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The windfarm delusion

The government has finally seen through the wind-farm scam – but why did it take them so long?

3 March 2012

2:00 PM

3 March 2012

2:00 PM

The government has finally seen through the wind-farm scam – but why did it take them so long?

To the nearest whole number, the percentage of the world’s energy that comes from wind turbines today is: zero. Despite the regressive subsidy (pushing pensioners into fuel poverty while improving the wine cellars of grand estates), despite tearing rural communities apart, killing jobs, despoiling views, erecting pylons, felling forests, killing bats and eagles, causing industrial accidents, clogging motorways, polluting lakes in Inner Mongolia with the toxic and radioactive tailings from refining neodymium, a ton of which is in the average turbine — despite all this, the total energy generated each day by wind has yet to reach half a per cent worldwide.

If wind power was going to work, it would have done so by now. The people of Britain see this quite clearly, though politicians are often wilfully deaf. The good news though is that if you look closely, you can see David Cameron’s government coming to its senses about the whole fiasco. The biggest investors in offshore wind — Mitsubishi, Gamesa and Siemens — are starting to worry that the government’s heart is not in wind energy any more. Vestas, which has plans for a factory in Kent, wants reassurance from the Prime Minister that there is the political will to put up turbines before it builds its factory.

This forces a decision from Cameron — will he reassure the turbine magnates that he plans to keep subsidising wind energy, or will he retreat? The political wind has certainly changed direction. George Osborne is dead set against wind farms, because it has become all too clear to him how much they cost. The Chancellor’s team quietly encouraged MPs to sign a letter to No. 10 a few weeks ago saying that ‘in these financially straitened times, we think it is unwise to make consumers pay, through taxpayer subsidy, for inefficient and intermittent energy production that typifies onshore wind turbines’.

Putting the things offshore may avoid objections from the neighbours, but (Chancellor, beware!) it makes even less sense, because it costs you and me — the taxpayers — double. I have it on good authority from a marine engineer that keeping wind turbines upright in the gravel, tides and storms of the North Sea for 25 years is a near hopeless quest, so the repair bill is going to be horrific and the output disappointing. Already the grouting in the foundations of hundreds of turbines off Kent, Denmark and the Dogger Bank has failed, necessitating costly repairs.

In Britain the percentage of total energy that comes from wind is only 0.6 per cent. According to the Renewable Energy Foundation, ‘policies intended to meet the EU Renewables Directive in 2020 will impose extra consumer costs of approximately £15 billion per annum’ or £670 per household. It is difficult to see what value will be got for this money. The total carbon emissions saved by the great wind rush is probably below 1 per cent, because of the need to keep fossil fuels burning as back-up when the wind does not blow. It may even be a negative number.

America is having far better luck. Carbon emissions in the United States fell by 7 per cent in 2009, according to a Harvard study. But the study concluded that this owes less to the recession that year than the falling price of natural gas — caused by the shale gas revolution. (Burning gas emits less than half as much carbon dioxide as coal for the same energy output.) The gas price has fallen even further since, making coal seem increasingly pricey by comparison. All over America, from Utah to West Virginia, coal mines are being closed and coal plants idled or cancelled. (The US Energy Information Administration calculates that every $4 spent on shale purchases the same energy as $25 spent on oil: at this rate, more and more vehicles will switch to gas.)

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So even if you accept the most alarming predictions of climate change, those turbines that have ruined your favourite view are doing nothing to help. The shale gas revolution has not only shamed the wind industry by showing how to decarbonise for real, but has blown away its last feeble argument — that diminishing supplies of fossil fuels will cause their prices to rise so high that wind eventually becomes competitive even without a subsidy. Even if oil stays dear, cheap gas is now likely to last many decades.

Though they may not admit it for a while, most ministers have realised that the sums for wind power just don’t add up and never will. The discovery of shale gas near Blackpool has profound implications for the future of British energy supply, which the government has seemed sheepishly reluctant to explore. It has a massive subsidy programme in place for wind farms, which now seem obsolete both as a means of energy production and decarbonisation. It is almost impossible to see what function they serve, other than making a fortune from those who profit from the subsidy scam.

Even in a boom, wind farms would have been unaffordable — with their economic and ecological rationale blown away. In an era of austerity, the policy is doomed, though so many contracts have been signed that the expansion of wind farms may continue, for a while. But the scam has ended. And as we survey the economic and environmental damage, the obvious question is how the delusion was maintained for so long. There has been no mystery about wind’s futility as a source of affordable and abundant electricity — so how did the wind-farm scam fool so many policymakers?

One answer is money. There were too many people with snouts in the trough. Not just the manufacturers, operators and landlords of the wind farms, but financiers: wind-farm venture capital trusts were all the rage a few years ago — guaranteed income streams are what capitalists like best; they even get paid to switch the monsters off on very windy days so as not to overload the grid. Even the military took the money. Wind companies are paying for a new £20 million military radar at Brizlee Wood in Northumberland so as to enable the Ministry of Defence to lift its objection to the 48-turbine Fallago Rig wind farm in Berwickshire.

The big conservation organisations have been disgracefully silent on the subject, like the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which until last year took generous contributions from the wind industry through a venture called RSPB Energy. Even journalists: at a time when advertising is in short supply, British newspapers have been crammed full of specious but lucrative ‘debates’ and supplements on renewable energy sponsored by advertising from a cohort of interest groups.

And just as the scam dies, I find I am now part of it. A family trust has signed a deal to receive £8,500 a year from a wind company, which is building a turbine on land that once belonged to my grandfather. He was canny enough not to sell the mineral rights, and the foundations of the turbine disturbs those mineral rights, so the trustees are owed compensation. I will not get the money, because I am not a beneficiary of the trust. Nonetheless, the idea of any part of my family receiving ‘wind-gelt’ is so abhorrent that I have decided to act. The real enemy is not wind farms per se, but groupthink and hysteria which allowed such a flawed idea to progress — with a minimum of intellectual opposition. So I shall be writing a cheque for £8,500, which The Spectator will give as a prize to the best article devoted to rational, fact-based environmental journalism.

It will be called the Matt Ridley prize for environmental heresy. Barring bankruptcy, I shall donate the money as long as the wind-gelt flows — so the quicker Dave cancels the subsidy altogether, the sooner he will have me and the prizewinners off his back.

Entrants are invited forthwith, and a panel of judges will reward the most brilliant and
rational argument — that uses reason and evidence — to gore a sacred cow of the environmental movement. There are many to choose from: the idea that wind power is good for the climate, or that biofuels are good for the rain forest, or that organic farming is good for the planet, or that climate change is a bigger extinction threat than invasive species, or that the most sustainable thing we can do is de-industrialise.

My donation, though significant for me, is a drop in the ocean compared with the money that pours into the green movement every hour. Jeremy Grantham, a hedge-fund plutocrat, wrote a cheque for £12 million to the London School of Economics to found an institute named after him, which has since become notorious for its aggressive stance and extreme green statements. Between them, Greenpeace and Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) spend nearly a billion a year. WWF spends $68 million a year on ‘public education’ alone. All of this is judged uncontroversial: a matter of education, not propaganda.

•••

By contrast, a storm of protest broke recently over the news that one small conservative think-tank called Heartland was proposing to spend just $200,000 in a year on influencing education against climate alarmism. A day later, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, with assets of $7.2 billion, gave a grant of $100 million to something called the ClimateWorks Foundation, a pro-wind power organisation, on top of $481 million it gave to the same recipient in 2008. The deep green Sierra Club recently admitted that it took $26 million from the gas industry to lobby against coal. But money is not the only reason that the entire political establishment came to believe in wind fairies. Psychologists have a term for the wishful thinking by which we accept any means if the end seems virtuous: ‘noble-cause corruption’. The phrase was first used by the Chief Inspector of Constabulary Sir John Woodcock in 1992 to explain miscarriages of justice. ‘It is better that some innocent men remain in jail than the integrity of the English judicial system be impugned,’ said the late Lord Denning, referring to the Birmingham Six.

Politicians are especially susceptible to this condition. In a wish to be seen as modern, they will embrace all manner of fashionable causes. When this sets in — groupthink grips political parties, and the media therefore decide there is no debate — the gravest of errors can take root. The subsidising of useless wind turbines was born of a deep intellectual error, one incubated by failure to challenge conventional wisdom.

It is precisely this consensus-worshipping, heretic-hunting environment where the greatest errors can be made. There are some 3,500 wind turbines in Britain, with hundreds more under construction. It would be a shame for them all to be dismantled. The biggest one should remain, like a crane on an abandoned quay, for future generations to marvel at. They will never be an efficient way to generate power. But there can be no better monument to the folly of mankind.

The Matt Ridley Prize for Environmental Heresy

Rules for the Matt Ridley prize can be found at new.spectator.co.uk/ridleyaward. Entries close on 30 June 2012.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.


Show comments
  • TwopennyHapenny

    I think a lot of environmentalists along the whole political spectrum would agree with you about wind. The REA is not an environmental organisation but a trade association so of course has vested interests. There is a flaw in your argument though which is that gas is a fossil fuel whereas wind is not so are you comparing like with like?
    There are more sensible, more effective and cheaper renewable energy technologies, and indeed the development of wind power came about because of the silly free market policy that governments should not choose.

  • Robbie Douglas Miller

    thank goodness there is someone left in a position of influence who has the courage to point out the insanity of windpower. Hurrah for Matt Ridley and let us all hope that the Westminster and Holyrood politicians wake up to wind subsidies being a massive vote loser!

  • Turnedoutnice

    Reports from Texas, Ireland and Holland show the windmills above a critical level of average demand in steam grids where wind has priority produce more CO2 than for no windmills at all: http://www.clepair.net/windSchiphol.html

    Thus we have the astonishing result that the windmills have negative greenness under such conditions.

    As for the justification, the IPCC climate models with their 4 major physics’ errors have been fraudulent since at the latest 1997 when it was shown that CO2 lagged T at the end of ice ages and Mann’s fake hockey stick and GISS/CRU/NOAA started altering past T data to purport that CO2 ‘climate sensitivity’ could be proved from post-industrial warming.

    However, you can argue that the fraud started in 1981 when Hansen claimed we have 33 K present GHG warming, an elementary failure in basic meteorology.

  • johnhoman

    I think you should award yourself the prize

    Excellent article.

  • David Ramsbotham

    History will record wind energy as one of the biggest scams of our time – a scandal on a par with bankers bonuses and MP’s expenses.

    Do something about it now before it is too late. Please object directly to the Government about wind turbines by GOOGLING “E-PETITION 22958” and following the link.

  • derfel cadarn

    Of course it doesn’t work that is why there is a subsidy. Can you say theft on a monumental scale?

  • Damian Lataan

    To the nearest whole number, the percentage of the state of South Australia’s energy that comes from wind turbines today is: 21%.

    Seems like the rest of the world has got a lot of catching up to do.

  • Glenn Turner

    Philip Marlowe said it best…”just follow the money.”

  • Timster

    @damian
    Sorry,wrong. To the nearest whole number the installed capacity of wind farms in south Australia is 21%. That is NOT the amount of power generated, just the maximum installed and theoretical output capacity. Actual generation capacity will be far less.
    Do your homework.

  • Robofsydney

    “To the nearest whole number, the percentage of the state of South Australia’s energy that comes from wind turbines today is: 21%.

    Seems like the rest of the world has got a lot of catching up to do.”

    What an amazingly dystopian vision of the future, that the rest of the world should aspire to being a desolate place filled with serial killers.

  • Damian Lataan

    For those that doubt the South Australian numbers, this may help.

    http://ramblingsdc.net/Australia/WindSA.html#Wind_farm_generation_data

    It states quite clearly that wind farms generate (not ‘have the capacity to generate’ as Timster wrongly suggests) “more than 20% of SA’s electricity in 2011”.

    Rob, the place is either desolate or filled; it can’t be both.

  • Alastair

    I get an post from WWF (Canada) from time to time to see what they are up too and was amused to see that if one pledges to support something called “earth hour” (where the planet is to saved by turning off the lights) “the first 100,000 Canadians who pledge can earn 5 AIR MILES * reward miles*!” I wondered if George Monbiot might have a turn if he saw it.

  • Robofsydney

    “Rob, the place is either desolate or filled; it can’t be both.” Kind of like being green or having a sense of humour.

  • ladyblue

    This is the best article I have ever read in the debate about windfarms. David Cameron should be made to read it a hundred times until it’s veracity sinks in and he actually does something for the good of this country instead of kow-towing to rich lobbyists. But then again, he has as much courage as I have wind in my little finger.

  • Matt Devlin

    For crying out load! Dam up the Severn Estury and you will have 8 GW (1970’s technology, probably a bit more today) of renewable energy and a bridge to Wales to boot… The mudflats can be recreated artificailly!

    What are you waiting for? Ah, sorry I forgot, British politicians don’t like to make decisions…

  • rui david

    They publish whatever they want. they congratulate themselves, (the epic spirit of resistance of a Hollywood movie) the world goes on. And electric power comes moreand more from renewable sources including wind ( regardless of whatever Matt says…or “feels“)

  • Andrew Hoag

    If only Ontario, Canada would smarten up like Britain. This province has a debt that rivals Ireland’s yet our premiere is spending tax dollars on wind turbines like a drunken sailor.

    • joesod

      speaking of drunken sailors, debt ridden ireland is going hell bent down the wind energy road

  • George

    Whatever the merits of wind power (or not), I find it difficult to take seriously any article written by the former Chairman of Northern Rock. Having led us all into a catastrophic mess that will take generations to undo, Mr Ridley should really keep his opinions to himself.

  • Val Martin

    Please see my videos on wind farms which deal with all the myths associated with wind farms:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YIHBCpRPgGA

  • Checkyourfacts

    There are no wind turbines on Dogger Bank Matt Ridley. Not one. Let alone all the other inaccuracies in your opinion piece. Can’t wait to see who wins your “Best maker upper of facts” prize.

  • Tera

    Re Damian Lataan, March 6th, 2012 4:02am.
    Check your facts, wind energy contribution for Australia is 2% of the total demand, not 20%. See the IEA Wind report 2010:
    http://www.ieawind.org/index_page_postings/IEA%20Wind%202010%20AR_cover.pdf
    So Australia has a lot of catching up to do as well.

  • Keith Dugmore

    The name Matt Ridley on your 3 March front cover rang a bell. I remember someone of the same name being chairman of Northern Rock when it was led to its catastrophic demise. I had presumed that he had done the decent thing, and either taken the Japanese way, or, at least, like the admirable John Profumo, devoted himself to charitable works for the rest of his life. I can’t believe that he would have the arrogance to expect anyone to take any notice of his opinion or judgements now about wind power or anything else. Please reassure me that it’s a different Matt Ridley.

  • S Norton

    Perhaps a wind turbine placed at the front of Mr Ridley’s desk to catch all that air resulting from his ill-informed hurrumphing?

  • Cindy Buxton

    Hey, some of “the environmentalists” are totally with you -we support protecting habitat, water quality, and beautiful scenery just as much as ever, as well as a strony economy, the things these projects potentially destroy.

  • Kevin

    What a patently false and slanted statement regarding use of wind power world wide:

    “Wind power is growing at the rate of 30% annually, with a worldwide installed capacity of 238,000 megawatts (MW) at the end of 2011,[38][39][40] and is widely used in Europe, Asia, and the United States.[41][42] Several countries have achieved relatively high levels of wind power penetration, such as 21% of stationary electricity production in Denmark,[43] 18% in Portugal,[43] 16% in Spain,[43] 14% in Ireland[44] and 9% in Germany in 2010.[45][43] As of 2011, 83 countries around the world are using wind power on a commercial basis.[45]”

  • Ben Hall

    what re the arguments matt ridley puts forward and how does he keep readers like us interested?

  • Teresa Maria

    Excellant article. Wind farms are an expensive con and absolutely destroy the land that is torn apart to accomodate them, tons of concrete are poured into the land, access roads are built, all on land that was previously untouched. It is a flawed technology! All this money that is being invested could have been used in seeking real ways forward. Also the health issues and bird kill have been ignored in this scramble for money to fill certain pockets. I hope that the politicians wake up soon, and will someone also please tell Mr Salmond afore he has Scotland covered in the dam things!

  • DCMcomment

    Cheaper renewable technologies, really! And free markets to blame for windmills, what utter nonsense, free markets would always choose the most cost effective method of power generation, not the dearest. Pointless CO2 mitigation legislation is to wholly to blame for our predicament and the sooner we realise that with our 1.6% contribution to world CO2 emissions, all our suffering will be for absolute nothing – indeed, nature seems to be coping pretty well without our help, temperatures haven’t risen for at least twelve years!

  • Edward Lipscomb

    It’ time for a national debate on what is meant by being GREEN.

    Does it mean manufacturing VAST machines of steel and concrete, occupying VAST areas of rural land, at VAST expense in order to quench Man’s greed for electrically-powered gadgetry?

    Or does it mean protecting the natural landscape for our own well-being and that of future generations?

  • Shadeburst

    Erratum: for “other than making a fortune from those who profit from the subsidy scam” read “other than making a fortune for those who profit from the subsidy scam.”

  • Zytigon

    See George Taylor PhD of American Tradition Institute, ” The hidden cost of wind electricity, why the full cost of wind generation is unlikely to match the cost of natural gas, coal or nuclear generation ” & ” Does wind generation deserve special treatment “.
    Also see John Constable of Renewable Energy Foundation.

  • http://www.wwwbarkingspider.com/ Barking Spider

    I’ve only just seen this excellent article for the first time.

    “There were too many people with snouts in the trough” – Chris Huhne, for example.

    “……. or that climate change is a bigger extinction threat than invasive species” – Yes, well, we’ve certainly had plenty of those since 1997.

  • Lisen Lundblad

    You say that burning shale gas has reduced the carbon emissions, that is totally untrue, please read up about the pollution fracking brings before you write articles like this!!! You and they are deluded!!!!

  • empty pockets

    The crony-ists (fat cat money people) have done such a good job of distracting–with “grants” and such–the environmentalists who should be screaming at the top of their lungs against this abomination, that they are silent…as millions of birds and bats (some endangered) are slaughtered by these inefficient, costly and undependable monstrosities. Add that they are noisy and unsightly and there really is no upside to them, at least not en masse. One small windmill out on the “range” to run a water pump for a stock tank is one thing. “Wind farms” are representations of the “windbags” who bought the hype with taxpayer money while enriching their cronies and themselves.

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