Wind power? Saving the earth or just costing it?

By Peter C. Glover

LONDON, UK, Oct 12, 2010/ Troy Media/ – If you’re hankering to see Britain’s green and pleasant land and rugged coastline, don’t wait too long. In an increasingly desperate bid to meet its EU climate and renewable-energy targets, the British government is planning to build 10,000 onshore and offshore wind turbines – many 400 feet high – over the next 10 years.

The “British wind experience,” however, constantly cited by Canadian, United States, and other advocates, far from saving the earth, turns out in practice to be costing the earth.

Costs have ‘escalated markedly’

Last month the UK opened the world’s latest and largest wind farm off the English coast at Thanet, Kent, amid a blaze of publicity. The 100 turbines are just stage one, with another 242 on way. Just a few weeks earlier, the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) – one of the government’s think tanks – published a new report warning that wind-generation costs had “escalated markedly” since the “optimistic predictions of the early 2000s.” According to the report, electricity generated by wind power in the UK now costs twice as much as that generated by gas or coal.

The UKERC report states that instead of falling as predicted the cost of installing offshore turbines has gone up by 51 per cent over the past five years. Spread over the projected 25-year lifespan for a typical wind farm, each kilowatt-hour of electricity now costs around 15 pence (15/100 of a British pound), almost twice the eight pence per kwh for conventional coal and gas-power plants. Nuclear power would do the same job for 10 pence per kwh. While costs “could fall,” the report warns they could also rise as high as 19 pence per kwh.

The reason? The unreliable and intermittent nature of wind requires a whole fleet of gas and coal-fired turbine backup facilities to cope when the wind fails. Unfortunately, in Britain, times of least wind (January and February) coincide with the coldest times of year, when electricity demand is highest. And given the raison d’être for the rush to wind – reducing carbon emissions – gas and coal turbine backups regularly having to kick in will more than cancel out meaningful CO2 reductions.

UK electricity prices already “hide” a renewable, mostly wind, subsidizing levy of around £200 (C$323, US$319). That’s as much as 20 per cent per bill, a tab the report says British taxpayers will be picking up till at least the mid-2020s. This helps explain why British electricity bills are the highest in Europe.

What the report doesn’t say, however, is that if the same £1.2 billion (about $1.9 billion Canadian or U.S.) was invested into a single (mostly) carbon-neutral nuclear power station, the electricity yield would be up to that 13 times higher, with vastly superior reliability, not to mention cleaner air.

Dr. David Whitehouse is an astrophysicist, author of the acclaimed book The Sun: A Biography and a former BBC science editor. Speaking to Troy Media, Whitehouse explains, “Renewable-energy sources such as wind, wave and solar just have not got the power to make a big difference to an industrialised society which requires concentrated industrial-strength power generation to keep us warm.”

Two key factors are at play here that wind advocates do their best to obscure.

The ‘capacity versus load factor’ game

The wind industry plays a little game whereby it constantly fails to explain the difference between capacity and “load factor,” or actual power generated. The Thanet wind farm is a classic case in point. Much was made of the claim that the farm could produce capacity up to 300 megawatts of electricity, or “enough to power 200,000 (even 240,000) homes.” But the fact is, wind farms almost always never get anywhere close to capacity.

The recommended load factor that determines whether a wind turbine or farm is economically viable and efficient is just over 30 per cent. The energy reality, in Britain’s “experience,” is that onshore farms run at a meagre 20 percent or below, with some, in urban areas, dropping as low as nine percent. The “experience” offshore isn’t much better.

According to the UK Department of Energy and Climate’s own statistics, the average output of electricity power generated (or load factor) offshore during 2009-10 was just 26 per cent of capacity. In consequence, the British government has legally obliged UK electricity companies to buy offshore wind energy at three times the normal market rate.

Whitehouse tells Troy Media, “No matter how many wind farms or tidal barrages you build, there is just not enough energy density in wave and wind to make a big difference. You could capture wind and wave energy with 100 per cent efficiency all over the country, and you wouldn’t have enough energy to power Birmingham, England.”

Density: the definitive issue

In his brilliant essay Understanding E=mc2 (and his book Terrestrial Energy from which it is distilled), William Tucker shows that the density of mass in both wind and water bears no comparison with that of oil, coal and gas. Tucker calculates, for instance, that a land mass of about 375 square miles with around 660 widely spaced, gigantic turbines is necessary to match a power return of 1,000 megawatts, the normal candle for a conventional power plant. And that would be with the wind turbines working at 100 per cent capacity – which, as we’ve seen, isn’t happening, even in the windiest countries.

“The British experience,” Whitehouse says, “has been to use wind farms to increase the energy bills of every household without increasing the security of energy supply.” In Britain, that explains why energy analysts have of late widely predicted national power cuts within just four years.

Once we get past the wind-industry press handouts, what the “British wind experience” actually teaches is how quixotic fictions can easily leave us cold.

For more information on this subject, see Peter C. Glover’s Energy and Climate Wars (Continuum).

See post Windpower-Savingtheearthorjustcostingit

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