Dec 202010

On 22nd October 2010, Business Green had a story headed:

Huhne hints at revival for onshore wind farms

If we like windmills, why not wind turbines, asks Energy and Climate Change Secretary

This included a startling revelation;

“Onshore turbines are something I very much want to look at again and see if we can do more onshore,” he [Chris Huhne] said, adding that recent studies had shown that the cost of onshore wind energy could now compete with conventional energy supplies.

I say startling because I follow what is happening in the wind industry with some interest, and I hadn’t seen any hint of a sudden breakthrough in a technology that may well be the most impractical, uneconomic and environmentally destructive means of generating power for a mass market known to man. So I decided to ask the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) where their secretary of state had got his information form.

While looking for the DECC’s freedom of information contact details, I discovered that this ministry has a site dedicated to answering the public’s questions even if the Freedom of Information Act is not invoked. So, rather than sending in a formal FOI request, I just sent in an ordinary inquiry (26th October ) asking what data the minister was relying on.  It looked as though that might be easier for all concerned.

By the 18th November I still hadn’t received a response, so I sent DECC an FOIA request for the same information. This time I got a prompt reply informing me that a response would be provided on or before 16th December; the time limit specified in the legislation.

On the 15th December an email arrived from DECC with a link to a report produced for them by Mott MacDonald, one of the government’s favourite consultants on all matters to do with energy, that they thought I might ‘find useful’. This turned out to be a one-hundred-and-seventeen page blockbuster entitled ‘UK Electricity Costs Update: June 2010′. A quick glance revealed that it was written in mind shrivelling  ‘consultantese’, with acronyms everywhere and no glossary. Finding a paragraph or sentence that might back up Chris Huhne’s claim would be like looking for a needle in a haystack, and just about as interesting.

Further examination of the covering letter revealed that this was not a response to my FOIA request as I had first thought, but a reply to my six week old email to DECC’s information department. I decided to wait and see if the FOI department would come up with something more specific the next day, when the deadline would be reached. Government departments seem to get some perverse satisfaction out of replying to FOI requests late in the afternoon of the final day. I’ve got used to that.

But nothing arrived from the DECC on the 16th December, so the next morning I emailed them pointing out that they were in breach of the legislation and an immediate response was required if a complaint to the Information Commissioner was to be avoided. The same afternoon I received a perfunctory apology from a Stephen Clark, Policy Adviser, saying that a reply had been posted to me the previous day. Given that all government departments deal with correspondence electronically if possible these days, and that my original request and their reply had been via email, this seemed odd. On the bright side, he did attach some rather more specific information.

This came in the form of the answer to a recent parliamentary question about the cost of wind generation from Chris Heaton-Harris (Con) . It included the following table taken from page 87 of the Mott MacDonald report:


Full Report

(Click for larger image)

Glancing along the bottom line, the minister’s claim that onshore wind has suddenly become competitive with conventional power generation looks as though it is well founded. Conventional gas scores 80.3, conventional coal racks up 104.5 and onshore wind canters home at a pretty competitive 93.9. A slightly more detailed examination reveals a totally different story.

One of the component costs included by Mott Macdonald is ‘Carbon Cost’, the effect of which is to level-up the cost of conventional coal and gas generation to something very close to onshore wind. To show this I have reworked the table extracting this item and then

adding it in under the total. I’ve also reordered the columns and added a graph that tells the story all too clearly.


(Click for larger image)

I still haven’t read the whole report, but a quick text search reveals that the Carbon Costs were provided for Mott MacDonald by DECC, and that they are based on the ‘projected increase in carbon prices’.

So when Chris Huhne told Business Green that ‘the cost of onshore wind energy could now compete with conventional energy supplies’ he was relying on statistics that tell a very different story. Far from the cost of offshore wind falling to the level of conventional generation, the costs of conventional gas and coal generation have been boosted by notional additional costs resulting from carbon reduction legislation. This is rather like saying that the starters in a two horse race are joint favourites in spite of the chief steward tying the front legs of one of the runners together.

Only in the very strange world of climate politics could such spurious evidence be taken seriously for one instant.

To my mind, there has always been something of the mad monk about Chris Huhne, although this clearly does not extend to his private life. There seem to be further signs that this suspicion is justified in his reaction, also quoted in the Business Green article, to concerns about public resistance to onshore wind developments. For pure off-the-wall fatuity it takes some beating:

“In my constituency the most popular tourist attraction is a wind mill,” he said. “It happens to be 200 years old and used to make corn rather than electricity, but it is exactly the same technology.”

The question is whether a fanatic who seems unable to distinguish free market economics from statistical fiction, or the visual and practical impact of a centuries old corn mill from a 21st century wind farm, should be planning the nation’s energy policy.

It’s hardly surprising that DECC was in no hurry to reply to my question, or that Stephen Clark’s letter includes the following caveat:

The answer also details the levelised costs, by major components, of the main electricity technologies from Mott MacDonald (2010). These levelised costs are based on particular assumptions about the availabilities and load factors of each technology detailed in the appendices to that report [Mott MacDonald]; and a uniform discount rate across technologies of 10%.

I wonder what DECC staff say about such matters in the privacy of the canteen?

27 Responses to “Onshore wind power: Chris Huhne’s festive magic act”

  1. TonyB, yes it’s interesting that the committee do not appear to share Chris Huhne’s confidence in building more wind farms etc., to meet the EU targets for renewable energy. And I remember that RenewableUK were saying in December that the UK was on track to meet its target of 15% by 2020. But this from the report, p37:

    Naturally, we might wish to fill our ‘energy gap’ with renewables, but in 2007 they contributed only 3.3% of our energy supply (including 5% of our electricity). The UK Renewables Advisory Board – in common with other studies – estimates that with current policies the proportion of energy from renewables will reach only 6% by 2020, and that even with radical policy changes and great effort they can only foresee it providing 14% of projected demand by 2020.

    They also consider that nuclear might be becoming an “energy sink”, they mention shale gas only in the endnotes, and they don’t think CCS will deliver either, in the short term. Consequently:

    So if neither renewables nor nuclear can make up the shortfall in our energy supply, oil and gas are in steep decline, and our climate obligations rule out coal, what can we do?

    There is a simple answer – cut our cloth accordingly and learn to reduce our energy dependency in line with the reducing supply. When we talk of demand and supply as two separate and unrelated factors we are led back towards the insoluble supply-side dilemma, but the reality is that the amount of energy we need is governed in part by the amount of energy we have, and how we choose to use it. If we are to meet the climate challenge, managing energy demand is not just the only sensible option, it is the only option.

    It’s a curious phrase, is it not: “…the amount of energy we need is governed in part by the amount of energy we have…” I don’t quite understand what they mean by this. But I agree, the gist of the whole thing, I think, is make do with less. Your “invisible enemy” expression is a good one – it’s like gearing up for austerity and privation in World War II but without a tangible foe in sight.

  2. “levelised costs”

    Is that the same as hiding the decline..?

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