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. 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, therefore makes what Huhne told, not a lie.

    That is all that matters.

  2. Shub:

    I think that it was Chesterton who said that the easiest person to deceive is yourself.

  3. The covering letter from Mr Clark strongly suggests a civil servant distancing himself as far as possible from the official “expert” and his own Minister. He’s presumably already preparing his defence in the case of some future (candle-lit) official enquiry.

  4. What an interesting insight into the official mind

    Quite apart from the apalling cost and equally bad inefficiency, what needs to be borne in mind is that windmills just don’t work when they are most needed.

    Typically in the UK our coldest weather is associated with high pressure systems which have minimal wind.

    So not only are we impoverishing consumers and making businesses uncompetitive on world markets, but they are not even getting what they have (over) paid for.

    Also, did I read somewhere that the Turbines use rare earths-95% of which are owned by China?


  5. TonyN

    In a recent Think Globally Radio interview entitled “The state of the climate debate a year after Climategate and Copenhagen” by Eric Paglia, Prof. Mike Hulme stated:

    we are not going to drive fossil carbon out of the energy economy with windmills and solar panels

    adding that larger scale solutions will be required.

    Is this a “shift in the wind” (and has Chris Huhne just not caught up yet)?


  6. Max:

    Sadly, I doubt whether Hulme has much influence on energy policy, but I always find that what he says is worth listening to. Apart from the bumbling presenter who seemed to think the audience would be more interested in listening to him, I found the interview fascinating. It would certainly make some of his colleagues at UEA choke on their lattes.

    Ever so slightly OT, it’s revealing to hear a climate scientist of Hulme’s stature say that he became convinced of the need to do something about AGW in the early 1990s. If there are high levels of uncertainty now, just think what they were like then.

  7. […] 2. Harmless Sky on Onshore Wind Power: Chris Huhne’s Festive Magic Act […]

  8. I don’t see any ‘variable operating costs’ or fuel and building costs for the required back-up when the wind isn’t blowing. Or am I misreading something?

  9. Neal, I think much of that would probably need to be included in the total for Gas CCGT (?) but yes it would be interesting to know what percentage of it would be needed for “spinning reserve”.

    Here‘s a link to a video on BBC’s Democracy Live, where Chris Huhne is unveiling his “seismic shift” in energy policy, in Parliament on 16th Dec.

    I was struck by the fact that not many people appear to be present in the chamber; I’d have thought this would have generated a little more interest. Another thing occurred to me – a bit like the dog that didn’t bark in the night. Questions are asked but I recall none that touched on the sort of fundamental issues discussed here. It would be nice to have some politicians who went out of their way to ask the really uncomfortable questions about the viability of wind energy.

  10. For almost real time generating statistics have a look at
    In particular, look at Generation By Fuel Type.

    Thank goodness we have generation capacity that is other than wind.

  11. TonyB #4
    “Rare earth metals” is a bit of a misnomer. These metals are not that rare but are rather spread very thinly over the earth’s crust. Unlike iron or aluminium deposits that are often concentrated, rare earth metals are extracted as trace elements as a result of other mining activity. The west has plenty of its own supplies but the issue has been one of extraction costs related to environmental impact. It is messy for want of a better word extracting these elements so we in the west have done what we currently do best and leave it to someone else who doesn’t care so much for the environment.

    I also think our friends in China played a sneaky (intelligent from their point of view) game by supplying these elements below market costs until none of the western mines could compete, then they have used their dominant position to not only up the price, but to divert supplies to their own manufacturers at the expense of others. They have used this position politically with Japan over disputed fishing rights.

    So once more our extremely clever Politicians have worked the west into a dependent position over all things electronic. However I believe the US is looking to reopen one of its mines and in Australia they are looking at supplying some of the elements.

    Some may say this is the free market failing and governments must intervene to ensure supply. I look at it this way. If governments and the peoples of the west want to impose environmental standards, and I’m all for those standards the ensure we don’t pollute or needlessly destroy our environment, then we must ensure that if mining or other activities become too expensive for us to compete it’s not because we are sourcing the same materials or services because those same standards are ignored in other countries. This maybe idealistic, but it’s a higher ideal, and one that we could actually achieve, than trying to put a price on carbon, where all manner of corruption in all its forms is prevalent.

  12. Peter geany.

    They are rare in as much we haven’t got many of them, whether that is because they are not physically available or we choose not to dig them up is ultimately immaterial.

    I think we both agree we have been foolish in neglecting to secure supplies of what is at the very heart of modern technology. We will have a gun at our heads unless we do something about it.

    Anyone knows of any stocks in such companies-they sound like a good punt whilst helping to secure our future


  13. TonyB you are correct in a way that they are rare due to their availablility, but they are not rare to find.

    If I recall correctly the US mine that stopped extracting did so due to overbearing Govt bureaucracy. As an organisation they just gave up and decided the returns didn’t justify the effort. This is the same with much of our industry that is very productive despite our high labour costs if only we could remove the govt imposed bureaucracy.

  14. Googling Tourist Attractions Eastleigh it appears Huhne is [snip]. While there is a “City Mill” there it doesn’t hit the top of any list of attractions in this tourist Mecca. For example this top 6 doesn’t even mention it

    Beatrice Royal Contemporary Art and Craft
    Eastleigh Lakeside Railway
    Eastleigh Museum
    Kickers Kingdom
    Lakeside Country Park
    Space Ace (unfortunately this is a disco)

    What a wholly [snip]

    [TonyN: See blog rules before commenting again]

  15. The DECC re-defined ‘climate change’ to exlude natural variability…

    thus by their definition of climate change, i might be considered a ‘climate chnage denier’ because i think the primary drivers are natural.

    Anything is possible in this political LaLa land

    A UK Government’s definition of ‘Climate Change’ – EXCLUDES any natural causes:

    from the Glossary:

    “Climate Change
    The process of changing weather patterns caused by the increased number of greenhouse gases in the global atmosphere as a result of human activity since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.”

    ’A guide to carbon offsetting for the public sector’ – Department of Energy and Climate Change

  16. Barry #15
    The document you link to actually defines Climate change as “The average weather experienced over a long period”. So climate = average weather = climate change = global warming, and “climate change deniers” are by definition deniers of weather. So that’s dealt with the opposition.
    It’s also interesting that they attribute it to “the increased number of greenhouse gases in the global atmosphere as a result of human activity since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution”, thus getting the entire post-little-ice-age temperature rise within the boundaries of AGW. It’s utterly irrational, but how to fight it?
    Merry Christmas anyway.

  17. Great post Tony


    I don’t see any ‘variable operating costs’ or fuel and building costs for the required back-up when the wind isn’t blowing. Or am I misreading something?

    I think this is essentially accounted for in the load factor assumptions which are listed in the Appendix to the MM report. On-shore wind is estimated to have a load factor of 28%.

    The MM report focuses on costs and not the value of energy. Firm energy provided by thermal plants has a higher value than non-firm energy from wind. The value of non-firm energy is normally reflected in the price unless artificially inflated by government regulations.

    So the horse without the front legs tied can only make it around about one lap of a four lap race. The hobbled horse, despite the handicap, gets to the finish line.

  18. Here‘s an interesting BusinessGreen article from a couple of days ago – apparently electricity generation from renewables was up to 8.6% of total electricity generation in Q3 this year. From the BM reports website (via the link in Rick’s #10) the percentage of total output from Wind, Pumped Storage and Hydro combined is showing at 1.3% (slightly down from when I left a comment on BusinessGreen a little earlier this evening.) Looking at the last 3 months’ data (downloaded from BM reports in spreadsheet format) I make the percentage from renewables to be about 3.11% from Sept 25th to Dec 25th. Here‘s the DECC press release referenced in the article – it would be interesting to see their workings-out, also to get hold of the BM reports data for Q3. Either there has been a large decline since the end of Q3 due to a lack of wind, or I’m missing something vital (very possible.)

  19. I tried without success to find any workings or even definitions to help understand where the 8.6% comes from. I’m not even sure what Q3 means – does the year start in January or April?

    I got lost in an Alice-in-Wonderland world, where I found this little gem:

    Due to economies of scale, offshore turbines are also larger than their onshore counterparts.

    Are they bigger – because they’re ………….. bigger ? This bizarre topic is chock full of circular arguments. Climate change is caused by ….. climate change.

    I’m scared that these people are now in the control tower. Huhne commissions some PR story to puff his ideas – then reads it as if it’s an objective investigation.

  20. Jack, I was looking around in DECC’s online files yesterday and found a file on this page – “Electricity production and availability from the public supply system (ET 5.4)”, second from the bottom, which has figures for electricity production (total and by type of fuel) from 2005 to October 2010. It does seem to be worked out a bit differently to the way it is on the BM reports site, as there appear to be more categories, including “Other” (“wastes, petroleum coke and renewable sources other than hydro and wind”) and “Purchases from other sources”, which also contain some renewables.

    It tells us “In 2009 in total, renewable sources supplied (net) 24.92 TWh of electricity, of which 5.23 TWh was from natural flow hydro, 9.32 TWh from wind and solar, and 10.37 TWh from other thermal renewable sources (biofuels and wastes).” Which means that for example, according to DECC, if we take 321.89 TWh as the total for 2009, renewables supplied about 7.74% of that. At 6.90 TWh, wind supplied about 2.14% of the total in 2009, while at 4.28 TWh, hydro supplied about 1.33%. Therefore, DECC is adding another 4.27% from other renewables.

    As far as I know, DECC considers Q3 to be July, August and September, and there is a Quarterly page on the spreadsheet. For 2010 Q3, the total is 70.60 TWh, wind supplied 2.12 TWh and hydro supplied 0.65 TWh. Therefore wind supplied about 3.00%, hydro supplied about 0.92% and wind and hydro combined supplied 3.92%.

    So if they’re saying that renewables supplied 8.6% in Q3, they must have been counting an extra 4.68% (!) from somewhere, e.g., from “Other” and “Purchases from other sources”. Together, those two last categories supplied 1.73% + 5.68% = 7.41% of the total for Q3, but I haven’t found a further breakdown of these figures yet.

    I put all this together late last night after work and was tired, so it’s possible I made some very basic errors – anyone, feel free to correct any you find. But it’s interesting – wind is being publicised more than other forms of renewables, but it still remains relatively small, at its maximum about 2-3% of total electricity generation, and hydro is smaller still. (Pumped storage has a negative value in these records.) If the 8.6% value for renewables is correct, then the rest of it – over 4% – must be a mixture of other stuff: solar, wastes, biofuels, etc.

    I suppose this leads to some more questions (apart from the question of: are my sums correct?)

    1) What are these other renewables, exactly? Are they listed anywhere?
    2) If their combined contribution is over double the contribution of wind and hydro put together, why aren’t these sources appearing on the BM reports website?

  21. Alex Cull, Jack Hughes, Potentilla and others:

    There are some very interesting issues raised in the comments here. Unfortunately I went down with a really bad dose of flu on Christmas Day and this is the first time I’ve been able to think straight enough to look at the blog since then, hence the apparent lack of interest on my part.

    It would seem that there are a few more questions that DECC should be asked about how they compile their figures for renewable power generation. I’ll try to get back to this next week.

  22. TonyN, hope you have recovered or are recovering from your flu! In the meantime, here‘s a good recent article by the BBC’s Paul Hudson re wind vs coal/gas, with almost all the comments coming from those of the sceptical persuasion.

    December 21st 2010 was one of the coldest days on record in Yorkshire.

    With much of the country experiencing very little wind, both onshore and offshore, wind turbines were largely inactive.

    At the moment that is not a problem. Only 5% of electricity is currently generated by wind farms, and so other power stations can step in and ramp up output.

    But in only 9 years time, the UK will legally have to generate around 30% of its electricity from renewable sources, of which 25% is expected to come from wind farms alone, as it is seen as a clean, carbon free energy source.

    So what will happen then, when the wind doesn’t blow?

  23. Here we go again; energy rationing and carbon taxes:

    An influential group of MPs has recommended the introduction of a system of energy rationing to ensure the UK remains on course to achieve its carbon reduction targets.

    More here.

    Another couple of interesting and relevant sites are The All Party Parliamentary Group on Peak Oil and Gas (here) and The Lean Economy Connection (here.)

    From the APPGOPO website (my emphasis):

    The twin challenges of climate change and peak oil require us to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels at lightning speed.

    Lightning speed!!

  24. You can read the report from the Lean Economy Connection here.

    From Part 5: The Two Sides of the Energy Problem, which discusses climate change and peak oil, p32 onwards (my emphases):

    Here in the UK we have already seen heatwaves becoming more frequent in summer, rainfall more focused into days of heavy precipitation and more severe windstorms, while the average sea level around the UK (after adjusting for natural land movements) is about 10cm higher than it was in 1900, with the rate of rise increasing substantially.


    Maintaining a benign climate can probably still be achieved, but to grasp this chance it will be necessary to radically and rapidly restructure our society. The science is clear that the decisions made in the next few years will determine the future of our planet’s climate for millennia to come.

  25. Alex

    I read through the depressing reports you cited. As I write this the temperatures have plummeted again and there is no wind to stir even the most sensitive of turbines. You do wonder what planet these people are on?

    I increasingly believe that our lack of an energy policy over the last decade is having much more severe repercussions than appears on the surface. Rationing may be ‘necessary’ in order to combat this shortfall, similarly I think the spectre of Russia (or whoever) pulling the plug, is beginning to alarm Govt.

    How better to try to get us to use less, accept ridiculous windmill technology AND and pay through the nose, than citing climate change as the invisible enemy that must be fought.


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