CPRE Cornwall

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The Reality of Wind Turbines

On May 1st 2011, The Sunday Times contained an article about wind turbines that truly raised alarm bells at the folly of blindly believing that renewable energy in the form of wind power was the be all and end all! The article referred to wind farms in Scotland being paid £900,000 to stop supplying electricity to the National Grid because the power was not needed. The payments, up to 20 times the value of the power the wind farms would have produced, were offered by the National Grid because it urgently needed to reduce the power entering the system as it was over-supplied with power on a wet and blustery night in April when demand for electricity was low.

Although the power could have been used in England, the transmission cables lacked the capacity to carry it south. The Scottish turbines were disconnected and the operators received six-figure sums to compensate for the loss of their subsidies and the income from the power they would have sold.

The disclosure of the subsidy payments has called into question the economic logic of the subsidies paid out to wind farms. It will pose awkward questions for Charles Hendry, the Energy Minister, because the cost of the payments ends up on customers’ bills.

A typical turbine generates power worth about £150,000 a year, but attracts subsidies worth £250,000 – designed to encourage power companies to create more wind farms. The subsidies are added directly to consumer bills.

John Constable, the Director of Policy and Research at the Renewable Energy Foundation, a green think-tank, blamed the government for building too many wind farms in northern Britain without ensuring there were enough high-voltage transmission lines or cables to take the power southwards to cities where it was most needed.

During the switch-off, Scottish Power’s Whitelee Wind Farm near Glasgow received more than £312,000 to stop production for six hours – four times the wholesale value of the power it would have generated in that time. The 40-turbine wind farm at Farr, near Inverness, received £263,000 for stopping its generation for a few hours, an amount which has been calculated as 20 times the amount it would have received for the power that it would have generated in that time.

The National Grid has confirmed that these payments had been made and explained that on the night of April 5th and 6th the demand for power was low, nuclear generation was as expected and heavy rainfall meant that hydro-power, too, was generating sufficient electricity.

So, too much energy was being produced, but as transmission lines could not cope, turbines were switched off.

At present wind turbines produce less than 5% of power needs. As Britain is committed to a target of 20% of power from renewable sources by 2020, the drive for more wind turbines and wind farms is likely to continue – and in the process wreck the character and beauty of Britain’s landscape. This incessant reliance of wind power ignores the fact that wind turbines are inefficient and the wind is intermittent. Not only that, but wind turbines are noisy and pose a risk of injury or death to wildlife.

In a recent edition of Professional Engineering, a panel of engineers considered nuclear power and renewable energy, with 60% of the panel firmly against any more on-shore wind farms. Off-shore wind turbines were considered to be more acceptable, with 65% of the panel in support, though it was recognised that there were maintenance problems because they would be located in open sea and in salt water (and there would be navigational problems for shipping, too).

When this panel of engineers considered nuclear power, 95% thought Britain should push ahead with plans for new nuclear power stations, though 61% thought that recent events in Japan would heighten public concern about nuclear safety. Only 10% of the panel believed that the first new nuclear power stations would be in operation by 2018, as the government has stated.

Wave and tidal energy was also addressed by the panel of engineers, with 43% of the opinion that power from wave and tidal energy sources would be an important part of Britain’s energy mix in 10 years’ time.

In conclusion, it would seem that wind energy is unreliable and that transmission difficulties would lead to considerable wastage. Although not mentioned in these notes, solar power is limited and would have the same transmission difficulties. Nuclear power is unlikely to be available in time and subject to much fear and apprehension. Wave and tidal power is in its early stages, and not likely to be very effective for quite a while. The transmission of power from more and more renewable sources and nuclear generation will require more overhead power lines, or (preferably) underground cables, to be utilised, but this would be a costly undertaking, and in the case of overhead lines be detrimental to Britain’s landscape. It is also obvious that existing fossil-fuelled power stations will not be allowed to continue for much longer. The only immediate solution is to avoid wasting electricity and to fully and properly insulate houses, offices and industrial premises. If subsidies from the tax-payer are to be used, it would make more sense to direct these payments towards better insulation.

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