Britain’s renewable energy ambitions are a “mirage” according to a report published last month by the so-called Scientific Alliance and the Adam Smith Institute.
It claims that placing heavy reliance on wind power especially to deliver a large chunk of our electricity in the future is unrealistic.
And it seeks to blast a hole in Scotland’s £2billion a year green electricity export ambition warning that is unachievable.
The Scientific Alliance and the Adam Smith Institute claim the purpose of the report is to prevent Britain from “sleepwalking” into a future energy system that it claims won’t work. Instead, they are promoting nuclear and increased use of combined-cycle gas-fired generating plant.
The broadside was fired just before the Department of Energy and Climate Change published figures showing that Britain’s growing network of offshore windfarms in fact generated more electricity to the grid during the first nine months of 2011 than had been anticipated, partly because of an increase in generating capacity, but also because of higher than anticipated wind speeds.
“Our main conclusion is that wind power (which is the only technology which could be deployed on a large enough scale to have a chance of meeting the UK government’s ambitious targets) cannot fulfil the expectations which policymakers have for it,” says Scientific Alliance director Martin Livermore.
“In principle, the use of ‘free’ wind energy is a good idea, but in practice it can deliver less than we might think. The primary problem with wind, as with other renewable energy sources, is that it is intermittent.
“Although windy and calm days can be forecast reasonably reliably, the wind rarely blows steadily. Since wind turbine output follows a cube law, a doubling of wind speed leads to an eight-fold increase in electricity output (and vice versa).
“Even when these variations are smoothed out across large arrays of turbines and wind farms spread across wide areas, the power delivered to the grid varies considerably over short timescales.
“To an extent, the electricity grid can cope with that, although the problem gets more difficult as penetration of renewables increases. However, there are periods when the wind hardly blows, and each year we experience some of these at times of high demand, particularly in winter evenings.
“Unless consumers are prepared to tolerate an intermittent supply of electricity, fossil fuel generating plant – largely relatively inefficient open-cycle gas turbines – has to be left idling in order to ramp up its output quickly and balance the grid. The result is that wind farms save less fossil fuel overall than their output would suggest.
“Experience from Ireland, which already has a higher proportion of wind energy capacity than the UK, shows that installing new capacity produces diminishing returns in terms of fuel savings; beyond a certain point, erecting more wind turbines saves no more gas or coal and merely adds cost and insecurity to the system,”
Livermore, whose report was branded “naïve” by UK Energy Minster Charles Hendry, is dismissive of the European Commission’s just published ‘Energy Roadmap 2050’
According to the Roadmap, a high renewables energy mix – with as much as 97% of the EU’s electricity consumption met by renewable energy, including 49% wind power in 2050 – would have the same “overall energy system costs” as any other decarbonisation or business as usual scenario”
He says the EU’s ambition adds up to “wishful thinking”.
And he is as harsh about Scotland’s targets, even though that ambition is endorsed by the think tank Reform Scotland. Basically, the Scottish Executive’s ambition is to generate the equivalent of all of Scotland’s electricity needs from renewable resources. Not only that, Reform Scotland has suggested that there could be an income stream of £2billiona year from exporting renewable electricity.
Defending the Scientific Alliance / Adam Smith stance, Livermore says: “Our aim has been to open up the debate on this contentious issue. Rather than sleepwalk into a future energy system which is expensive, unreliable and saves little in the way of emissions, it is time to look at the evidence of what actually works.”
However, he admits: “As technologies develop, the situation will undoubtedly change, but for now a reliable, affordable, low-carbon electricity grid has to rely much more on a mix of efficient nuclear and combined cycle gas turbine generation.”
Formed in 2001, the Scientific Alliance describes itself as a non-profit membership-based organisation, based in Cambridge and which “brings together both scientists and non-scientists committed to rational discussion and debate on the challenges facing the environment today”.
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