On November 7, Guardian readers were excited by a huge two-page advertisement from the wind farm company Ecotricity, hailing what it described as “a historic event”. This, it explained, was on Sunday October 19, following the Didcot power station fire, when several other major power plants were also, for various reasons, offline. But millions of homes across Britain, we were told, would never have noticed. Our lights stayed on solely because wind farms had come to the rescue, contributing a record 25 per cent of all the electricity we were using. This showed just how vital wind has now become in supplying “our energy needs”.
Like others, I was intrigued by this claim, because I had never known those notoriously unreliable wind turbines to generate anything like such a high percentage. So, with the expert help of National Grid and the Renewable Energy Foundation (REF), I did some detective work. For a start, National Grid was able to tell me that there was indeed a brief moment on October 19 when wind supplied 25 per cent of our electricity. But this was at 5.30 in the morning, when demand is at its very lowest. The figure for the whole of that windy day was only 14 per cent. Furthermore, according to a detailed analysis by REF, what had really kept our lights on was that several other major coal- and gas-fired power stations stayed operating longer than planned, while wind farms in Scotland were actually having to be paid to go offline because their excessive output was causing problems for the grid in England.
So that very brief moment when all the 5,500 wind turbines in Britain were contributing 25 per cent of our power was not only highly untypical, but also served yet again to highlight the real problem with wind: that it fluctuates so wildly and unpredictably from one extreme to the other. At 4.30 last Thursday afternoon, for instance, it was contributing to the grid less than 2 per cent, when coal and gas between them were supplying 74 per cent, with 6 per cent more imported from France and Holland.
In other words, that Ecotricity advertisement was, in almost every respect, misleading; which is hardly surprising, since the firm’s owner, Dale Vince, is famous as a master of green propaganda. It was he who erected the most famous wind turbine in the country – and also one of the least efficient – seen by millions of motorists each year as they drive along the M4 past Reading. In 2006, I reported how, to mark the go-ahead for a monster wind farm in the Thames Estuary, the BBC announced a celebratory programme from Reading’s “Green Park”, to be powered entirely by Mr Vince’s windmill. Sure enough, the wind dropped, forcing the BBC to rely on a nasty, CO2-emitting diesel generator. Yet it is on machines like Mr Vince’s turbine that our government has centred Britain’s entire future energy policy.