When politicians call for a “national debate”, it is a sure sign that the most dubious policy is about to be railroaded through, whether we debate it or not.
That is what lies at the heart of the Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s portentous declaration yesterday of a “green revolution”. Thousands of new wind turbines are set to be built across the UK over the coming decade as part of a £100 billion plan for renewable energy.
What a dissembling cheek the Prime Minister has in suggesting we hold a “national debate” on the wind-farm “revolution”. The die is cast and the EU-imposed target of 15 per cent of renewable energy has long been set. Where was the “national debate” about that? We are now about to see a massive push for yet more wind-farm development and spending on a scale that will blast apart energy economics for a generation ˆ with a massive bill heading for consumers.
Farmers are being offered generous sums to put wind farms on their land, and the planning system is likely to become even more skewed towards wind-farm developers as this massive project is railroaded through.
Such is the collective delusion over wind farms, and the money-no-object rush to embrace them that I can only liken the policy stampede to a collective mania straight out of Charles Mackay’s Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.
How much electricity will wind farms have to generate? How many new turbines will be required? What will be the cost? And can the planning system survive the onslaught with any credibility?
If the government is to meet its renewables target, then the amount of electricity to be generated by wind farms will have to increase more than twenty-fold. The Royal Academy of Engineering has calculated that wind energy is two and a half times more expensive than other forms of electricity generation in the UK.
The cost of electricity generated by nuclear power (including the cost of decommissioning) is 2.3p per KWh; electricity from coal-fired power stations costs 2.5p per KWh, while the cost of electricity generated by onshore wind is 5.4p per KWh.
The government has now accepted that the total cost of meeting this target will be a staggering £100 billion ˆ the equivalent of £4,000 for each household. And the final bill could be even higher, as these figures do not include the costs of expanding and upgrading the grid to cope with new energy sources.
Paul Golby, the chief executive of power generator E.ON UK, has calculated that UK homeowners will be forced to pay an extra £400 on their annual bill to meet the EU-imposed green-energy target. That would assume a total cost of £4,700 per household up to 2020.
Wind farms currently account for some 23 per cent of renewable energy, or 1.1 per cent of total UK electricity production. To meet the 2020 target, the Renewables Advisory Board has estimated that this will have to rise to 36.5 per cent, or 88.6 per cent of total renewable energy generation in the UK.
Energy analyst Tony Lodge, in an analysis published this week*, reckons that this would necessitate about 10,000 new offshore and onshore wind turbines by 2020, compared with just under 2,000 currently. And the great majority of these new turbines will have to be built onshore on grounds of cost and accessibility.
Is this the best, or even a sensible, way forward? Big questions arise over the output figures given by the wind-farm industry. Full capacity figures are readily quoted, when the pertinent figures should surely be the average output generated, since wind does not blow consistently every day.
Wind farms do well if average output hits 35 per cent of full capacity. However, the evidence is that across Europe wind turbines have produced on average less than 20 per cent of rated capacity in recent years. Onshore turbines in the UK ran at 24.1 per cent of their capacity in 2003.
Many of these new wind farms will be destined for Scotland. Where the call for “national debate” really sticks in the throat is that opponents of wind-farm development are having to fight against a planning system skewed in favour of developers, who have the financial resources to wear down and crush local community objections.
For example, a proposal by Enertrag in 2005 to build six wind turbines in countryside in Norfolk was opposed by the vast majority of people in the area and turned down by the county council on the recommendation of planning officers. Enertrag appealed and a public inquiry was held in 2006. The planning inspector dismissed the appeal.
Enertrag appealed to the High Court to have this overturned. The inspector’s decision was set aside and a second public inquiry held in June last year with another inspector. Again, Enertrag’s arguments were dismissed. Now the firm is seeking a judicial review.
What community can withstand that? Hundreds of local authorities will be under intense pressure to agree to wind farms and the hurdles that community groups face will be colossal. What sort of “national debate” can be credible when the push is on to meet externally imposed targets and with a planning system under pressure to apply fast-tracking results? A level playing field it is not.
We are in this mess, not because of soaring oil prices or global warming, but because the government has failed to put the case for the alternatives ˆ clean coal, nuclear and tidal power. This is where the “national debate” should be ˆ rather than egging on a panic stampede to an energy, environmental and financial debacle.
*Wind chill: Why wind energy will not fill the UK’s energy gap, Centre
for Policy Studies.
26 June 2008
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