Saturday, March 07, 2015

A Question about Wind Farms.

Wind farms are a blot on the landscape and can never generate enough power to replace conventional power stations. What do you say to that?

The science is clear: to avoid catastrophic climate change we have to stop burning all fossil carbon fuels.  The sooner we manage this the safer we will be.  Many governments now accept that economies need to be zero carbon by 2050 but the science tells us that even that timescale, and leaving 80% of the already discovered fossil carbon underground and unburnt, gives us only a two thirds chance of avoiding warming by 2°C.  Even such a modest warming spells disaster for many regions and peoples around the world.

Wind farms will not on their own generate enough power to supply our wants, but the important point to note is that each and every unit of electricity that is generated by a wind turbine is a unit that does not need to be generated by gas or coal.  Every turn of a turbine’s blades is a win for the environment, however small.

Of course wind power’s contribution is far from small, is growing rapidly and has the potential for much further expansion. The UK is one of the best locations for wind power in the world, and certainly the best in Europe. At the beginning of January 2015, wind power in the United Kingdom consisted of 5,958 wind turbines with a total installed capacity of just under 12 gigawatts: 7,950 megawatts of onshore capacity and 4,049 megawatts of offshore capacity. The United Kingdom is ranked as the world's sixth largest producer of wind power.

In 2014, 28.1 TWh of electricity was generated by wind power, 9.3% of the UK's generation.  There have been certain critical times, such as Easter 2013, when a gas pipeline from the Netherlands failed during a cold, though windy spell of weather, when electricity supplies would have been cut to some consumers had it not been for the available wind generated supply.  For several periods during the autumn of 2014 wind contributed more than nuclear.  Though June, July and September were quiet months last year, from October to March 2015 wind has typically been producing over 3GW, sometimes over 5 and rarely down to 1GW.  It has been a substantial contribution to the nation’s supply, equivalent to a very large coal-fired plant or more.

Wind is variable so can never be relied upon to contribute all our generating capacity, and nobody suggests it should, but with current grid management there will be little difficulty until it contributes at least a third of the total.  The wider the dispersal of windfarms the better as regards variability is concerned.  We already regularly import 1GW via the Dutch interconnector and much of this is wind generated.  As off-shore windfarms are developed in the North Sea and north-west Scotland, the variability will be further diminished.  It should be noted that no generation source lacks variability, sometimes planned and sometimes unplanned.  The overall performance of our ageing nuclear fleet has been lamentable recently.

On-shore wind farms are currently the cheapest new source of generating capacity, even using the normal accounting methods.  But a proper economic comparison includes those costs that are usually regarded as ‘externalities’ and so disregarded.  With nuclear power, the insurance costs are removed since nuclear power stations are exempt from the need to carry more than a minimal insurance. Ultimate decommissioning and long term waste disposal are also externalities, not accounted for in the price of nuclear generated electricity.  With coal and gas fired power stations, the costs of climate change resulting from their greenhouse gas emissions are similarly disregarded.  Thus in any accounting system that is fair to future generations, wind (and other renewables) is a far cheaper source of electricity than either gas, coal or nuclear.

The potential generating capacity for windfarms in the North Sea, on for instance the Dogger Bank, is vast.  It will take time and capital resources to build the turbines and high voltage direct current (HVDC) grid to gather and bring the power ashore but we can realistically envision a zero-carbon Britain by mid century in which all public and private transport is electric, with batteries playing a large role.  There will be a mix of generating capacity, solar, tidal lagoons, tidal stream, and geothermal, but the largest single component will be wind.

Are windfarms a blot on the landscape? Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but the beholder's aesthetic feelings are moderated by her compassion for her grandchildren.


Blogger KM said...

Rather than boasting of construction figures, shouldn't one ask how much less fossil fuels are actually being burned? And then if that small result is worth the expense and impacts of such massive industrialization of our land- and seascapes as wind energy requires?

One must also remember that electricity is but one contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. The rest of the Green Party platform does so much more to reduce the total than any amount of wind turbines could. (And expending so many resources on industrial wind limits what can be done more effectively.)

5:19 pm  
Blogger Unknown said...

Great blog.
Thanks for sharing this info in such a readable way.

12:15 pm  

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