industry also still suffers from some severe technical difficulties.
In August 2007, Germany’s Der Spiegel reported the rising incidence of “mishaps, breakdowns and accidents” associated with ever-larger turbines. When one rotor blade broke away in Oldenburg in northern Germany, an examination of six other turbines was ordered. The results proved so alarming that the authorities immediately ordered four to be shut down. The same Der Spiegel article noted that manufacturers’ claims that turbines would last for 20 years have proven hollow. Indeed, it appears that they are not allowing time for proper stress-testing procedures. And even though global demand for turbines is growing at double-digit rates, German manufacturers cannot keep up. That’s a remarkable fact, given that the German wind power industry now employs some 74,000 people.
Industry insider Jerome à Paris, writing on the Oil Drum: Europe Web site as recently as December 2007, admitted that the industry is still suffering from “unresolved technical difficulties with some turbine models that have been withdrawn from the market.” Since turbines are the industry’s backbone, this has undoubtedly proven a key deterrent for prospective investors – except for prospective government investors, apparently.
Much has been written about Denmark’s success as the world’s wind power pioneer. But the regularly repeated claim – that Denmark generates 20 percent of its electricity demand from wind sources – is highly misleading. That 20 percent of electricity is not supplied continuously from wind power. Denmark’s wind supply is so variable that it relies heavily on neighbors Norway and Sweden, taking their excess production. In 2003 its export figure for wind power electricity production was as high as 84 percent, as Denmark found it could not absorb its own highly variable wind output capacity into its domestic system. The scale of Denmark’s subsidies was such that in 2006-07 the government increasingly came under scrutiny from the Danish media, which claimed the subsidies were out of control.
Back in Britain, the high maintenance costs associated with the same problems Germany and Denmark have lately reported – ones that can only be exacerbated by even larger offshore plants – are yet to be reaped. Once again, the inability to store a highly variable power output while also sustaining a consistent supply to the U.K. national grid, present major problems. Considering those problems on top of the enormous unresolved technical problems with turbines, it becomes increasingly easy to understand why it takes the political will of government to bridge the private investment gap.
In a recent U.S. report about Silicon Valley’s investments in clean-energy technologies, Vinod Khosla, founder of Khosla Ventures, said, “I worry about over-investing from firms that don’t understand the energy markets.” He’s not alone. In last June’s Energy Pulse, consulting engineer Brian Leyland warned that the entire investment boom in alternative energy renewables could turn into just another “dotcom bubble.”
Leyland noted that the boom is driven by “a belief that we must reduce emissions of manmade” carbon dioxide, which in turn has “led to direct and indirect subsidies for otherwise non-economic renewables. These subsidies and tax breaks caused the boom. Without them, it wouldn’t have happened.”
The bottom line is that the debate about renewables, and investment in them, is as much about ideology and political belief as about economics and environmental issues. When the real cost of wind power as a major player in our future power needs is assessed, the answer won’t be found just “blowin’ in the wind.”
By Peter Glover and Michael Economides
2 April 2008