Heard the one about Wind Energy subsidies pushing up energy bills? Or the one about wind energy delivering no carbon savings? In a world of lies, damn lies and statistics who are we to believe? The internet is crawling with anti-renewable energy trolls who seem well equipped with their version of the truth. Surely 100 Tory MP’s can’t be wrong (don’t answer that). So, what is the truth?
Wind energy does push up energy bills but all is not what it seems. In fact the level of taxation on our fuel bills is a historical legacy dating back to the years of Margaret Thatcher and the deregulation of the energy industry. Interested only in quick returns and in a light regulatory environment the resulting oligopoly was, like the banks, too big to fail. So they had no incentive to make the long term investments to keep the lights on. They invested in whatever made the quickest buck at the time. It could have been cheap imported brown coal from Europe or gas-fired plants. They cared not about where the supplies came from nor where the price would be going in twenty years time. They had no reason to include the cost of externalities in the deal. The result? A couple of decades of cheap energy. But it wouldn’t last…
Fast forward twenty years and now fuel bills are a political issue. The simple truth is that from 2004 to 2010, government support for renewables added £30 to the average energy bill while rises in the wholesale cost of gas added £290. It is the supply restrictions in natural gas that creates fuel poverty. The pots of money put aside to create future capacity & clean up the industry not only goes to renewables but there is also money put aside for Nuclear too. The cronic under-investment in our energy sector over the last 20 years means that Government has come back into the sector to force the big energy suppliers to put money aside for longer term investments. In fact WHATEVER technology your choose for the future your bill will rise to pay for it. It is because we paid TOO LITTLE in the past. The problem has come home to roost.
But does wind power cut carbon emissions like nuclear can? Yes it can. In 2011, wind turbines in the UK provided 15.5 terawatt hours to the grid. Due to its lower marginal cost this power would have displaced fossil fuel power from the grid, meaning that wind energy saved a minimum of 5.5 million tonnes of CO2 if gas was displaced and a maximum of over 12 million tonnes if coal was displaced. Using government figures about electricity generated in the UK from wind and the carbon intensity of the very best available gas technologies, the CO2 savings from wind energy were at least 5.5 million tonnes in 2011. This is around 2.5 per cent of the emissions the UK is legally obliged to save annually from 2008 to 2012, as required by the Climate Change Act 2008.
These numbers come from a peer-reviewed report from think tank IPPR and engineering consultants GL Garrad Hassan. They have attempted to analyse some of the most common myths that dog the wind energy sector in their study, Beyond the Bluster – Why wind power is an effective technology. This is not an isolated example. Imperial College London published a short report (by Dr Robert Gross and Phil Heptonstall of the Centre for Energy Policy and Technology with Professor Richard Green and Dr Iain Staffell of the Business School https://t.co/KHr2u3I5) that debunked an attempt by Nigel Lawson’s Global Warming Policy Foundation to pour cold water on plans to expand wind energy in Britain (Professor Gordon Hughes briefing paper). The gloves were off with Imperial College calling some of the GWPF’s Report’s assumptions economically “irrational”, “absurd”, “spurious” and “misleading”.
So what about the myth that wind is too intermittent? Wind power is not “intermittent” in that it does not suddenly and unexpectedly turn on and off in the way that fossil fuel and nuclear plants do. Instead it is “variable”, meaning that increasingly accurate weather forecasting makes it possible to predict changes in output ahead of time. This makes wind energy significantly easier to manage as you bring it on to the grid. The trick is to join up wind farms over a wide geographical area because the wind is always blowing somewhere. In essence wind is more reliable than fossil fuels or nuclear. It doesn’t break down or have planned maintenance. There are lots and lots of very small turbines. It is a resilient technology that is TOO SMALL TO FAIL.There is lots of it around but it is thinly spread out. It challenges us to think differently about the energy it gives us. This is a technology question and something super-storage, a modernised grid and intercontinental connectors can solve.
Nor should a reliance of wind cause blackouts. Just as it is statistically unlikely that EVERY coal fired power station would breakdown at once it is equally unlikely that the wind can “breakdown” everywhere. The National Grid has stated that “should no changes be made to the way that the electricity system functions, 30GW of wind power can be accommodated on the existing grid”. Current plans for wind energy capacity in 2020 stand at 28GW. Beyond 2020 long, cold, calm spells could present a challenge, but there are several international precedents that demonstrate how grids can manage high levels of reliance on wind energy. For example, both the Iberian peninsula and Ireland currently manage significantly higher proportional levels of wind energy than the UK and cope easily with calm periods.
The IPPR Report concludes that wind power can significantly reduce carbon emissions, is reliable, poses no threat to energy security, and is technically capable of providing a significant proportion of the UK’s electricity supply with minimal impact on the existing operation of the grid. Claims to the contrary are not supported by the evidence. Wind power is not too expensive, it is simply that carbon-based fuels are too cheap.
Whether you think they are pretty or not is another matter.