Wind power offers too much to ignore
The location of the British Isles at Europe’s wild and windy western fringe does not always seem like a blessing. But in one important respect it is: the UK has the greatest potential for wind power, both onshore and offshore, of any European country.
Onshore wind power has expanded steadily across the UK in recent years and is a key plank of the country’s commitment to greening its electricity supply. But as the turbines have gone up across the countryside, so has the level of opposition. Wind power has become a deeply divisive issue in British politics.
The issue exploded last year when 106 members of parliament, mostly Conservatives representing rural constituencies, signed a letter to Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron. They urged him to cut subsidies for the onshore wind industry, describing wind technology as “inefficient and intermittent”.
Things escalated in the autumn when the recently appointed Conservative energy minister, John Hayes, told two newspapers that “enough is enough” and that no new onshore wind farms would be built. He was slapped down by his boss Edward Davey, the secretary of state for energy and climate change and a member of the Liberal Democrat party.
But simmering tensions remain at the top level of the coalition government. Another Conservative, finance minister George Osborne, is known to be sympathetic to the anti-wind cause. Wind turbines also became an important point of contention between the parties in a recent by-election.
Two of the anti-wind campaigners’ main concerns are the impact of turbines on the beauty of the countryside and
the opposition of local people. It is absolutely right that these be taken into account. But they need to be balanced against the bulk of public opinion, which strongly supports the increased use of wind turbines.
Any misgivings must also be balanced against the important role that this technology can play for the UK, both in fulfilling its climate-change commitments and for future economic success.
Anti-wind campaigners frequently make claims about the shortcomings of wind power. They complain that turbines are so inefficient that they actually increase carbon dioxide emissions, and so unreliable that they can’t provide us with a secure energy supply. If correct, these claims would be devastating to wind power. But they are not.
My organisation, the Institute for Public Policy Research, recently published a report tackling these questions. Our conclusions are unambiguous. Onshore wind power reduces carbon emissions and is a reliable source of electricity, at least up to the capacity of wind power that is forecast to be installed in the UK by 2020.
To answer the carbon question, we used a simple model of the UK electricity market. As demand increases, say on a weekday morning when people are waking up and getting ready to go to work, power plants increase output to meet it. Plants with the lowest marginal cost - that is, those that can produce additional electricity most cheaply - are selected first by the market. Here wind beats gas and coal, as no fuel is needed to generate electricity.
The upshot is that, in theory, adding wind power to the energy mix should displace coal and gas, and hence cut carbon. This is backed up by empirical data on emissions reductions from wind power in the US.
There is another way of looking at it. In 2011, wind energy contributed approximately 15.5 terawatt-hours of electricity to the UK. If this had been supplied by fossil fuels instead, CO2 emissions would have been at least 5.5 million tonnes higher, and as much as 12 million tonnes higher.
As for the important matter of reliability, the obvious worry is that because the wind does not always blow, the system will sometimes not be able to supply electricity when needed.
This seems like common sense. However, the reliability of wind power does not depend on the variability of wind. Instead, it depends on how well changes in wind power output can be anticipated.
Forecasts of wind farm output are increasingly accurate, and drops in output can be predicted and compensated for using conventional power stations. In any case, output is surprisingly stable across the country’s entire network of wind farms: when the wind isn’t blowing in one area, it usually is somewhere else. The relatively small changes that do occur are well within the capabilities of existing systems for balancing supply and demand on the grid.
Even when winter delivers a “long, cold, calm spell” with low temperatures and little wind, the system can cope. This was demonstrated by a two-week period in February 2010 in Ireland, a country that is much more reliant on wind than the UK. It coped perfectly well.
If the UK government caves into pressure and lowers its ambitions for onshore wind, it will make more expensive forms of low-carbon generation a necessity to hit the UK’s target of producing 30 per cent of its electricity from renewables by 2020. The result will be even higher electricity bills.
Scaling back on wind would also be a lost opportunity. The natural resource at our disposal, combined with the UK’s engineering heritage, could create significant economic growth and jobs.
The concerns of people who do not want wind power on their doorsteps need to be taken into account. We must also be sensitive to the need to preserve areas of natural beauty. But we should not sacrifice important opportunities because of the views of vocal minority groups and their unsubstantiated claims.