Windpower -- free lunch or Damocles' sword?

Wind power is being deployed in the UK, supposedly to displace fossil fuel generation and save carbon dioxide (CO2) emission, thus slowing climate change. This paper shows that the relative quantities of CO2 emission saved, and in global circulation, make it impossible for wind installations significantly to alter atmospheric concentration of CO2 or climate. The cost of this failure is very large and is effectively subsidised by the Renewables Obligation which might better be spent on other measures which would give much larger reductions of CO2 emission.

John Etherington

The wind industry's false claims

Since the Industrial Revolution, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) has risen by a third, from 280 parts per million by volume to 373 ppmv in 2002 mainly, it is thought, as a result of fossil fuel combustion. Whether or not CO2 is a 'single factor' controller of climate, it seems a bad idea to continue such an open-ended 'experiment' with our irreplaceable atmosphere, and this was the motivation of the Kyoto treaty.

Governments have agonised over ways and means of reversing the trend but little has been positively done in the UK, other than to promote renewable electricity generation, mostly wind power. The wind industry proclaims: 'Wind farms help to prevent the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and are an important way in which we can help combat global warming.'1

I dispute the truth of this and believe there is much to question in the technological assumptions which justify wind power, in the democracy and openness of the planning system's procedures for wind power and in potential damage to tourism, economies, property values, habitat and wildlife. It is dishonest to force on the countryside 'targets' for wind power which masquerade as emission-control targets.

The achievement of such vital targets should be directly measured, not calculated by extrapolation from electricity generation, a practice which encourages misrepresentation. The DTI, for example, expresses emission cuts using an average mix of generating fuels but the BWEA and wind companies use the 'dirtiest' emitter only -- coal. This nearly doubles their estimate of CO2 saving but does not accord with the real world where other fuels are increasingly used.2

Wind power cannot significantly alter global CO2 concentration

Government should explain how cuts in emissions from electricity generation compare with other CO2 sources and with world totals. If this were done, government's own figures falsify the assertion that we need wind power to combat 'global warming'. The key figure is the 2010 target of 9.2 megatonnes of CO2 per year (Mt CO2/y)3 to be saved by renewables, mostly wind power. Ludicrously, this is less than the annual emission from one medium-sized fossil-fuelled power station!

The UK's total CO2 emission is 551 Mt/y and world total is 24,240 Mt CO2/y.4a,b The saving attributable to renewable electricity generation would be, at most, 1.7 per cent of the UK's total CO2 emission and about four ten-thousandths of global emission (0.04%)! Even at 50% of power generation by renewables in, say, 2050, only half of which could realistically be wind, this would reach 8% for the UK (16% if the UK halves overall demand by that date) and 0.2% of global! The reservation, 'at most' is crucial. Recent power industry reports imply that the UK savings will be much less than the 9.2 Mt CO2/y. For example E.ON Netz recently admitted that every megawatt of installed wind power required 0.8 MW of backup from 'shadow power stations'.5 Thus, even when generating, wind turbines are inherently even if unwittingly, causing pollution.

In the words of ESB, the Irish National Grid, 'As wind contribution increases, the effectiveness of adding additional wind to reduce emissions diminishes [and] the cost will be very substantial because of the back up need'.6 The ESB paper argues that, as we increase the percentage of generation drawn from the wind, CO2 saving will become progressively less. But even if we accept that 9.2 Mt/y can be saved by renewable generation, it cannot measurably alter the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere and ocean-surface reservoir which contains many millions of Mt of CO2, let alone divert climate-change. Emptying the Atlantic with a teaspoon comes to mind.

The financial cost of wind power's negligible effect on CO2

Renewable energy is financed by the mechanism of the Renewables Obligation (RO), the Climate Change Levy exemption (CCLe) and the marketing of RO Certificates (ROCs) the complexity of which is almost impossible to unravel. This obscurity seems a quite deliberate attempt to conceal the fact that the RO and CCLe are effectively a hidden tax on all electricity consumers and a huge hidden 'subsidy' to providers of renewable energy -- larger indeed than any subsidy in history.

The details of the RO mechanism are best appreciated from a flow chart. However, the overall effect of the RO and CCLe is to pay three premiums on top of the wholesale price of wind generated electricity (and other renewable generation), in summary:
  1. The Renewables Obligation 'buyout' price -- £30/MWh.

  2. A trading increment from marketing Renewables Obligation Certificates - this has been steadily growing since 2002 when the RO system replaced the former NFFO (Non-fossil Fuel Obligation). The price of ROCs currently appears on National Grid Co's website at £47/MWh (buyout price of £30 plus £17 'green smear').

  3. The Climate Change Levy exemption -- effectively an extra £4.30/MWh as conventional thermal generators have to pay this to government as a CO2 emission penalty.
These three thus total a premium of £30 + £17 + £4.30 = £51.30 per MWh, which is added to the wholesale value of the electricity generated by renewables -- in our context wind power.

Electricity has increased considerably in price since the RO was introduced and is now around £30/MWh wholesale but the trading system of NETA involves short term bidding by National Grid Transco and the price fluctuates wildly, controlled by supply and demand. Thus we have an approximate total, at the moment, of about £80/MWh paid for wind power compared with c. £30/MWh for conventional generation.

If the generator and distributor of the wind electricity is the same firm (e.g. Powergen) the net result is that wind electricity is sold by the Generator for approaching three times the cost of average thermal generation. An 'effective subsidy' to three times unit-cost is gigantic, historically unprecedented and I believe unsustainable. Coal currently receives less than one twenty-fifth of this subsidy per MWh whilst gas and nuclear get none.7 'Effective subsidy' appears in inverted commas because the RO/ROC premium is not a true subsidy as it is collected by a small charge on all consumers' bills and transferred to the renewable generator/supplier. A true subsidy would be from tax via the Treasury. Because of this, the average person and even many investigative journalists are not aware that the RO is a huge financial incentive which has brought multinational power companies flocking to our shores.

DTI's Energy White Paper8 says:

'We have ... introduced a Renewables Obligation for England and Wales in April 2002. This will incentivise [sic!] generators to supply progressively higher levels of renewable energy over time. The cost is met through higher prices to consumers.'

That means all consumers, not just those who get a warm glow from paying a more expensive 'green' tariff (for the same electricity from the Grid!).

The smaller premium of the CCLe is paid-for by all taxpayers and again I quote the White Paper:

'By 2010, it is estimated that this support [RO] and Climate Change Levy (CCL) exemption will be worth around £1 billion a year to the UK renewables industry.'

Options costs and benefits

We need to prioritise sources of greenhouse gas emission and identify the cost-benefits of controlling them.

Nuclear power: Electricity generation contributes 30 per cent of UK CO2 emission so it is important to consider other CO2-free alternatives. The advanced technology of hydroelectricity is largely exploited, and impoundment tidal and biomass generation are environmentally constrained. Other renewable sources are in their infancy and many may never develop. Nuclear power provides 21 per cent of our present generation and pragmatism suggests that Government may be forced to reconsider the decision to phase it out, as hopes for renewable generation are proving unrealistic. Notably, since the 2005 election, pressure for resumption of nuclear power development is rising.9

Air transport: In 2002, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) wrote that 'by 2050 air transport, unless curbed, will be one of the principal contributors to climate change caused by human activities ...' and whilst we do nothing about it, 'the rapid growth in air transport will proceed in fundamental contradiction to the government's stated goal of sustainable development'.10

Road transport: Surface transport is a major emitter of CO2 (22 per cent of UK emissions) and current policies which encourage road freight and fuel-profligate domestic vehicles are another 'fundamental contradiction' of energy saving policy.

Industrial and domestic: Industrial (23%) and domestic (16%) sources of CO211 provide a huge opportunity to address energy efficiency with potential fuel savings and emissions cuts in excess of the tiny contribution of renewable electricity generation.

Transfer of the present consumer-sourced 'subsidy', the Renewables Obligation, to suitable schemes in all of these sectors would be a far more cost-effective use of the billion pounds a year, forecast to reach renewable energy companies, mainly wind power, from ROCs by 2010.12

Government committees -- the concerned and the captured

Three governmental committees have recently published material on wind energy, and reached different conclusions, as summarised below.

The recent Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) report on wind energy has been written uncritically to promote wind power. Jonathon Porritt's accompanying press release claims that: 'Climate change will have a devastating impact unless urgent action is taken to boost the contribution of renewables alongside energy efficiency measures. We believe wind power is a critically important part of the overall energy mix ''

The SDC report projects a much greater annual saving by wind power of CO2 emission (2020) than would be projected from the 2.5 MT C per year all-renewables target for 2010.13 It is not clear how the SDC arrives at its estimate but it is still trivial in the context of the global emission comparison already discussed, and any suggestion that it has a part to play in controlling climate change can be dismissed. See Keay16 for more on this. SDC also rejects the contention that wind power is expensive. To do so it ignores much authoritative publication16 but if the saving of CO, emission cannot make a difference to global CO2 concentration it seems carping to criticise further!

Commenting on the report in the Western Morning News, Keay stated: 'The SDC is repeating the errors of the early advocates of nuclear: underestimating the likely costs; minimising the practical problems; overstating the benefits; and dismissing the alternatives'. It took a request under the Freedom of Information Act for the SDC report's main author to be revealed as a prominent member of the British Wind Energy Association.

The Council for Science and Technology report on the future of electricity supply14 looks at wind energy with more rigour and neutrality than the SDC. It outlines the difficulties which intermittent renewables will encounter, in particular the requirement for backup capacity which, 'if deployed on a significant scale ... will almost inevitably be fossil (gas-fired) because of the flexibility required'. It concludes: 'For these reasons, it is not possible to meet the challenging CO2 objectives in the medium term without large-scale technologies which do not add to the carbon burden ...'14

The 'large scale' generating technologies discussed by CST are nuclear, tidal or fossil fuel coupled with carbon sequestration. Pragmatism suggests that we shall be forced to return to nuclear and my view is that the undue pursuit of intermittent renewables such as wind make it ever more likely that further nuclear deployment will happen under time constraint -- a dangerous outcome of the green-dream.

The House of Lords report15 on climate change brings a breath of fresh air to the politically embattled field of climate change and makes eminently clear that the so-called 'consensus' on the science is a deliberately created myth. Its comment on wind power is that: 'we are surprised that the Government's Energy White Paper should place such emphasis on just one technology, wind energy'.

It has already been represented to me that wind power is 'an industry in its own right' and that my opposition, however rational, is counter to progress. It would be a disaster for Britain's power supply and the qualities and potential of the landscape if this view prevails and wind turbines become the green token 'ring tones' of an otherwise worthless sales campaign.

References and notes

1. nPower (2005) Brochure promoting the proposed Mynydd-y-Gwair wind farm, Swansea.

2. DTI (15 March 2005) Letter and attachment (ref. 00523006cawsey) from former Energy Minister Mike O'Brien, who wrote in response to a document from HAT (Humberside against Turbines): 'We agree with the paper that it would be appropriate to use an average electricity generation mix when calculating the current CO2 savings from a wind turbine. This is consistent with DTI Wind Energy Factsheet 14. The data in Factsheet 14 are superceded by carbon emission equivalences in Energy Trends (March 2003) where mixed generation is given as equivalent to 0.59 t CO2/MWh. BWEA's claim of 0.86 t CO2/MWh is thus formally rejected by the DTI.

3. DEFRA (2004) Consultation on the review of the UK Climate Change Programme (the report actually gives a figure of 2.5 Mt carbon/year, which is equivalent to 9.2 Mt CO2).

4. a. Report to DEFRA (2005) Greenhouse Gas Inventories for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland: 1990-2002. b. Oak Ridge (2003) A Compendium of Data on Global Change.

5. E.ON NETZ (2004) Wind Report 2004.

6. ESB (2004) Impact of Wind Power Generation in Ireland on the Operation of Conventional Plant and the Economic Implications.

7. DTI (2004) E-mail communication with author providing information on current subsidy of coal-fired generation and termination of the nuclear generating subsidy in 1995-6.

8. DTI (2003) Energy White Paper. Sect. DTI (15 March 2005) on 4.7.

9. Independent (2005). Nuclear power may be the only way, says chief scientist, 11 May.

10. RCEP (2002). The Future Development of Air Transport in the United Kingdom: A National Consultation.

11. DTI (2004) Digest UK Energy Statistics, Environment, CO2 Annex E. All industry specific CO2 percentages sourced from this annex.

12. DTI (2003) See note 8.

13. SDC -- Sustainable Development Commission (2005 May) Guide to Wind Power in the UK.

14. CST -- Council for Science and Technology (2005 May). An Electricity Supply Strategy for the UK.

15. House of Lords (2005 July). Select Committee on Economic Affairs. The Economics of Climate Change.

16. Keay, M. (2005) Wind Power in the UK: Has the Sustainable Development Commission Got it Right? Oxford Energy Comment.

Dr John R. Etherington was formerly Reader in Ecology in the University of Wales, based at Cardiff. He now lives in north Pembrokeshire.

Some post-publication notes

Very recently the House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts reported on Department of Trade and Industry: Renewable energy (18 July 2005).

Several of the points pertaining to cost, transparency and democracy made in my article have been highlighted by this Committee:

'The Renewables Obligation is currently at least four times more expensive than the other means of reducing carbon dioxide currently used in the United Kingdom ...'

'Around a third of the support provided by the Renewables Obligation exceeds the extra cost of renewable generation' [hence the 'Mafia' culture which has grown up around this industry].

'... the likely rapid expansion of onshore wind power in the next five years could create a public reaction against renewable energy.'

'Requiring users to source supplies from uneconomic providers has the same affect as taxing users to subsidise the providers, but is not as transparent or amenable to Parliamentary control.'

'The intermittent nature of wind power means that generation levels are uncertain, so back-up generation is required.'

'By 2010, the cost of the Renewables Obligation, which does not appear on electricity bills and is not explained to consumers, is expected to reach £1 billion per annum'.

'... the Department has not consulted consumers, or their representative groups, about their willingness to contribute to the cost of renewable energy ' There is no annual parliamentary approval of the cost to consumers of supporting the renewables industry through the Renewables Obligation'.

'... in 2004, a new planning statement was issued [ODPM] ... The statement increases the chances of hitting the 2010 target, but only by reducing local communities' influence on the planning process'.

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