Peter Hoskin

Wind power: so much hot air?

Wind power: so much hot air?
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The Lewis islanders up in arms against the 181 wind turbines planned for their little slice of Hebrides have many aesthetic reasons to object. Environmentalists are torn between the green windmills, and their supposed threat to the island’s ecology/wildlife. The MoD fears that turbines block radar signals, creating “holes” in the national defence network. But the most powerful argument against wind power comes from Scared to Death, the recent book by Richard North and Christopher Booker.


Their study of the UK’s 165 wind farms shows they are not significantly cleaner, nor cheaper – and they drain the pockets of the consumer and taxpayer. Their gist: wind is unreliable – sometimes it blows, and sometimes it just doesn't. So sometimes wind farms produce a surfeit of electricity, other times next-to-nothing. This means they require a contingency plan – usually, coal-fired power stations kept running in the background, ready to step into the breach at a moment's notice.


Now, the best bit. The CO2 emissions generated by the requisite “stand-by” power-stations aren't counted in the “carbon reduction” totals for wind farms. At best, an oversight; at worst grand hypocrisy – the big industry equivalent of cycling to work whilst a car journeys behind, carrying one's bags.


The background-running of power stations adds to the cost of wind-farmed electricity. Using data from the Royal Academy of Engineering, Booker & North show the cost of a kilowatt hour of electricity from an onshore wind turbine, including the cost of stand-by generation, was 5.4p. The corresponding figure for an offshore turbine is a daunting 7.2p. Gas, nuclear and coal-fuelled power stations can do it for 2.2p, 2.3p and 2.5p respectively.


In a normal world the expense and inefficiency of these wind farms should price them out of the market – but instead it works in their favour. Why? Enter the Government's “Renewables Obligation” scheme, by which energy suppliers are – in effect – forced to buy a certain percentage of their electricity from turbine owners. Suppliers must today purchase some 7.9% of their electricity from renewable sources, rising to 15.4% by 2015.


Which means that wind farms are fast-becoming so many millionaires' playgrounds. Indeed, wind power is the perfect business investment – it will add a splash of green to any bulging portfolio, whilst also raking-in fiscal rewards as surely as any hedge fund or coffee franchise.


The FT has shown show this Renewables Obligation generates profits for turbine owners without increasing wind-farmed electricity. Despite the subsidies, the share of electricity coming from renewable sources rose from 4.2% to 4.6% over the course of 2006. Ergo Government policy is failing to achieve its intended goals, while making a handful of people very, very rich.


While the turbine owners count their profits, the consumers foot the bill via increased energy prices. When Alistair Darling recently banged the table about the 15% rise in bills of N-Power (amongst others) he kept quiet about what they said in return – that about half the increases are directly attributable to the Government's green agenda. It is a boomerang, thrown by the government – and hitting energy consumers smack in the mouth.


It will get worse. The EU mandates Britain to have 15% of energy coming from renewables by 2020. The knock-on effect will be a hike in electricity prices by between 10% and 15% - plus whatever inflation lies in store for us.


So, should their campaign fail, the poor Lewis islanders will not only face those ugly turbines – they’ll also pay more for their electricity, whilst carbon emissions hardly fall at all.