Green energy companies were handed record sums to switch off turbines in 2018, with some Scottish wind farms generating millions of pounds to “discard” up to a third of potential output. Analysis of data published by National Grid shows that constraint payments to wind farm operators hit £125m – 15% more than the previous highest sum in2017.
The lion’s share, £115m, was paid to sites in Scotland. Operators of onshore wind farms, most of which are north of the border, receive constraint payments to power down turbines when electricity supply outstrips local demand and bottlenecks in the grid prevent exports.
Operators are also reimbursed when they switch off turbines because of high wind.
According to the Renewable Energy Foundation (REF), a charity that champions a balanced UK energy policy, Scottish wind farms discarded enough electricity in 2018 to power 500,000 households for a year.
Opposition politicians and some environmentalists are calling for a wind farm moratorium amid claims that it is “perverse” that operators can earn millions of pounds from idle turbines.
“These figures undermine the case for any new developments or expansions; said Alexander Burnett, the Scottish Conservative energy spokesman. “Scotland needs a balanced energy portfolio for those many, many days when the wind doesn’t blow and it’s quite clear that the current SNP strategy is poor value for public money.”
Scottish ministers pledged a decade ago to generate all the country’s electricity from renewable sources by 2020. Since then, there has been an expansion of onshore wind, fuelled by financial incentives such as constraint payments that are paid for by consumers via energy bills.
In 2014, the charity WWF Scotland said renewables were already generating enough power to supply the needs of 98% of the country’s households, on average. That year, just over £50m was paid to wind farm companies to switch off turbines.
Among the sites that shared in last year’s £125m constraints bonanza was Scottish and Southern Energy’s (SSE) Bhlaraidh wind farm, on the Glenmoriston estate in Inverness-shire.
According to REF, the wind farm generated 188 gigawatt hours (GWh) of power in 2018 and was paid not to produce a fur· ther 77GWh. It means the wind farm could have generated 265GWh of energy but 29% (77GWh) was “lost”.
The Fallago Rig and Strathy North sites were paid not to produce about a quarter of potential output, while others, including Dersalloch, Hadyard Hill, Black Law and Whitelee, were paid to discard about a fifth of potential output. There is a suspicion that lucrative constraint payments may encourage some wind farm operators to add more turbines.
EDF Renewables is seeking to expand Fallago Rig, near Lauder in the Scottish Borders from 48 to 60 turbines, despite evidence that the site Is routinely paid to switch off supplies. Last year, the site generated £6,727,751 in constraint payments.
John Constable, of REF, said the handouts raised questions about the Western Link, from Ayrshire to north Wales, constructed to export Scottish wind energy to the south and reduce constraint payments. It entered service in October, almost three years late.
“In spite of the commissioning of the WesternLink, constraints are continuing,” Constable said. “Payments in November and December were £9.lm and £10.4m respectively, compared with £9m and £8.3m for the same months in 2017. Although it is too soon to say definitively, this is not encouraging as to the effectiveness of the interconnector.”
Ofgem, the energy regulator, said investment in infrastructure such as the Western Link would help reduce constraints and lower energy costs. It said price controls had delivered more than £5bn in savings for consumers since 2013 with further savings of £6.5bn expected from 2021.
Paul Wheelhouse, the energy minister, said constraint payments were necessary to compensate groups for the inability of the grid infrastructure to transmit the electricity they generate.
“In 2017, Scotland’s renewable electricity generators were able to meet the equivalent of a record 70.1% of Scotland’s demand and we will ensure the correct strategic decisions are taken to further support this much-valued sector of Scotland’s economy.”
Top 10 idle wind farms
- Bhlaraid – 29% of total power dumped in 2018
- Strathy North – 24%
- Fallago – 24%
- Dunmaglass – 23%
- Black Law – 21%
- Hadyard Hill – 21%
- Arecleoch – 20%
- Griffin – 20%
- Whitelee – 19%