The wind power delusion

The common view is that whatever the problems of wind turbines, they have to be a good thing because they produce free power without creating CO2. This is the picture painted by the turbine industry, and many environmentalists desperately want to believe it. It does not stand up to scrutiny.

Banks and big business are piling in to wind power, attracted by guaranteed returns of about 20 percent for 25 years – at least £100 billion will be spent, and probably much more. Profits can be made without delivering a single watt to a light bulb or a factory machine or saving any CO2 production, because turbine owners are paid for what they produce, not what is delivered.

The power companies have been given a blank cheque by the government to charge users whatever it takes to drive forward an energy policy that is wholly misguided. There is no workable strategy. The result is countryside scarred by industrial machines, communities fractured, users driven into fuel poverty, money poured into the pockets of the rich, progress towards genuinely sustainable energy systems stalled for lack of cash, and virtually no effect on global warming.


The dash for cash

The government’s on-off policy on solar micro-generation subsidies look sensible and transparent compared to its wind turbine support. The situation is complex, and the turbine industry and its backers are keen to make it more opaque still. Nobody can calculate the full cost of wind power policy, and some of it depends on the market value of contrived documents called Renewables Obligation Certificates, for which the electricity user must ultimately pay. But to put it in perspective, Britain is spending more money on wind than the Americans spent on the Space Shuttle. Despite this, windmills sometimes produce no power at all. When they are producing power, much of the time it never gets to an end user. Unlike thermal generators, turbine owners are paid for what is generated, not what is used. Often their production is a useless nuisance that disappears into the ether, but the turbine owner is paid for it anyway, and at the highest tariffs imaginable.


How it works

On December 7th 2010, a cold, wind-still day, Britain used up to 60,000 MW of electricity. Of this, all the wind turbines in the UK produced around 200 MW, not all of which was used. Conventional generators produced 99.8 percent of the power drawn from the National Grid. However much is spent on wind, the UK will have to retain the ability to do that – coal, gas and nuclear power stations must be built to shadow wind. Thermal generation systems must be kept on ‘hot standby’ to cover for wind fluctuations; it can take half a day to bring a coal-fired power station on line, and in the case of nuclear power it can take weeks. Acceleration and deceleration of this ‘spinning reserve’ produces in some cases more CO2 than the windmills are said to save.

Electricity cannot be stored, except in tiny amounts. The National Grid is a delivery system, not a reservoir. If generation stops, the Grid empties in three hundredths of a second. Any electricity that is not used the instant it is generated is wasted – it simply dissipates. Generators must produce enough to balance demand.

Electricity generation can usefully be divided into two types – ‘baseload’, and ‘load-following’. Baseload is roughly minimum demand; if we always used the same amount of electricity at the same times of day, baseload would be entirely predictable and we wouldn’t need anything else. Types of generation which can’t easily be accelerated and decelerated are suited to producing baseload; nuclear power is one such. Wind power cannot produce baseload because it is there one minute, gone the next.

‘Load following’ supply responds to the need for power as demand increases. It needs to be more nimble than baseload supply. Among the most responsive load-following generators are certain types of gas turbine – aircraft-style jet engines which produce a lot of CO2. These can be used to balance wind power, but they are CO2-profligate. Wind power cannot provide load-following supply – you cannot turn up the windmills when you need more power. Its unpredictability means that often, the electricity it produces simply increases the excess voltage margin in the Grid, without ever being used in a home or a factory.

The theory is that when there is ample wind power, conventional generation can be shut down. In practice, this doesn’t happen. The response to fluctuating wind power is ponderous. At certain times when the system is operating close to baseload, everything produced by windmills can be utterly unused. For instance, at 4am, demand is low and fairly predictable, and inflexible nuclear generation can carry it. If it is also blowing a gale in Cornwall, all of the electricity produced is wasted, despite the fact that it has been paid for at an extraordinarily high tariff.


Beware of statistics

The Grid was designed to deliver electricity, not to take it in at random points. Getting power from windmills has been likened to pushing toothpaste back into the tube. To make even minimal use of wind power, it will be necessary to effectively replace much of the system at a cost which has been estimated to exceed the current value of the entire Grid, which is some £25 billion. A lot of the power produced by windmills is lost as it backs up through transformers into 33 KV sub-grids where the relatively low voltage means a further percentage disappears. The sub-grid in Cornwall lies at the end of the delivery chain and is particularly inefficient at taking in electricity.

The statistics produced by the turbine industry are imprecise. ‘Rated power’ – the claim that a windmill can produce “enough power for XX homes” – seems almost designed to mislead. Windmills produce about one fifth of ‘rated power’ and deliver to homes a fraction even of that figure, and sometimes nothing at all.


‘Food miles’

Before a turbine produces a single watt, the cost in CO2 production is massive. Consider turbines of the type erected by the Dingle Brothers in Bodmin, which cost them £1.3 million to buy. Iron ore mined in Chile is transported to Pennsylvania, where it is smelted and milled as sheet steel – hundreds of tons of it in a single turbine tower. This is transported to California where it is shaped and topped off with composites manufactured elsewhere, and with generators and motors absorbing copper from Africa and components from all over the world. Then it is put on a ship to England, where it is transported by road (REG Windpower, owners of St Breock Downs, is driving a new road from the A39 to the top of the hill to get their new turbines in). Hundreds of tons of concrete – the hidden demon of global warming, responsible for seven to ten percent of all CO2 emissions – are poured into the foundations, the tower is erected and begins to turn. By some accounts, building a turbine and putting it in place creates more CO2 than it will save in its lifetime. It certainly takes many years to get to square one.

Building conventional generating plants also produce CO2, but they have to be built anyway, in addition to windmills, to guarantee a supply.

The effect on Britain’s balance of payments is damaging. All turbines must be bought abroad, and if the government’s arbitrary targets are to be met, a further £25 billion will have to be spent on hardware.


Lack of strategy

The on-off situation with solar subsidies indicates the lack of strategic thought that underpins renewable energy policy. With wind power, the ad hoc approach is even more pronounced. Government guidelines encourage the building of turbines anywhere, even in some of the most environmentally sensitive areas. This is done on a first-come, first served basis, with no strategic planning worth the name. While turbines such as those to be built in Withiel have a similar visual impact to those planned for St Breock Downs, those at St Breock Downs produce 40 times more power. A seventh turbine in the wind farm would obviate the need for 40 turbines of the type we oppose. A strategic approach might save some of our most beautiful places from industrialisation.

Cornwall Council is slowly formulating a policy on wind turbines but is largely allowing their random erection while it does so, and seems unlikely to come up with anything worthwhile anyway. Its attitude is exemplified by the council’s renewable energy man Adrian Lea, who told the meeting in Withiel Village Hall that turbines bring communities together and will combat fuel poverty. Nothing has fractured this community more than these turbines, and the surcharge that pays for them drives hundreds of thousands of people into fuel poverty.

Cornwall Council has no tenable policy for stopping the spread of turbines. The first one it refuses on the grounds of ‘cumulative impact’ will result in a court case, which the council will lose.


Why it matters

None of this would be so important if the government didn’t have so many eggs in the wind basket. There is a place for wind in a renewable energy strategy, but it should be down the priority list. Better prospects include everything from superconductor research to geothermal energy, thorium reactors, concrete reformulation, carbon capture technologies, clean coal technologies, biomass, and insulation subsidies for the poor. Unfortunately these are underfunded because billions are being squandered to pay turbine owners.

Nobody knows how much is being spent, or will be spent. In its prospectus, REG Windpower puts the potential at £100 billion; this is probably conservative. The government claims that no tax subsidy goes to wind power, but this is disingenuous; it requires power companies to add whatever they feel is necessary to users’ bills to cover all costs. Electricity and gas bills are already opaque and indecipherable, and it’s rarely possible to work out what you’re paying for. Users complain that the bills keep going up, but they don’t have any way of knowing how much goes to the turbine owners. Estimates range from a few tens of pounds to more than £200; given the headline figures in the turbine companies’ prospectuses, the latter has to be closer to the mark. For the average household, that’s a hard blow to take.


Other factors for consideration

There are many other facets of wind power that should be taken into account. It’s worth knowing that just because turbines are turning doesn’t mean they’re producing electricity. Not until the wind speed gets up to 7mph or so is a meaningful amount of power created. When the wind reaches about 18 to 20mph the stresses become critical and the turbine must start ‘spilling’ the wind, so above that speed, it produces no additional power. Above around 50 mph it must close down or risk being destroyed.

In light airs some turbines keep turning in order to reduce stresses on bearings, and they draw electricity from the Grid to do so. In Denmark, which has more turbines per capita than anywhere else, there are days when wind turbines draw more power than they create, meaning that conventional generation had to produce 101 percent of demand to compensate. No doubt people watching them turn think they are producing electricity, rather than using it.

Safety has become a prominent issue because of the recent cases of collapse, fire and disintegration of turbines. In Scotland, France and Germany, moves to prevent wind turbines being built within 2km of inhabited dwellings are supported even by some turbine manufacturers. The three turbines currently proposed for Withiel will bring to 14 the number of turbines within a 2km radius of Withiel, and more are planned.

Wind power generation is very much a Liberal Democrat policy and their influence on the Coalition underpins it. Our own MP Dan Rogerson is wholly committed to wind power and has offered us no meaningful support. Some Tory MPs, however, are getting edgy as the public begins to wake up to the facts. If Chris Huhne is charged with perverting the course of justice there may be some hope of change, but it may come too late for Withiel.

Environmentalists desperately want to believe that wind power is an answer and are reluctant to listen to unbelievers. The alliance of ‘green’ and ‘greed’ is very difficult to combat. The solar gold rush has been condemned because it is largely a middle-class phenomenon – those who can afford to pay £10,000 or more can cut their bills at the expense of those who don’t have the capital. Wind power is the province of the rich. The 50KW turbines planned for Withiel cost £250,000 to buy, and the subsidies mean they cover costs in five to seven years. Users who are struggling to keep warm in winter should not be forced to pay these subsidies.

But the money continues to pile in. Two of the biggest investors in wind power worldwide are BP and Shell, who are reaping hundreds of millions of dollars in tax benefits as a result. Opponents of the ‘rush to wind’ are condemned as ‘hysterical nimbys’ and subjected to personal attacks which largely avoid addressing the facts. The real risk is that the hijacking of the green agenda by profiteers will ultimately bring the whole renewable energy programme into disrepute, and the environment will be the loser.