Wind turbines have become a familiar sight in the Scottish landscape. From the centre of Glasgow, the Whitelee Windfarm at the southern edge of the city can clearly be seen.
Wind farms have been promoted as a cental plank in the renewables energy policy which will allegedly revitalise the Scottish economy and save the planet.
But how much of a contribution do the turbines make to the energy needs of the nation?
And how much does it cost when the inflexible nature of grid supply means that the turbines must be stopped?
Wind farm operators have been paid many millions of pounds to turn off their turbines.
This happens when electricity production is likely to be greater than demand and so flood into the national grid.
Some of the wind farm operators are paid more to switch off their turbines than they would have received if they had been operating as normal.
Scottish Power Renewables, which operate the Whitelee wind farm, near Glasgow, received £300,000 on just one day in April last year to switch off its 140 turbines because the Scottish grid network could not absorb the energy being produced from all the power stations nationally. The following month they received approximately £720,000.
A spokesperson for Scottish Power Renewables said, ‘On occasion, National Grid has requested that Scottish Power Renewables reduce the output from some windfarms in order to balance the electricity system.
‘Although we would always prefer to maximise production of renewable electricity from our windfarms, it is important that wind generators are able to play their part in helping to manage constraints and balance the system.”
Scottish and Southern Energy, which runs the 52-turbine Hadyard Hill wind farm in south Ayrshire, was paid £1million to shut their site for six days in May last year.
It has been estimated that payments are up to 20 times the value of the electricity that would have been generated if the turbines had kept running.
Consumers pay for this through a levy added to domestic electricity bills.
On one occasion infrastructure problems meant Scotland needed
to buy energy from England while at the same time two Scottish wind farms were paid about £34,000 to power down the turbines.
It is worth noting that two-thirds of the country’s wind turbines are owned by foreign companies and are estimated to amass £500million a year in subsidies
Sometimes you might have seen turbines turning when there is no wind blowing.
Turbines draw power from the grid to run electronics, fans, heaters, motors and sometimes to turn the rotors so that lubrication prevents gear boxes seizing.
However the operator is not charged for this use of mains electricity.
The Scottish conservation charity, The John Muir Trust, have produced a report showing that wind farms produce far less energy than previously claimed.
Wind-energy output at wind farms metered by the national grid was less than 10 percent of capacity for a third of the time during the two-year study.
Low output sometimes coincided with periods of peak demand, for example during November and December 2010.
During this cold spell it was found that wind farms were producing practically no electricity because there was little wind associated with the high pressure responsible for the cold spell.
In addition, if wind speed is too high the turbines cannot operate for safety reasons. Therefore there must be 100 percent back up available from fossil fuelled or nuclear power stations.
In Scotland the policy is to get rid of nuclear power stations so back-up will be mostly from coal or gas powered plants.
The target set by the Scottish government is to generate the equivalent of 100 percent of Scotland’s electricity demand from renewable resources by 2020.
With back-up this means that there will need to be built and operating the capacity to generate twice as much electricity as Scotland actually needs – a very expensive option. Even more eye- wateringly large electricity bills will be delivered before too long.
Denmark was the great wind farm pioneer.
In 1980, the Danish government was Europe’s first to bring in the massive subsidies on which, just as in Britain, the wind industry depends.
It has found that because of the variability of wind, conventional power plants need to be kept running to meet the demand for electricity.
Most conventional plants cannot be turned on and off as the wind increases and decreases, and ramping up and down could actually increase their output of pollution and carbon dioxide.
So when the wind is blowing at a good speed for turbine operation, the power that the Danish turbines generate is usually surplus and sold at a knock-down price to Germany, to balance the fluctuations in that country’s own wind carpet, or to Sweden and to Norway whose entire power system is hydro-electric, and where it can be stored.
The Swedes and Norwegians use it themselves – or sell it back, at a profit, to the Danes.
Last November, the Duke of Edinburgh remarked that on-shore wind farms were absolutely useless, completely reliant on subsidies and an absolute disgrace. He criticised the industry’s reliance on subsidies from electricity customers.
He said that on-shore wind farms would never work and accused people who support them of believing in a fairy tale.
Interestingly, when the Duke’s remarks were reported in the journal of the Institution of Civil Engineers EVERY comment made by chartered engineers on this news item supported the Duke.
One wrote, with tongue in cheek, ‘Anyone can build an industry on 100% subsidy.
‘It would be better if those employed in the turbine industry made tent pegs.
‘At least their production would not hoover up expensive rare earths, of which the main supplier is China.’
The John Muir Trust report stated that wind ‘cannot be relied upon’ to provide any significant level of energy generation at any defined time in the future.
One commentator remarked ‘There appears to be an expensive mismatch between political rhetoric and engineering reality.’
As the experience of Denmark has taught us, wind farms can provide a component of a sustainable energy economy, but perhaps those turbines which increasingly dominate our once-unspoilt landscapes are not quite the panacea which our politicians might have us believe they are.
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