Wind: the light starts to dawn

Chris Pincher is the Tory MP for Tamworth.  And he deserves at least a small footnote in the Great Climate and Energy Debate.  Writing on ConHome a couple of days ago, he said “The overall impact of wind power in reducing CO2 emissions is much less striking than some would have us believe”.

He uses very careful and measured language.  He makes the usual ritual obeisance to the need to develop “clean energy” (he favours tidal, which would be fine if it were economic).  But he’s realised that wind farms don’t cut emissions.  He also speaks in very positive terms about the need to develop shale gas, and also to build gas storage capacity, as well as more gas generating capacity.  And on gas, of course, he’s right.

Some people object to wind power because of local impact, noise, health effects and housing blight — and they are right to do so.  I know.  I have four 400-foot turbines within a mile of my home.

Others object to wind because the cost is excessive — and they are right too.  My old friend Chris Heaton-Harris MP has been making much of these issues in the Commons, and I commend him for doing so.

But the key insight — which like so much in politics is counter-intuitive — is that wind farms don’t even work in their own terms.  The only reason for building them is to save emissions (whether you think that’s a good idea or not).  But they don’t save significant emissions.  And so far as I know, the good Mr. Pincher is the first MP from a Coalition Party to say so.

The wind industry will simply calculate the amount of electricity generated by a turbine in, say, a year.  They will then take the average emissions per KWh across all fossil fuel generating plants (or the less scrupulous will take coal alone, which flatters the figures from their point of view).  They’ll multiply that by the turbine output, and they’ll say that’s what they’ve saved in terms of emissions.

But as Pincher seems to recognise, that’s nonsense.  You can’t look at a wind turbine in isolation.  You have to look at it as part of a system.  That system includes back-up, typically gas.  And to back up variable wind output, the industry uses old-fashioned single-cycle gas generation, because modern combined-cycle isn’t sufficiently flexible.  Single-cycle is about half as efficient as combined cycle.  But it gets worse.  Because of intermittent running (to complement variable wind), the gas production is still less efficient.

The result is that the whole package — wind plus back-up — saves much less CO2 emissions than the wind industry suggests, and on some assumptions actually saves none at all.  We have suffered the visual intrusion, and the health impacts, and the noise, and the housing blight.  We are paying twice for the same capacity — first wind, then back-up.  We are paying billions to connect new distributed generation to a grid designed to serve large, concentrated generating units.  And after all that, we have failed to deliver the declared purpose of the project.

This is failure on a plate, folly writ large.  It is doing huge damage to the economy when we can least afford it.  A recent report from BIS — a government agency —  shows the huge hit to UK competitiveness.  By 2020, Britain will have a much higher “green” cost penalty than any other major economy.

For reference on the facts, Pincher quotes Fred Udo’s work.  I have been making this point for a long time, and I have been quoting Professor Gordon Hughes’ report.  But the conclusions in both cases are similar.

Before I get too carried away in praise of Mr. Pincher, perhaps I should add that he commends the Coalition for reducing on-shore wind subsidies by 10%. But that’s fiddling at the margin.   The Treasury’s preferred 25% would have been a little better.  But the government should scrap wind and solar subsidies in their entirety, and immediately.  It should get behind nuclear, shale gas exploration, and coal.

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7 Responses to Wind: the light starts to dawn

  1. Linda Hudson says:

    How can we ignore nuclear power when it is clean, and we dont suffer from earthquakes like Iran and some other other countries do, and who themselves are developing nuclear energy at an alarming rate? France enjoys 80% of it’s needs thanks to it’s nuclear power stations, of which they have many, so why is Britain being targeted greatly by anti nuclear power activists, who have a lot to say when a couple of new nuclear stations are needed to be built to replace the old one’s?

    • Dead Right, Linda. All energy technologies involve some risk — but the risks resulting from not having electricity are hugely greater. And nuclear is by far the safest mainstream energy technology we know of.

  2. The political Parties are supposed to be led by intelligent, educated, critical people, some of whom have prospered in business, but their attitudes and present policies on energy and so much else suggests otherwise indeed. There should be no controversies, except perhaps in the minds of those ideologically opposed to nuclear power generation, or, of course, of profiteers, in your last sentence above. Mr Helmer, can you speculate as to the words the “big noises” would use if asked to comment on it? Thanks!

  3. Thanks Charles. It’s the Emperor’s Clothes syndrome, isn’t it? All big organisations have to pay lip-service to Global Warming. But get the individuals over a beer, and most will say “Well of course I don’t believe it myself, but you understand that as a business we have to support it”.

    Marks and Spencer’s self-serving slogan is “Plan A. Because there is no Plan B”. But there IS a plan B. It’s simply to abandon Plan A.

  4. John Bolton says:

    We must surely also factor the power line infrastructure into their carbon footprint. Wind farms spread quite haphazardly over the countryside require hundreds of extra steel pylons and miles of extruded copper cabling over and above our existing grid.
    The carbon saving analysis regarding these abominations has, through political cowardice, been very conveniently kicked down the road. No doubt with the connivance of DECC civil servants.This is quite clearly utterly absurd as it is supposed to be the entire raison d’etre.

  5. Mike Spilligan says:

    Mr H: All agreed, but what disturbs me is that most of the movement (little enough) is against on-shore wind farms, while off-shore are being left as is in terms of subsidies, and that even though the cost per MWhr is said to be three times that of on-shore units. This “policy” (or non policy, by default) seems to be a combination of penny wise, pound foolish and out of sight, out of mind.

    • I guess it’s because there’s more local opposition to on-shore. But you’re right: the economic and energy-security/infrastructure arguments are even stronger against off-shore.

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