Wind power won’t save us
Credit: By Victor Hill, 16 December 2022, masterinvestor.co.uk ~~
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The wind that wouldn’t blow
Last Monday (12 December) the entire UK landmass was swathed in frost, courtesy of the “Troll from Trondheim”. So, we can’t blame the Russians, then, as we did when the “Beast from the East” arrived. On Sunday evening, wholesale electricity prices briefly surged to £2,585.50 per megawatt hour – that’s 50 times the price of one year ago – and settled at about £685 on Monday.
Across the UK, temperatures barely edged above zero degrees Celsius all day. Demand for electricity spiked – naturally. And yet at 4pm, as darkness fell across the land, our network of onshore and offshore wind turbines (which has been rolled out over the last 20 years with huge state subsidy and much green virtue signalling), accounted for less than two percent of total electricity production. Clapped out coal-fired plants had to be brought back to life to make up the shortfall in generation. In fact, coal provided nearly three percent of UK needs on Monday evening, while reliable, closed-cycle gas-turbine dynamos provided 55 percent of the effort to keep the lights on.
How come? Because the same Arctic high-pressure weather system which caused the widespread chill brought still airs with no wind. It always amazes me that some eco-warriors find it difficult to understand that if the wind does not blow there is no wind-generated electricity flowing into the national grid. But then we all know that the case for wind has been hyped by those who are not exactly energy engineers.
In recent weeks, a number of Tory backbenchers, including two former prime ministers, have lobbied the government to end the “ban” on onshore wind farms, arguing that wind power is cheap and is essential to enhance our energy security. In point of fact, there is no such ban. Current requirements entail that all new wind farms (in England at least – the rules seem to be slightly more permissive in Scotland) require planning permission and that means that they need the support of local communities – which, in truth, is often not forthcoming.
But I am less interested in the planning aspects of new wind farms and more interested in their economics. Is it really true that wind power is cheap – or, as some of its more extreme proponents claim, free?
Obviously, wind power is not free because investors have to buy the land on which the turbines stand, pay for the installation of all the windmills and then maintain the infrastructure which sustains them. The costs of steel, concrete, copper and neodymium have been rising rapidly. Thus, new wind farms will be more expensive than those which are currently operational. Wind power is also not cheap because a slew of backup generators have to be maintained and then brought onstream (as was the case on Monday) when the wind does not blow. Those costs are rarely factored in when the unit cost of wind-generated megawatts of electricity is calculated.
Moreover, as the science writer Matt Ridley recently pointed out, the intermittency of wind energy increases the cost of electricity across the grid because it drives up the cost of gas, in a negative feedback loop.
The price of gas, as we know, has been stratospheric this year thanks to Vladimir Putin’s attempt to reconstruct the Russian tsarist empire. But the cost of a varying supply of gas is higher, in unit terms, than the cost of a continuously equal supply. Imagine the economics of a car-production line which was switched off every other day – the fixed costs do not change. Further, the cost of storing gas has been rising in the UK due to a continued lack of storage capacity.
Thanks to a preferential regulatory regime devised under the coalition government (2010-15), producers of wind-power-generated electricity are permitted to charge the same price per kilowatt hour as producers who run gas-turbine electric capacity. But only when the wind blows. So, wind-power generators have gained immensely from Putin’s machinations. The pricing mechanism (using contracts for differences) effectively transfers all risks inherent in wind-power generation to the rest of the grid.
Hornsea 2, located in the North Sea, is the largest offshore wind farm in the UK, with 165 Siemens Gamesa eight-megawatt turbines. It is operated by Denmark’s Ørsted, which signed a contract for difference in 2017 to sell its output at a fixed price of £57.50 per megawatt hour. Yet it retained the option to override that contract and has been selling power into the national grid at between four and 10 times that price this year. That transferred the costs to the consumer who is now, in turn, being bailed out by the government – with devastating consequences for our national finances. This has created an uneven playing field (which was the intention) where wind-turbine operators fix prices in a kind of reverse auction called contracts for differences. In contrast, fossil-fuel burners are obliged to sign guaranteed forward-supply contracts.
Policy has consequences
British politicians across all parties have gained kudos by adopting a green agenda which champions renewables. Ed Miliband MP, as Gordon Brown’s energy and climate secretary, drove through the UK Climate Change Act of 2008 which set up the Climate Change Committee as the ultimate arbiter of energy policy. It set a target of an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. This carbon-reduction agenda was then intensified by an order in council put through without debate in the House of Commons during Theresa May’s last month in power.
This committed the nation to a legally binding commitment to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2050. Net zero – undefined in the legislation − presumably means CO2 emissions in a given year minus total carbon sequestrations. But since, as far as I am aware, there is no scientific consensus on how to measure the volume of carbon sequestration, net zero effectively means zero CO2. If that were to be achieved by 2050 it would be the most extraordinary thing: my readers and I exhale CO2 as we breathe, so presumably the UK population will have to stop breathing altogether.
There is no question that we must reduce our CO2 emissions. But the net effect of recent government policy has been to drive up the cost of energy across the board. For major industrial powers, the cost of energy is a key parameter of their competitiveness.
The French have been pursuing a strategy of going nuclear since the 1970s – with great success, although they have had significant problems with ageing plant of late. The Germans, despite their green credentials (indeed, Die Grünen are in power in Berlin) have exploited their coal reserves mercilessly since Angela Merkel abandoned nuclear power after the Fukushima incident in 2011. The UK’s energy costs are notoriously higher than either of its peers – with the result that the cost of producing a tonne of steel here is much higher than in Germany. That was the main rationale for the go-ahead for the new coking coal mine in Whitehaven, Cumbria, announced last week.
A nation which has substantially higher energy costs than its close competitors will over time become deindustrialised. Sadly, if this doctrine is sustained by all political parties – which seems likely − that is now the UK’s fate. We are not sure to attain a green future: rather, we risk a return to the pre-industrial past (which was never carbon neutral). It is not surprising that, according to Kantar, sales of candles are booming this Christmas.
If UK consumers are now struggling to pay their electricity bills, irresponsible landowners who prioritise solar arrays above the need to grow food in this country have profited, as have private-equity investors and hardware manufacturers. Chinese miners who provide the rare earth metals for their magnets have flourished, as has the growing body of green lobbyists who have so successfully sold their agenda to the politicians – and held them to it. The Scottish government has said we should enjoy the “wind farm landscape”. Not all residents of beautiful Scotland find that possible.
Wind-turbine arrays require huge quantities of steel and concrete which incur massive carbon emissions in their construction. Extinction Rebellion (XR), Just Stop Oil and others imagine that we can roll out wind and solar arrays without using oil. That is peevish nonsense. If the flow of hydrocarbons were to halt tomorrow, there would be no more renewable-energy installations, and even operational ones would cease to function.
For the first few years of a wind farm’s life, it is just recovering the carbon emissions that its construction has emitted. Then, at the end of its economic life – possibly as short as 20 years − it will have to be decommissioned. It now turns out that there is no way that wind turbines can be recycled. Instead, the turbine blades will have to be buried in landfill sites.
Wind farms kill birds – and especially rare birds of prey such as golden eagles onshore and red-throated divers offshore. They also kill bats. This is a good example of how, as Matt Ridley says, carbon-hating greens are increasingly at odds with conservationists. Recently, the National Grid said that planning laws will have to be relaxed because the net-zero target will require the construction of new pylon corridors across the country. NG has proposed a new transmission line that would run over 100 miles across unspoilt countryside and ancient woodland – ‘Constable country’, in fact − from Norwich to Colchester.
And yet they have become a sacred symbol of the green lobby, even as international finance has embraced them. Even more tellingly, we have condemned ourselves to export our carbon emissions to foreign powers – some friendly, some not – so that even if we achieve net zero by 2050, it is very unlikely that anyone else will, except for other neighbours who have deliberately shot themselves in the foot as we have.
Sir Nick Clegg – now second in command at Meta, a company which is intent on warping the concept of reality – argued in 2010 that increasing our nuclear capacity was impractical because it would not come onstream for 12 years. That would be 2022, then. The plan was to eliminate the burning of fossil fuels by replacing capacity entirely with renewables – as if the problem of intermittency had never been discussed.
Obviously, solar panels do not generate electricity at night. Today, the daylight where I live will last for exactly seven hours and 54 minutes – so for 16 hours and six minutes all that 74 hectares of expensive kit down the road in east Suffolk is idling. Except that today those solar arrays will not generate even one third of their theoretical capacity since it has been half-dark all day. Besides, they are all covered in snow.
Solar arrays could continue to power the grid at night if their electricity were stored in batteries. But these would have to be huge and thus hugely expensive – and inefficient. Harmony Energy has opened Europe’s largest battery farm near Hull, consisting of about 50 container-sized battery units parked on a site the size of a football pitch. But even this battery park would keep the national grid going for just a matter of minutes. The soaring cost of hydrocarbons has, in turn and predictably, made battery technology more expensive, not less.
These are things that the Milibands, Camerons, Cleggs and Johnsons never thought about because they were not engineers, and they were not even advised by engineers. They just did what sounded green and plausible at the time. Hence the lamentable HS2 project – which civil servants now say will generate 90 pence for every one pound that it cost.
Furthermore, the total replacement of internal combustion engine (ICE-powered) cars by battery electric vehicles will entail that demand for electricity will increase by between 150 percent and 350 percent above 2015 levels, by 2050. There is no way that current government plans to double or even triple wind-power generation capacity will be able to cope with that level of demand.
And when EVs run out of juice on motorways they just halt and cause an obstruction. I predict that the first major EV pile-up will occur on a UK motorway by the end of 2023. (For my full set of predictions for 2023 you’ll have to wait until 29 December).
One day soon, the long-suffering British public are going to realise that they have been sold a pup. Everyone is concerned about climate change/global warming but very few voted for a substantial cut in living standards and the risk of winter blackouts. This has been made more likely because we import electricity from France’s creaky nuclear network.
Ultra-vegan Oxford City Council is dividing “the city of dreaming spires” into six districts, the boundaries of which drivers may only cross with a permit. This proving deeply unpopular. It is curious that the political class in this country has followed the ‘eco-eccentrics’ rather than the mainstream ‘commonsensical’ population who now overwhelmingly adhere to the paradigm of reduce, recycle and reuse.
It’s as bad elsewhere. The Dutch are shutting down hyper-efficient hydroponic farms to reduce carbon emissions −such a pity, because some of their produce is exported to low-income countries which can’t grow vegetables. That will cause hunger. The Swiss are thinking about banning cars from “non-essential” journeys in winter. But who decides what is “essential”? Everywhere, green orthodoxy trumps personal responsibility.
Why has the drive to eliminate CO2 emissions become the dominant strand of environmental policy? Why hasn’t the scourge of plastic pollution in the world’s rivers and oceans not been given equal priority? Why has the loss of biodiversity been subordinated to the holy grail of zero carbon? More than 150,000 species on the IUCN Red List are threatened with extinction. And why is so little focus given to climate adaptation – as in building sea walls and flood defences?
Why is there so much opposition to ‘waste-to-power’, using new incinerators? Instead, household waste is still being sent to landfill or, even worse, to under-developed countries for “recycling” where it is often dumped in rivers and then flows out to sea.
Tidal energy is intermittent (the tide comes in and goes out once every day) but, unlike wind and solar, it is entirely predictable. There has only ever been one long-serving, tidal-powered facility in the world − at La Rance in Brittany. It was built in 1966 and is still officially generating electricity, though it is currently closed. It is strange that this model has not been replicated elsewhere.
This week, scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California announced an important advance in nuclear-fusion technology. They said they had completed an experiment in which more energy was generated than consumed. They described this as a “major scientific breakthrough”. Perhaps – but we have heard that before. I’ve been writing about nuclear fusion in these pages over several years now and have repeated that if it were going to happen it would have happened already. The dream solution of unlimited energy from nuclear fusion – which powers the sun − may be nearer than we realise. Or maybe not. That said, if it does become viable it will make all those wind-turbine arrays redundant.
The only long-term solution to climate change is for human beings to become much more efficient, thriftier and fewer in number.
This winter, we have bottled our home-brewed cider in used wine bottles which would otherwise have gone to the bottle bank. Our cider is zero carbon (except for the CO2 inside the bottle). I try not to eat meat on a Friday. That’s partly ecological and partly religious, though the two are intertwined – read TS Eliot’s The Idea of a Christian Society (1939).
I travel by train wherever possible – assuming the rail network is not on strike. I only turn the (oil-powered) central heating on if the temperature in the kitchen dips below 13 degrees Celsius. We grow our own vegetables and we compost. I have installed two enormous water butts to capture rainwater when the rain stops – as it will again next summer.
But I suspect that because I’m a wind-power sceptic, I’ll still be branded a ‘climate vandal’ anyway.
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