The UK now has around 5000 grid connected wind turbines onshore. Together they produce around 1% of Britain’s current energy needs. That’s right, for all the disruption, construction, expense and aggravation of local communities with low frequency noise, flickering light, and occasional flying chunks of ice and broken blades, they generate a mere 1% of requirement.
But it’s worse than that. When the wind doesn’t blow, they produce nothing at all, which means conventional generation has to be on standby to take up the slack. In fact in winter, they sometimes consume power during calm periods because electric heating elements are used to prevent gearbox oil becoming too thick in freezing conditions. When the wind blows too hard, they have to be shut down to prevent damage. Only in ‘Goldilocks conditions’ do they produce a meaningful contribution to our energy needs.
Worse still, even when Goldilocks conditions prevail, but not at a time of day when the energy is needed, we have to pay the turbine owners to disconnect from the grid and throw away the energy produced, to prevent them causing grid instability. The owners love it when this happens, because instead of getting paid twice as much as the going rate for supplying energy, they get to name their own price for NOT supplying any energy at all. On the weekend of the 4th August, one company in Scotland demanded £200 per megawatt hour – four times the rate paid to conventional electricity generators. On current projections, these payments will amount to a total of £30m in 2013 – a cost borne by families hard pressed by heating bills which have risen dramatically since the great green energy boom began in earnest a decade ago.
Fortunately, a change of chief government scientific advisor has brought some much needed perspective to the job. Sir Mark Walport has set out his stall, and energy ministers are now under pressure to take account of security of supply and affordability in addition to environmental considerations. Not that windfarms built on upland peat soils are particularly useful in terms of carbon dioxide mitigation. The drying of peat soil caused by the construction of foundation anchors and access roads has been found in some cases to produce as much co2 as the turbines save compared to emission from gas and coal fired plant. Now there are plans to back up becalmed windmills with diesel generators, worsening their carbon footprint further.
However, these negatives are not taken into account when local authorities consider applications for new windfarms. The odds are against local communities opposing their development near their homes, and the distance limit is being reduced. Not long ago, the minister concerned decided that local authorities and communities should have more of a say in deciding planning applications for new windfarms. But the landowning lobby is powerful and this minister has now been replaced and the new policy abandoned, ostensibly because his brother works within the industry. So it’s back to business as usual, and the battle local communities have to fight against well monied and lawyered-up developers is on once again. In my own ward, a development company has been trying for several years to obtain consent for a windfarm. They keep moving the proposed location a small distance, and re-applying despite earlier refusals, in the hope the community will become worn down and fail to oppose it with sufficient vigour.
UKIP has consistently opposed windfarm development for years. Following the May 2013 local elections leader Nigel Farage said: “We don’t impose a whip on councillors, but the one thing we do expect of them is to oppose every new windfarm application!” The party has taken steps to assist local communities in practical ways. A pamphlet entitled ‘Fighting Wind Farms – A Guide For Campaigners’ is packed with advice and useful contacts, web links and ‘FAQ’s and Figures is available online at my website.
Our country is rushing headlong towards an energy-crunch. Many of our ancient Magnox nuclear installations are continuing to generate beyond their originally planned obsolescence, because there is little alternative. The E.U. is forcing the closure of coal fired stations under the ‘renewables obligation’ to produce 15% of energy needs by alternative means by 2020. Drax, our largest coal generation plant, producing 7% of the country’s electricity, is being forced to convert half its fuel use to biomass – trees imported from America. The energy density is an eighth that of coal, requiring more trainloads running longer hours on a just-in-time basis. Woodchip cannot be stockpiled like coal, it is too much of a fire hazard. More reliance on an increased fleet of wind turbines increases the chance of serious grid instability and blackouts.
The glimmer of light at the end of this dark gloomy tunnel is shale gas. UKIP has been pushing for its development for a long time, and our coalition government is now realising the Independence party is right to have been doing so. Shale gas has revolutionised the American energy market, and has, by lowering domestic energy prices, re-invigorated the U.S. economy, and reduced its carbon dioxide emissions. The major country which didn’t sign up to the Kyoto protocol is outperforming Europe, with its kamikaze energy policies, a rich irony. The UK is sitting on enormous shale gas reserves too, and with a sensible balance between regulation and pace of development, this new industry could help reduce unemployment, and improve our balance of trade figures. It may just keep the lights on too.
To become self determining in energy policy, Britain will need to repatriate control over its approach to balancing climate change and economic development from Europe. UKIP is the only party with the commitment required to achieve this. The ‘renewables obligation’, in tandem with the ill conceived Climate Change Act are currently stifling the development of a realistic energy policy which can sustain Britain’s economic development. Our current direction on climate and energy policy has to change.