According to Britain’s politicians, covering the landscape with wind farms is still the future. Last month Chris Huhne, the energy secretary, promised a “seismic shift” to wind and other non-carbon forms of generating electricity.
In November, Scotland’s first minister, Alex Salmond, spoke of wind’s “massive economic rewards” in a “renewables revolution”. In May, the wind industry trade body, RenewableUK, called the North Sea “the Saudi Arabia of wind”.
Yet it can be revealed that as the rhetoric has climbed ever further up the Beaufort scale, the wind itself has moved in precisely the opposite direction. New figures published by The Sunday Telegraph show that 2010 was, by one authoritative measure, the least windy year since 1824.
According to other figures from official sources, exclusively compiled for this newspaper, Britain’s wind farms turned less in 2010 than in any previous year since detailed records were kept.
The failure of the country’s massive wind industry to generate almost any electricity whatever at the time when it was most needed – during last month’s extreme cold snap – has been widely reported. But that, we can reveal, was just the tip of the turbine-blade in a decades-long trend of declining wind. It is a trend causing an increasing crisis for the industry among those, principally investors, who are more aware of events than British politicians.
“For those who staked their future on assumptions made based off of recent weather patterns, there may be some significant flaws in the business plan,” says Todd Crawford, a forecaster at Weather Services International, a consultancy operated by the US’s Weather Channel. Moody’s, the international credit rating agency, warned that “unusually low levels of wind volumes” were becoming “a key driver of credit risk to investors.”
According to figures compiled by the Renewable Energy Foundation (REF) for The Sunday Telegraph, UK wind farms generated electricity to just 23.6 per cent of their full capacity between October 2009 and September 2010, based on official data from the electricity regulator, Ofgem. That is lower than in any year since 2002-3, the first year when the figures were collected.
Provisional January-to-December data, incorporating the cold snap, also shows that 2010 was the least windy year in Britain since the records began. The data has been compiled using Ofgem figures and statistics for wind power provided to the National Grid, Britain’s electricity transmission network.
Lack of wind is a problem because, with the exception of hydropower, electricity cannot be stored in large quantities. The power companies have to generate it at exactly the moment customers want to use it. But the wind might not be blowing when 11 million people want to boil the kettle after Downton Abbey.
“The Government is treating wind power as if it is a fully-established technological winner on which we can bet Britain’s energy future,” said John Constable, REF’s head of research. “These latest figures show, again, that this is economically and technically reckless; wind simply will not do what ministers tell it.”
The root of the problem is a feature in the atmosphere called the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), which controls wind speeds in northern Europe. An index of the oscillation has been compiled every year since 1824, based on atmospheric pressure readings from weather stations. In 2010, according to the index, the NAO reached its lowest level since measures began nearly two centuries ago.
“The NAO is the dominant atmospheric pattern in Europe, especially in the winter,” said Mr Crawford. “There is evidence the NAO may vary on [ten-year] timescales. We are in the middle of the longest streak of negative NAO on record. We have likely returned to the long-term negative phase of the NAO, which will have significant impacts on European weather.
“The biggest impact will be on the distribution of wind, especially in the winter. Stronger winter winds should be expected in more southern latitudes, while northern latitudes will generally experience weaker winds than has been typical during the past 30 years.”
There is a direct correlation between a lack of wind and cold weather. According to the Met Office, last month was the coldest December since records began a century ago. Last year as a whole was the coldest for 14 years.
On the coldest days of last month, when the need for power was at its greatest, there was virtually no wind, Britain’s 3500 wind turbines were largely idle and almost no electricity was generated by them.
At 5.30pm on December 7, which National Grid says was the moment of the fourth-highest demand ever recorded in British history, wind contributed just 0.4 per cent of the country’s electricity needs. The generation system coped – but it includes large numbers of old power stations that will soon be closing. In the future, under the far more wind-based system the Government wants to see, such levels of demand could turn out the lights.
“If, as government plans, we place too much reliance on wind, the electricity system will come under considerable stress, with very high prices, and even unscheduled interruptions, blackouts in the layman’s terms,” said Dr Constable.
To avoid power cuts if the Government does go ahead with a mass wind-turbine programme, it will also need to build large numbers of new coal, oil or nuclear power stations for backup when the wind is not blowing. The cost of providing so much duplicate capacity is expected to dramatically increase electricity prices, with potentially serious effects on consumers and the economy.
Taxpayers’ support for the wind industry itself would also rise, as private investors nervous about the lack of wind lose interest in the sector. Wind turbine manufacture has recently slumped and factories have been closed as demand has fallen, prompting calls for more public subsidy.
RenewableUK, the industry lobby body, insisted in response to our figures that the amount of electricity produced by wind had risen by a third in the last year and that electricity generated from renewables was at a “historic high.” This, however, is because an increase in the number of wind turbines in operation, and not because of an increase in the amount of wind.
A spokesman accused the REF of “increasingly becoming the Flat Earth Society of the energy sector” and said: “Do they seriously think that the winds around the UK will eventually die down, or die out? This surely must be the ultimately desperate argument against wind energy.”
But it may, in fact, be the wind advocates who risk flat-earth syndrome. At the same conference where Mr Salmond delivered his praise of wind, Rupert Soames, chief executive of the conventional power-supply company Aggreko, compared government energy policy to a belief in the “tooth fairy,” with politicians “holding hands and singing Kumbaya to the great green god.”
Warning that large numbers of old power stations were due to close in the near future, Mr Soames said: “In the absence of a massive and immediate programme of building new power stations, with concrete being poured in the next two years, we will be in serious danger of the lights going out. The ship is heading towards the rocks.”
Quietly, beneath the Government’s pro-wind rhetoric, there does appear to have been something of a recalibration. Mr Huhne seems to have softened his opposition to nuclear, the only non-carbon technology with a chance of meeting demand – though the balance of nuclear and wind remains very unclear, and Scotland, which has ruled out all new nuclear stations, faces near-certain electricity shortages.
Ministers may reckon they could handle protests from country-dwellers about their hills being covered in wind farms. But they know that large-scale power cuts, or huge fuel bill rises, would destroy any government that presided over them. Perhaps, ever so gradually, wind is moving from being a technology of the future to being a technology which was the future once.
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