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Ruth Lea

Ruth Lea: Wind power is one of the great follies of our age

Stories about wind turbines self-destructing in gales have become staple fodder in the wind-sceptic press. Pictures of turbines catching fire and detached blades hurling themselves across the countryside raise a hollow laugh, doubtless adding to the general gaiety of the nation. But wind-power really is no laughing matter at all. It adds to electricity costs, raises fuel poverty and chips away at Britain’s competitiveness.

Figures for the costs of generating electricity by the various technologies are not difficult to find. Indeed the Government has commissioned several highly respected engineering consultancies to provide such data. In a recent report for Civitas I discussed estimates by Mott MacDonald, Parsons Brinckerhoff and Ove Arup. The detailed references were provided in my report.

An overall assessment of these consultancies’ estimates clearly shows that the most cost effective technologies were nuclear power stations and modern high-efficiency gas-fired turbines. Coal-fired power stations, fundamentally the cheapest, were rendered increasingly uneconomic by the rising carbon costs, driven by our “climate change” carbon reduction targets. Applying Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) apparatus to gas-fired and coal-fired power stations notably added to overall costs according to these consultants. Onshore wind, admittedly, was one of the more cost effective technologies, on these “raw” estimates, but offshore wind was, on all the calculations, consistently one of the most expensive – if not the most expensive. Even on the “raw” estimates, investment in offshore wind turbines is an economic nonsense, for which we are all paying through higher electricity prices.

But, of course, there is a huge qualification to be made when discussing the costs of wind-power. The “raw” estimates by the Government-commissioned consultancies flatter wind-power because they do not allow for the very considerable additional costs associated with the technology.

Significant extra costs arise because wind-power is unreliable. It therefore requires the use of conventional back-up generating capacity when wind speeds are, for example, very low (or non-existent) or rapidly varying (i.e. intermittent). According to the BBC website our wonderful wind-farms effectively took a day off on 21 December 2010 when it was so bitterly cold. As the BBC weatherman put it: "For the third winter running, the intense cold has gone hand in hand with periods of little or no wind. This should come as no surprise since prolonged cold is invariably associated with areas of high pressure.” On that day 53,000 megawatts of electricity were generated and wind-power generated just 20 – or 0.04%. And for this we are wrecking swathes of the countryside, impoverishing many though, admittedly, enriching a few. This statistic also acts as a convincing rebuttal to those who argue “that the wind is always blowing somewhere”. Well, no, on very cold still days it effectively isn’t.

There are also additional costs for extending the grid in order to transport energy from wind sites (many in the north of the UK or offshore) to consumers (weighted towards the south).

The total additional costs are, by their very nature, difficult to estimate, though Parsons Brinckerhoff has estimated they could be 45% for onshore wind and 30% for offshore. Colin Gibson, former Power Network Director at the National Grid Group and one of the country’s leading authorities on the subject, has calculated that the total costs are substantially higher. But even the conservative estimates are very significant indeed and render onshore wind uncompetitive and offshore ludicrously expensive. 

As if to add insult to injury, there are studies which show that wind-power is not even an effective means of cutting carbon emissions in order to meet our draconian climate change targets. Nuclear power and/or replacing coal-fired plants by efficient gas-fired plants are, apparently, far more successful in achieving these goals. 

According to a study by Dutch physicist Kees le Pair deploying wind turbines on “normal windy days” in the Netherlands (Schipol) actually increased fuel (gas) consumption, rather than reducing it, when compared to electricity generation with modern high-efficiency gas turbines. In his calculations he included the energy needed to build and to install wind turbines, the energy needed for extra cabling, and the relatively high fuel consumption of fast reacting, but relatively low-efficiency, open cycle gas turbines (OCGTs) which are used to back-up faltering wind turbines.

So there it is. Electricity generated by wind turbines is inordinately expensive and, apparently, not even an efficient means of cutting carbon emissions. If it were not for the Blair Government’s agreement to unfeasible renewables targets for meeting energy requirements under the Renewables Directive, 15% by 2020, wind-power would not be entertained as a serious contributor to our energy needs or even as a means of cutting carbon emissions. And note too that the Renewables targets do not increase our carbon reduction targets they merely insist that renewables (which incidentally exclude nuclear power) are used to partly attain the carbon reduction targets. Or not, as the case might be.

We will not, we cannot, meet this 15% target. But we are wasting a lot of resources pretending to get there. In a mad world, wind turbines are up there with the maddest.


Ruth Lea, Electricity prices: the folly of wind-power, Civitas, January 2012.
Paul Hudson, “Coal takes the strain...again”, BBC website, 10 January 2011.
C (Kees) le Pair, “Electricity in the Netherlands: wind turbines increase fossil fuel consumption & CO2 emissions”, October 2011.


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