Britain’s Energy Secretary, Chris Huhne, is having to learn the hard way. Coupled with a defeat in the referendum to change the voting system, he presides over another failed initiative which risks undermining already strained confidence in the UK’s ailing renewable energy sector – and which discredits his own claim that “the lights will not go out on my watch”.
News this week has further undermined the case for a form of renewable energy which the UK has blindly supported, over other less advanced but more productive sources, with vast public subsidies for more than 20 years.
Importantly, and worryingly for the Government, the case against weather-dependent wind energy has now moved from populist columnists in “red top” tabloids to exposure through hard-nosed cold statistics from leading academic institutions and, inadvertently, the National Grid.
This does not bode well for a country which will need to increase the number of onshore wind turbines by nearly 60 per cent by 2020 to help meet already discredited EU targets to generate nearly 34 per cent of UK electricity from renewables by 2020.
Presently, the UK generates 6.6 per cent of electricity from renewables and a jump of nearly 30 per cent in eight years is unlikely on past experience, especially when it has taken 10 years to increase renewables’ share of electricity generation from 2.7 per cent in 2000 to 6.6 per cent today.
There are lessons here which can be applied across Government policy which questions why Government should support a technology which may well have been the most advanced at the start but can now be shown not to be the best.
This week’s analysis has shown that UK wind farms are operating well below their previously “advertised” capacity; this is the amount of time they are physically operating and therefore generating electricity.
The wind industry has traditionally claimed that turbines have an average capacity of around 30 per cent, but the research shows this is much closer to 20 per cent. In comparison, a coal or nuclear plant will enjoy capacity of almost 100 per cent.
Even more disturbing, National Grid data shows that between November 2008 and December 2010 turbines operated below 20 per cent of their capacity more than half of the time and below 10 per cent for more than a third of the time.
Add to this the news that several energy companies were paid almost £1m between April 5 and 6 to switch off wind turbines because the National Grid did not need the energy they were generating as this input did not meet their demand requirements at that time.
This problem will only increase as more turbines are built. Their weather-dependent nature means that their energy is unpredictable and unscheduled – note how turbines in Yorkshire hardly moved during the prolonged freeze when electricity demand was at its greatest. Critics point out that storing renewable energy is an option but will further add to the overall cost.
These payments were made to “halt” the turbines for several hours; it cost up to 20 times the value of the electricity that would have been generated if the turbines had been kept running and the electricity taken. In short, the Government is now authorising subsidies for wasted energy.
Yorkshire’s first commercial wind farms were built at Royd Moor, near Barnsley, and Ovendon Moor, near Halifax, in 1993.
These came on the back of electricity privatisation in 1990 which introduced the Non-Fossil Fuel Obligation (NFFO) and obliged UK electricity companies to secure specified amounts of supply from non coal and oil sources.
Nearly 20 years on, according to studies on their capacity performances, Ovendon Moor achieved 25.1 per cent in 2009 and Royd Moor achieved just 18.4 per cent. There are also question marks as to how much longer these turbines will continue to function.
Compare this with the Eggborough coal plant near Selby which has been operating continuously at high capacity since 1966, or the nuclear plants which have been operating consistently since the 1960s and 70s.
A key lesson which the Government must learn is that though wind energy was the first and most advanced renewable, it can now be seen as one of the least efficient and least cost-effective.
It is now vital that increasing public scepticism is met with the case being better made to support more reliable renewable sources whose benefits can be directly demonstrated as viable to households and consumers who are struggling with high and rising energy bills.
Scientists who work on solar panel efficiency believe that the 40 per cent level is the highest capacity that can be achieved with the standard silicon materials in most solar cells. Instead of focusing on making them more efficient, the current focus is on how to manufacture photovoltaic panels less expensively.
However, new technologies have recently been developed that may make solar panels that are much less expensive while achieving an incredible 80 per cent efficiency. This would represent a huge breakthrough for this alternative renewable technology.
With residential solar, the household can see and, importantly, feel the benefit of the investment in renewable energy. They can also considerably boost house values.
British firm Isis Solar has pioneered a householder-friendly scheme where the company installs solar panels on houses for free, takes the Government subsidy known as the feed in tariff and the home-owner then benefits from free energy from the panels.
Unlike wind, there are no moving parts, so solar systems have a very long lifetime, and are virtually maintenance-free.
Unless the taxpayer, who is being asked to shoulder the cost of modernising Britain’s energy system through higher bills, can better appreciate and see the benefits of supporting green energy, then public confidence will collapse in parallel with support for renewable energy in future political manifestos.
Rising energy bills will lead to rising fuel poverty and more unemployment. Now it is time to show the public the direct financial benefits of supporting renewable energy; time is running out.
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