Chasing After the Wind

Wind turbine.I have a few concerns about wind power. I’m not opposed to renewable energy. It would be wonderful to think we could one day supply all our energy needs with renewables, but we cannot surrender our reason in the process. I believe wind power is highly problematic and I invite you to consider some of my reasons.

The Energy in Brief 2013 report from the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) states that wind turbines currently generate 0.8% of our nation’s energy needs.  The contributions of all low carbon sources is 11.9%, of which 7.4% is nuclear (yes, nuclear is considered a low-carbon energy source). Bio-energy is second with 2.9%, the remainder, including wind, generates 1.7%. The rest of our power is generated through the traditional means, primarily coal and natural gas. [1]

Wind turbines are fickle and generate power only when the wind is blowing within certain parameters. They require wind speeds of at least 7.8 mph (cut-in speed) to begin moving and reach full generating capacity at approximately 31 mph. Wind speeds above 55 mph (cut-out speed) can damage a turbine and so they are brought to a halt. [2] This is why, even on windy days, you will often see wind turbines at a standstill. And, when the turbines are not turning, they are not generating any electricity.

Because they are inconsistent they need to be backed up by other sources. The National Electrical Grid needs to supply a constant level of power, with an excess available for periods of peak demand. When one source fails, the others must be able to fill in the gap. So, when the wind stops blowing, there needs to be another, more reliable source alongside to meet the demand (coal, oil, gas, hydro, nuclear, etc.). Failure to provide an energy backup would risk blackouts during periods of calm or storm.

Wind farm owners are naturally paid for the electricity they generate, but they are also paid to turn them off when power is not needed for the grid. Known as “constraint payments” these monies are passed on to wind farm owners when the National Grid cannot absorb, or does not need the electricity generated by the turbines. It’s hard enough for me to justify paying wind farm owners not to run the turbines, but paying them more than the value of the electricity that would have been produced?  In April 2011 payments were made to a number of Scottish wind farms nearly 20 times the value of the electricity they would have generated. “In total approximately £890,000 pounds was paid over a few hours to six wind farms, these costs being ultimately destined to pass on to the consumer.” [3] Why?

Then there are pylons. These are the towers that support electrical lines. It remains very difficult to store masses of electric power for any length of time. There are no industrial strength batteries we can charge with wind power to use on a still afternoon, or during a storm. Power needs to go directly from the turbines to our homes via the country’s electric grid. Because wind farms are often located in remote rural areas where demand is low, the electricity must be carried from the farms to population centres with high demand. This means stringing massive new power lines up and down the country, lines that will inevitably cross through some of our most scenic natural areas. The new pylons will stand 160 feet high, as high as a 15 story tower block. [4] The aesthetic value of a wind farm is debatable, but I’ve yet to find anyone to argue that power lines are “easy on the eyes.”

Wind farm subsidies are huge, almost beggaring belief. Presently the government channels £1.2 billion per year into renewable energy subsidies, the vast majority of which goes to wind farms. You’re paying for them and so am I, which is at least one reason that my utility bill is higher and higher every year. Presently every household in Britain is paying £47 per year to subsidize the construction of wind farms, monies collected through our utility bills. [5] That’s less than one pound per week, but considering that energy costs have risen 92% since 2002 [6] one begins to wonder why we are being asked to pay more for an energy source that contributes so little? And they will go on costing us, totalling an estimated £100 billion by the year 2030. [7]

Another problematic factor is a turbine’s relatively short lifespan, 10 to 15 years at most, with output falling with each passing year. [8] What will happen with our wind farms over the next twenty years when they are worn out? Will they be replaced by new turbines, or will we be left with forests of derelict turbine towers that cost more to remove than to restore? America gives us a picture of what that might look like. “We need only cast our eye across the Atlantic to see 12,000 turbines rotting in the Californian desert.” [9] Who will bear the cost of removing these towers? Or worse, will they be left to rot like dead trees?

What is most worrying to me is the number of wind farms needed to meet our renewable energy goals. Quoting a DECC planning report, the Renewable Energy Foundation (REF) revealed that onshore wind farms currently generate 5.1 GW of power, while offshore farms create 2.4 GW. The plan is to increase those totals to 18.5 GW and 11.4 GW respectively. [10] That means we will need at least three more onshore wind turbines and nearly five more offshore turbines for every one that exists today. This does not factor in the number of current wind turbines that will have exceeded their lifespan in the next ten years. These figures are not hypothetical but represent both actual planning and present construction. It may soon be difficult to find a place anywhere in the countryside or along our coasts where one can’t see a wind farm.

I’m told that Britain was once covered in a continuous forest of trees, so many that a squirrel could go treetop to treetop all the way from Land’s End to John O’Groats. If we’re to meet present our wind power goals we will soon be covered with a similar forest of wind turbines.

Wind turbines do work, they do produce some electricity, it is renewable, makes use of an energy source we have in abundance here in Britain and, relative to their fossil fuel burning cousins, generate almost no carbon dioxide. If these were our only goals it would make sense to go on building more and more of them. But what about the economy? We’ve been limping badly for five years now and need real money, not government subsidies, put back into the economy. Wind farming is, at the end of the day, a subsidized industry that shows little potential of weaning itself from government dependency. At what point to do we decide to stop pouring money into an industry that does not and very likely will not ever be self-sustaining? I suggest that time has come.

[1] Available at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/uk-energy-in-brief-2013

[2] See Wind Power Program at http://www.wind-power-program.com/turbine_characteristics.htm

[3] See this article from the Renewable Energy Foundation (REF) http://www.ref.org.uk/publications/231-high-rewards-for-wind-farms-discarding-electricity-5th-6th-april-2011

[4] See “Giant Pylons for Wind Farms Planned for National Parks.” http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/energy/windpower/9351382/Giant-pylons-for-wind-farms-planned-for-National-Parks.html

[5] See “Wind farm subsidies equivalent to £100,000 per job.” http://conservativehome.blogs.com/thetorydiary/2013/06/wind-farm-subsidy-equivalent-to-100000-per-job.html.  See also “Spread of Wind farms threatens historic landscape says local campaigners” http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/energy/windpower/9653542/Spread-of-wind-farms-threatens-historic-landscape-says-campaigners.html which forecasts an increase to £53 per year by 2016-2017.

[6] The Energy in Brief 2013 report states that real prices of electricity have risen 65%, heating oil and gas have increased 165% and 122% respectively.

[7] Costs are based on the Renewables Obligation (RO), a complicated system that is effectively a tax passed on to the consumer to fund renewable energy development.  The Department of Energy and Climate Change estimates the 2013-2014 RO at £2.6 billion. http://www.ref.org.uk/publications/238-the-probable-cost-of-uk-renewable-electricity-subsidies-2002-2030

[8] See the REF report entitled “Analysis of wind farm performance…” http://www.ref.org.uk/publications/280-analysis-of-wind-farm-performance-in-uk-and-denmark

[9] For an analysis the above REF report see the following article from The Courier.co.uk entitled “Wind Turbines’ lifespan far shorter than believed, study suggests.” http://www.thecourier.co.uk/news/scotland/wind-turbines-lifespan-far-shorter-than-believed-study-suggests-1.62945

[10] See “How much more on shore wind power…” http://www.ref.org.uk/ref-blog/276-how-much-more-onshore-wind-power-will-be-consented-and-built-in-the-united-kingdom

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3 Responses to Chasing After the Wind

  1. Jim Moyers says:

    A voice of reason in a sea of nonsense.

  2. Jenny Carswell says:

    And then there’s fracking. This seems to be the latest area of search for energy and it seems to provide large quantities of cheap energy, yet I believe the damage to the environment will be colossal. Some day perhaps we will learn to use the sun. Should this be where our financial support goes? I know it will not be a viable alternative in my life time but what of the future?

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