Will UK get towers of power … or a load of hot air?

Published September 1, 2002

As part of its commitment to tackle climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the British government wants renewable energy to provide 10 percent of the U.K.’s electricity by 2010 and 20 percent by 2020. Wind power is targeted to provide about 5 percent by 2010; it currently provides 0.4 percent.

The British government has heavily subsidized the development of onshore and offshore wind. There is also a hidden subsidy that will oblige electricity companies to buy 10 percent of their power from renewable sources at a guaranteed premium.

Wind power, according to the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA), is a natural and renewable energy source that produces no harmful emissions or waste products. By displacing energy that would otherwise be generated from fossil fuels, it claims, U.K. wind turbines “currently prevent the emission of more than a million tons of CO2 each year.” Others strongly dispute the extent to which energy production contributes to harmful climate change.

Wind turbines produce no electricity when the wind does not blow, or when it blows too hard (both common in winter). When the right kind of wind does blow, electricity companies are obliged to buy the power, whether they need it or not. There is no way to store wind-generated electricity.

To meet the government’s targets for wind power, the BWEA estimates Britons will have to install a 100 meter-high wind turbine every day until 2010. Geoff Sinclair, of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales, believes it will require a 120 meter turbine every quarter of a mile from Land’s End to John O’Groats—plus a 150 meter-high offshore turbine every 2.5 miles of open seacoast.

The actual output of wind farms averages about 30 percent of their capacity. Thus, the 39 1.5-megawatt turbines planned for Cefn Croes—which will be Europe’s biggest wind farm—could have an effective though unpredictable capacity of about 17.5MW.

By comparison, a typical large fossil fuel power station might have a capacity of about 2,000MW, and operate at up to 90 percent of that. The U.K.’s largest, the coal-burning Drax power station in Yorkshire, has a capacity of 3,870MW.

Denmark is held up as the pioneer of wind power, which accounts for about 18 percent of its electricity. Yet, following a change of government, the Danes are now reining in their commitment to the wind industry, partly because of the cost of subsidies and partly on the grounds of unreliability.

S. Fred Singer is professor emeritus of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia and president of the Science and Environmental Policy Project. Singer’s The Week That Was columns can be found at www.sepp.org.