Wind turbines are a poor way to harness energy - but a very good way to generate public subsidies.
From the summit of Plynlimon, in the deep country of the Cambrian Mountains, there is a 70-mile panorama of the Cader range, hill after green-blue hill stretching into the distance, from the peaks around Bala to the shores of Cardigan Bay.
It was a view that caught the breath. It still does, in a different way. The view from Plynlimon now is of more than 200 wind turbines, nearly a tenth of Britain’s onshore total, stretching across ridge-lines, dominating near and far horizons. The author George Borrow wrote a whole chapter on Plynlimon in his classic 19th-century travelogue, Wild Wales. It’s not so wild these days.
Last week’s decision by Miriam González Durántez, wife of the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, to join a leading wind-farm company has thrown the spotlight on one of Britain’s most controversial industries.
Mrs Durántez’s firm, Acciona, is seeking planning permission to add another 23 wind turbines to the view from Plynlimon, filling up some of the remaining skyline not yet occupied by them.
To opponents, land-based wind-turbines – there are currently 2,560 – are, in the words of the chairman of the National Trust, Simon Jenkins, “creatures from the War of the Worlds”, industrialising the countryside, invading precious landscapes.
Supporters are no less high-pitched. At the annual conference of the wind farm trade body, the BWEA, John Prescott, Mr Clegg’s predecessor, stormed: “We cannot let the squires and the gentry stop us meeting our moral obligation to pass this world on in a better state to our children. So let me tell them loud and clear: it’s not your backyard any more – it’s ours!”
The then energy and climate change secretary, now Labour leadership contender, Ed Miliband, said that it “should be socially unacceptable to be against wind turbines in your area – like not wearing your seatbelt”.
Yet like so much else in the climate change debate, the emotions – on both sides – get in the way. Presenting wind farms as either an alien scourge or a moral crusade obscures what is surely the real question: are they effective at reducing CO2 emissions? Do the benefits they bring outweigh the costs they impose?
Last year, Mr Miliband announced that renewables – very largely wind – would be expected to provide “over 30 per cent” of the UK’s electricity by 2020, as part of ambitious new Europe-wide targets.
The BWEA, recently renamed Renewables UK, is confident about the potential. “The UK is the windiest country in Europe, so much so that we could power the country several times over using this free fuel,” it says, describing Britain as the “Saudi Arabia of wind”.
RUK says that “every unit of electricity from a wind turbine displaces one from conventional power stations”, and even the existing wind turbines have “the capacity to prevent the emission of 3.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per annum”.
The key weasel word in that last sentence is “capacity”. The CO2 reduction figure assumes that all wind turbines are able to generate electricity to 100 per cent of their capacity, 100 per cent of the time. But the basic problem with wind power is that most of the time, the wind does not blow.
A typical commercial turbine needs a wind speed of between 6-10mph to start operating – and automatically stops when the wind is more than around 55mph, to protect its mechanisms. Even when the wind is blowing between those speeds, it – and therefore the amount of electricity generated – is variable, and usually below the turbine’s full theoretical capacity.
According to government figures, the average wind turbine operates to just 27 per cent of its capacity – even the industry only claims 30 per cent – and there are some grounds for suggesting that even this is a significant exaggeration. Professor Michael Jefferson, of the London Metropolitan Business School, says that in 2008 less than a fifth of onshore wind farms achieved 30 per cent capacity.
One analysis of the government figures, albeit commissioned by wind farm opponents, suggested that Britain’s biggest wind farm – the 140-turbine installation at Whitelee, near East Kilbride – operated to just 7.3 per cent of its capacity that year.
That might be all right if we could store electricity for when it is needed – but we can’t, at least not in large quantities. The power companies have to generate it at exactly the moment you want to use it.
Unfortunately, the wind might not be blowing when millions of people want to put the kettle on after Coronation Street ends. If it only starts blowing when everyone has turned off the lights and gone to bed, that is of very little use.
Jeremy Nicholson, director of the Energy Intensive Users’ Group, which represents heavy industrial users of electricity, says: “Wind is a particularly useless form of power if you don’t have a way of storing the energy. It just seems the politicians have been taken in by the wind lobby, and they’ve taken leave of their senses.”
The wind industry argues that the wind is always blowing somewhere in the UK or off its shores, so provided the wind farms are widely enough spread, it should not matter.
But Professor David MacKay, who is now chief scientific adviser at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, has pointed out that in autumn/winter 2006/7 there were 17 days when output from Britain’s wind turbines was less than 10 per cent of their total capacity. On five of those days, output was below 5 per cent and on one day it was only 2 per cent. And those were the windier seasons.
To cope with what’s called “intermittency”, you must do two things.
First, you have to build far more wind turbines, in far more places, than you theoretically need. Prof MacKay says: “We need to be imagining industrialising really large tranches of the countryside.” Every view, from every summit in Britain – apart, perhaps, from a handful of specially preserved recreational mountains – will be like the view from Plynlimon.
The wind turbines required in Britain alone, says Prof MacKay, would amount to about double the number of all turbines in the world. Even then, “the maximum plausible production from on-shore windmills is 20 kilowatt hours per day per person”, about a sixth of Britain’s actual consumption.
Offshore offers further potential, but is much more expensive – meaning it will never provide more than a minority of wind generation in Britain. It also requires huge and ugly infrastructure, such as new harbours and power lines, on land.
The second thing you have to do is build more conventional, carbon-emitting power stations. Unlike wind farms, these can provide electricity predictably and more or less on demand.
Campbell Dunford, director of the Renewable Energy Foundation (REF), says that Germany – which has the largest number of wind turbines in Europe – “is building five new coal power stations, which it does not otherwise need, purely to provide covering power for the fluctuations from their wind farms. I am not sure [wind] has been a great success for them.” Mr Dunford claims that Germany’s CO2 emissions have actually risen since it increased its use of wind power. Though the wind itself might, in RUK’s words, be “free,” the cost of backup capacity is likely to be astronomical.
The figures are fluid, and fiercely disputed by the industry, but the House of Lords’ economic affairs committee estimated that wind was at least 50 per cent more expensive per unit generated than the other main non-CO2 option, nuclear.
Even if, as seems likely, wind can remove some CO2 from the generation of electricity, the danger, particularly in a cash-strapped age, is that it offers less CO2 reduction for the buck than other means. The Government’s idea that it can provide approaching a third of our power within 10 years (it currently provides 2.3 per cent) is dismissed by most experts as unrealistic.
John Constable, director of policy at the REF, says: “There is a real risk that governments will succumb to panic and introduce very strong mandates to reach these targets. That would be disastrous, because it will result, as it is already resulting, in the adoption of sub-optimal technology.”
Constable says that far better renewables than wind are available already. Electricity generation accounts for less than half of UK energy consumption – transport and heating make up the rest. “Everybody is fixated with generating electricity, and the low-hanging fruit is being missed,” he says. “Renewables can make an immediate contribution, if encouraged, on the heating sector.” This means established technologies like ground source heat pumps, where heat is extracted from the soil in your garden.
Why, then, are we so “fixated” with wind? The number of onshore wind turbines is likely to treble in the next few years. A total of 7,000 turbines, on and off-shore, are either under construction, approved for building or seeking planning permission.
Part of the answer may be that wind turbines are visible, tangible symbols of political commitment and moral righteousness. Mr Clegg’s party wants 15,000 of them, and the Energy Secretary, Chris Huhne, also a Lib Dem, has described them as “beautiful”. The Lib Dems are also fiercely against nuclear, though their Tory partners are not.
The rest of the answer appears to be subsidy. The Government pays an indirect subsidy, a “renewable obligation”, or RO – and putting up a wind turbine is the cheapest way to collect it. In contrast to better renewable technologies, a turbine is inexpensive to build, perhaps around £2 million, and it lasts at least 20 years.
The total RO paid to the wind industry last year was £400 million. So each of Britain’s wind turbines earned, on average, £138,000 in subsidy last year – more than Mrs Clegg’s husband makes. Add in the profits from selling the electricity they generate and after construction costs are cleared, you will be making nearly £300,000 per year per turbine, half of it courtesy of the Government.
It does make for some slightly perverse outcomes. Research and development on new renewable technologies – which might be able to reduce CO2 without needing to build large towers in the countryside – get far less subsidy than wind farms.
And one of the reasons so many of Britain’s wind turbines turn so little is that the subsidy doesn’t depend on where you put them. Developers like building wind farms in places such as Lincolnshire, where the countryside is dull and there is relatively little public opposition. Unfortunately, there is also relatively little wind in Lincolnshire.
Mrs Clegg has acted with characteristic business acumen. These aren’t just wind farms – they’re subsidy farms. As well as turning a blade or two, at least when the wind is blowing, they’re about to start turning a very healthy profit.