The average output from Britain’s 275 onshore wind farms fell last year to the lowest level on record, according to official figures that call into question the Government’s decision to rely heavily on turbines for future energy.
The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) said that the amount of electricity generated from 3,000 land-based turbines fell by 7.7 per cent in 2010. However, the decline per turbine was much greater because the overall capacity of onshore wind farms grew by 14 per cent last year.
In its annual Energy Statistics, published yesterday, DECC said: “Ten months of 2010 saw lower wind speeds than the ten-year average.”;
Wind farms operated at only 21.4 per cent of their maximum potential capacity, compared with 27.4 per cent in 2009. Southern Electric and Scottish Hydro, the leading renewable energy company, recently reported a 20 per cent decline in output from its turbines. The Government is offering generous subsidies to wind energy companies as part of a strategy to produce a quarter of Britain’s electricity by 2020.
Opponents of wind farms say that this could lead to power cuts during prolonged periods of low wind. The problem is compounded in winter, when freezing conditions are usually accompanied by low wind but demand for electricity is high.
The Renewable Energy Foundation (REF), which lobbies against overreliance on wind energy, said that turbines had a tendency to produce the least energy when they were needed most. It said this had happened last year during the coldest December on record.
At 5.30pm on December 7, when the demand for electricity was at its fourth highest level recorded, wind farms produced only 0.4 per cent of the power needed by the country. The turbines were operating at only 5.8 per cent of their maximum capacity. The steepest fall in output last year was in Wales, partly because the number of days with south westerly winds was much lower than in a normal year.
John Constable, director of policy at the REF, said that the decline in output from onshore wind farms could partly be because the industry had already developed the windiest sites and had begun expanding in areas with less reliable wind. “The Government seems to think it can walk up to the shelf and buy green energy, but we are still learning how variable it is. The Government’s overreliance on wind is economically and technically reckless,” he added.
RenewableUK, the wind industry trade body, said that it was important to look at long-term averages for wind speed and it would be wrong to alter policy on the basis of one poor year. Other forms of energy generation were also subject to fluctuation, such as the 10 per cent fall in electricity from nuclear power stations last year, it said.
He said on and offshore wind farms had produced enough electricity for 2.2 million homes last year.
Electricity from offshore wind farms rose by 74.8 per cent last year as several large wind farms opened.
However, the share of overall generation from renewable sources fell by 0.1 per cent to 6.6 per cent last year. Hydropower fell by 32 per cent because of low rainfall.
The drop in renewable energy production was a factor in the rise in greenhouse gas emissions last year.
Carbon dioxide emissions were uprose by 3.8 per cent last year, partly due to the economy recovering slightly from 2009, when the recession caused energy use to fall sharply as factories closed.
Cold weather contributed to a 13.4 per cent increase in CO2 emissions from homes as consumption of gas increased sharply.
The first three months of 2010 were the coldest since 1987 and the last three months the coldest since 1970.
Carbon dioxide levels have reduced from 589.7 million tonnes in 1990 to the provisional figure of 491.7 million tonnes last year, a fall of around 16.5 per cent.
Chris Huhne, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, said: “As we come out of recession, the coalition is determined to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. That’s why we are pushing on all fronts to turn around Britain’s woeful record on renewables.”
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