Jul 022009

On Wednesday morning, a story headlined Wind ‘can revolutionise UK power’ appeared on the BBC News website. Note the quotation marks; the age old device that hacks love so dearly when they know that what they are about to say may not withstand scrutiny.  These are the opening paragraphs:

Wind has the power to revolutionise the UK’s electricity industry, according to a study published on Wednesday.

Research from analysts Poyry says that the UK can massively expand wind power by 2030 without suffering power cuts or a melt-down of the National Grid.

The cost of electricity would then be determined not by consumer demand, but by how hard the wind is blowing.

When it is windy power will be so cheap that other forms of generation will be unable to compete, the report says.


Well that’s good news, or is it? A report on the same website last week, and by the same journalist, said:

Ministers on Wednesday approved new wind power sites for the Crown Estate around the UK’s coastline.

They also began the tender process for a £15bn contract for the new cabling needed to bring the power onshore.


But why bother mentioning this stupendous cost of getting wind power to our indestructible grid when writing about the same subject a week later?

Before we go any further lets just get one thing straight. The amount of power that wind turbines generate is directly related to how hard the wind blows, and this varies constantly from light airs or dead calm, when they generate nothing, to very strong, when they have to be shut down for safety reasons. Between these extremes turbines yield a variable amount of electricity depending on wind speed. As a result wind farms sited in the UK will typically have an average yearly output of less than a third of their maximum theoretical capacity, and that output will vary wildly and unpredictably from day to day and hour to hour.

This presents huge problems for the power distribution network, and means that there must always be sufficient conventional power sources to step in when the output from turbines is too feeble to satisfy demand. Otherwise the lights go out.

Now lets see what this article has to say about that vexing little problem:

If the wind were to drop everywhere round the UK (as happened during the January high pressure cold snap), other generators would make their money by switching on back-up fossil fuel power stations for a very short time, charging extremely high prices, it predicts.

Dr Phil Hare from Poyry said these back-up generators might stand idle for years without making a profit – so the government might need to find a new way of ensuring they were funded.


According to Pöyry’s report, generators are expected to provide backup facilities, even if they have no way of anticipating what they might earn, if anything, or when. If they are not happy about taking such ludicrous commercial risks, there’s no need to fret, the government will sort out that little problem. At a time when it is generally accepted that government expenditure is stretched far beyond any reasonable limit, and we are facing the worst recession in living memory with the prospect of a decade of austerity while the national debt is paid off, who would be so politically incorrect as to worry about increased energy costs when the future of the planet is supposed to be at stake? Quite a lot of us I think, so let’s look at this a little more closely.

A conventional power station which is standing idle, waiting for the moment when its contribution to keeping the lights on is needed very urgently because the wind is dropping all over the country, cannot be brought into service at the touch of a button. For that kind of immediate intervention power plants have to be fired-up and ready to go.  So in order to leap into the breach when the supply of power from wind fails to match demand, we will need conventional generating power equivalents to that from wind power that is running permanently, but producing nothing except pollution including CO2 , ready for  the rare occasions when they can quickly begin to generate electricity.

There is nothing new in any of this, other than the suggestion that government might be prepares to incur massive costs on our behalf so that wind generation can play a significant role in providing a power supply. But what comes next is truly astonishing:

The study bases its assumptions on current levels of subsidy. It concludes that, thanks to the wind subsidy through the “Renewable Obligations Certificates” issued by regulator Ofgem, electricity prices would be negative if the wind were blowing hard.


Now it might be pedantic to suggest that what this sentence actually means is that, at times of peak wind generation, the producers will actually pay consumers to use their electricity, although that certainly seems to be what is being said. Perhaps it was late at night and the hard-pressed journalist just lifted a chunk out of a press release without really looking at it. But in fact there is a very important point here:

“The market will have to evolve to accommodate the wind [power]. The average output of a wind turbine is only about a third of its full capacity. So when the wind is blowing strongly you’ll have to turn some of the wind power off; otherwise it will swamp the system,” Dr Hare said.



What this means is, during the rare times when wind turbines are capable of operating at peak reliability and efficiency, they will have to be closed down because their output will be unsaleable at any price. There just won’t be the demand for it.

So if we return to the dismal figure of about 30% that represents the actual output of wind turbines, and then factor in the need to close them down at times when they are performing best, what does that reduce the average level of output to?

But fear not, this is a report produced by a firm of international consultants, who no doubt really do believe that there are no such things as problems, only opportunities.

“Nuclear power stations will have to be built with variable output so they – like gas and coal plants – can occasionally cut their power when the wind is blowing most strongly.”


So far as I am aware, the technology for this does not yet exist. The great advantage of nuclear generation is that it churns out electricity day in, day out, year after year, without interruption. It is the only thing that makes this type of power station economically viable, and the problems of taking them in and out of service at short notice are even greater than with conventional power stations. But apparently in the bright new world of wind power we are to develop new technology so that we can have these plants standing idle except for the rare occasions when they are needed, when they will instantly be brought into production.

The article continues:

The study amplifies a recent paper from National Grid itself stating that a move towards wind power would not necessitate widespread investment in expensive back-up power plants fuelled by gas or coal.


Presumably developing a new generation of uniquely flexible nuclear power stations to back up an unreliable wind resource does not count as  ‘widespread investment’, and what about existing conventional power stations that are getting towards the end of their design life? Should we really rely on these antiques to supply a first world industrialised country with electricity when the wind drops?

The author of this article, the BBC’s Environment analyst Roger Harrabin, seems to have swallowed everything that he has been told about Pöyry’s report without posing a single question. Perhaps he doesn’t know which questions to ask when it comes to wind power, or maybe he was writing up a press release from the Department of Energy and Climate Change, which just happens to be launching a white paper on energy soon. But it does make you wonder why the BBC is letting an Environment Analyst deal with a major story about the future of the county’s energy supply, rather than an Energy Correspondent or Editor, who might be expected to know something about the subject

On the whole, this story reads like an attempt by the Government to spin Pöyry’s report as if it was evidence to support their proposed policy of massive investment in wind power. The facts read more like nails in the coffin of that policy.

With a general election in the offing, which no one seriously expects the governing party to win, one wonders if Downing Street is simply committing to this policy in the hope that their successors will be embarrassed by having to reverse it. Rather like the Parliamentary Labour Party voting a clown into the speaker’s chair at a time when an outstanding replacement for Mr Speaker Martin was so clearly needed for no other reason than that the Conservatives didn’t want him there.

The last word goes to the report’s author, Dr Phil Hare:

“It will cost more. There is no such thing as cheap green power – that is a myth.”


So is the idea that wind power will ever be a viable alternative source of energy.

Update 22/072009: There is a very good article by Lewis Page at The Register going into this in very much more detail than I have done here. His conclusions are the same as mine, but using a wealth of evidence that is beginning to emerge as a result of the Pöyry report.

21 Responses to “New report for government nails wind power”

  1. It’s interesting to contrast the the BBC’s take on this story with other reports:

    Your Industry News

    Reuters India

    The report can be found here:

    Impact of Intermittancy

  2. TonyN

    The large cost for having stand-by gas-fired (or even worse, less flexible coal-fired) power plants to “step in” when the wind isn’t blowing is evident.

    In large power contracts there are always two components: the demand change (based on the maximum demand or amount of capacity required to satisfy this maximum demand in KW) and the energy change (based on the amount of energy actually consumed in KWH).

    The demand charge is usually at least half of the total charge in a situation where the consumption is fairly constant.

    In this situation, where the available capacity is high but the actual power off-take is low (and very sporadic), the demand charge would become the major part of the total costs.

    In other words the “grid” (and eventually the end-consumer of the power) would have to pay twice for the power actually consumed, once for the cost of wind power and then for the cost of the standby power source.

    No matter how the proponents of wind power try to dress it up, there is no way around the fact that it cannot compete economically because of the high cost of standby power when there is no wind (or too much wind to run the turbines safely).

    It is a politician’s pipe dream (like so many before…)


  3. Max:

    Thanks for adding that explanation. The report by Reuters mentioned here touches on this problem in a comment from EDF, but I didn’t know precisely how the pricing mechanism works. I think that you would have to be very brave to incest the kind of capital involved in power generation on the basis outlined by Poyry. Even if there was a government guarentee of a massive demand charge, how many years would that have to be for in order to look tempting?

    It is a politician’s pipe dream (like so many before…)

    You know that, and I know that, but how does the public get to know it with reporting like the BBC article and politicians and industry experts frightened to speak out for fear of being accused of being climate sceptics?

  4. TonyN and Max

    The problem is that as a result of signing up to Kyoto, govts also agree to utilise a legally fixed percentage of renewables in their energy mix.

    This varies from country to country but if you want to reduce co2 emissions by 80% in the case of the UK it might mean that renewables will need to become 60% of our energy supply.

    Now there is no way on earth that can be achieved(unless we significantly scale down our economic activity.

    The only way of getting somewhere along the road to that renewables objective is through wind power. Why? Well, Nuclear has been discarded for too long because of our Govts CND ideology and it will take 20 years to catch up-if we ever do. As I found when writing my energy paper, Tides and Waves are ten years minimum behind wind, which in itself is still at a very primitive stage. However wind is the only renewable game in town at present, so it is inevitable we will see our countryside despoiled (as on shore turbines are the easy option) with off shore wind only making a small contribution in the next ten years.

    Solar, heat pumps, hydro, etc are all insignificant in UK circumstances.

    Personally I favour using our huge reserves of coal, but as you can guess that isn’t on the agenda!

    Unless we face reality we will have thousands of sporadically useless wind turbines and an ever widening energy gap.

    Micro generation (by householders and businesses) could be a partial solution but would need the govt to invest directly in each property as 60% of the houses that will be available in 2050 have already been built. Add to that better qualities of insulation and our energy gap might merely be terrifying rather than terminally catastrophic.

    The powers that be need to recogise that good intentions are all very well, but there is a thirty year gap that needs to be filled before renewables can expect to make the contribution they hope for.


  5. Great bit of fisking.

    It’s worth reading the poyry report at http://www.poyry.com/index_cases/index_cases_12.html

    It’s less optimistic than Roger Harrabin suggests – more sober. I don’t know if has read it or if it’s just too technical for a graduate in English Literature to understand. For example the report mentions electric prices peaking at £8000/MWh on calm days. Maybe he cannot convert this to the more understandable £8 / kWh.

    I’m not sure why they use the MWh figure – maybe its just to confuse the gullible.

  6. One govt minister is on record as saying that windmills do not slow the wind down – they just turn as the wind blows past. It wasn’t Miliband – but I’m not able to find who dunnit.

  7. Jack:

    Since posting on the Pöyry report I’ve had a Google News alert running which, so far, has only produced three hits other than the Harrabin article. This is the most recent one:

    The Engineer

    All of them take a line which contradicts the BBC’s optimistic take on the subject. They posted this story at 00:20 hours on Wednesday morning and, although this is pure speculation on my part, it reads as though it was based on a press release from someone (probably not too distant from government) who wanted to spin Pöyry’s findings to support the forthcoming energy review, which is likely to represent wind power as the means of our salvation form global meltdown.

    I understand that The Register will also be posting on the Pöyry report and I will put up a link when this appears.

    Re. your #6, which crossed with this, do let us know if you find out.

  8. The Engineer piece is schizophrenic.

    It zig-zags between describing several unsolved problems and then on the other hand assuming that some kind of ‘wind-powered future’ is definitely going to happen.

    It also fails to mention the £8 / kWh which is one of many killer punches. That’s right: electricity at £8 per unit wholesale.

    As a lapsed engineer myself, I always prefer some numbers and comparisons, rather than adjectives and emotions. Especially when planning the Power Grid.

  9. Wind power is a good source of electricity but it also takes up lots of space just like solar power plants..~.

  10. Unfortunately wind power is a good source of electricity in the same way that sail is a good way of transporting goods by sea: it’s expensive, it’s inefficient and it’s unreliable. That’s why its commercially a non-starter without the support of legislation and massive government subsidy.

  11. TonyN

    Many centuries ago, the Dutch found that windmills were a good source of mechanical power for grinding grain or operating irrigation and drainage pumps.

    They are no longer in general use today (except as tourist attractions), since there are more efficient sources of power today.

    This confirms your sail analogy.


  12. I was boggling quietly at the non-sequiturs and general level of nonsense in the first half of the piece, and then I read that it was by R.Harrabin, and it all fell into place.

  13. Just to echo the points made by TonyN and Manacker:

    We ‘did’ windmills 2 centuries ago. As soon as something better came along we started using it.

  14. TonyN

    Thought you might be interested in this.


    Hope you’re not thinking of writing a letter of dissent to your local paper-or are overheard in the village shop expressing opposition to the windmills being threatened all over beautiful Mid Wales. Looks like they’re on to us ‘deniers.’ Windmills now, can climate change dissenters be far behind?


  15. tonyb

    You bet I’m interested! I wonder where the pressure for allocating police time in this way comes from? So far as the Hunting Act in this country is concerned, there is no doubt that without lobbying from organisations like the League Against Cruel Sports, the police would not waste their time on enforcement.

    By coincidence, I’m just putting up a post that relates to wind power and might well get a police file if I was in Ontario.

  16. TonyN,

    Your comment “the police would not waste their time on enforcement” is illuminating.

    I presume you aren’t talking about historical laws, which no-one has bothered to take off the statute books, like everyone being required to practice their archery skills for a hour each day ,or whatever, but something that has been been made law fairly recently.

    There was I thinking that the police were non-political and enforced each and every law “without fear or favour!” The Metropolitan police seem to be under the same misconception too!


  17. Peter M

    So far as I am aware the police in the UK are non-political. However they do respond to ‘complaints’ and therefore where a pressure group are particularly keen to see legislation enforced they are in a position to stir them into action when it might not otherwise be seen as a priority.

  18. TonyN,

    Oh I see. I suppose you’re right. You’re saying if a policeman saw someone with a couple of pheasants, stuffed under their coat, he probably wouldn’t bother doing anything about it unless he had a complaint from the League against Cruel Sports?

    I suppose that makes sense. I’m sure it can’t be a high priority.

  19. No Peter, I wasn’t saying anything of the sort.

  20. I must admit to ‘coming the raw prawn’, so to speak, and I did suspect that you were referring to fox “hunting” by the upper classes on horseback rather than rabbit “hunting” using ferrets, both of which I gather are now illegal?

    However, if they are both equally against the law, I would suggest that your local constabulary can’t claim to be politically impartial if, left to their own devices, they would, as you suggest, choose to enforce the one rather than the other.

  21. Peter:

    Perhaps you could explain to me, as an onlooker from the classless antipodes, why it is that any discussion of fox hunting seems to degenerate into the antediluvian prejudices of the class war?

    I assume that the Ontario police force, like those in the UK, are neither over-blessed with resources nor desperate to find ways to occupy their time. They they will therefore deploy manpower in ways that ensure that, so far as possible, public expectations are met to the greatest possible extent.

    If anti-wind farm protesters in Canada now have detectives knocking on their doors because they say that there are concerned about public safety, then it would seem most unlikely that that concern originates from the police. So far as I am aware, the anti-wind farm movement do not employ the kind of tactics used by the aniimal liberation movement, or even organisations like Greenpeace and Sea Shepherds or Fathers For Justice. And let’s not even think about the anti-globalisation movement. Standing around waving the odd, rather small, placard would seem to be the absolute limit.

    However if a wind farm developer, or an eNGO that supports wind farms, complains to the police that they feel threatened by irate and possibly intemperate blog criticisms of their activities, then the police will have little choice but to investigate. The price of not doing so is likely to be fending off complaints to a regulatory body with the probability of press criticism, which will require even more resources.

    The days when such complainants could be told, politely but firmly, to buzz off and stop wasting police time are, sadly, over.

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