A turbulent time for renewable energy

Joe Fenn

Those great white wind-turbines have become a more common sight in the British countryside over the past decade, but their development could be drastically hindered after conflicts in Parliament over the past few weeks.

A letter signed by over one hundred Tory MPs, asking why the government is still subsidising an energy source they described as ‘expensive and intermittent’, was handed to David Cameron this week and the effects it has had on confidence in the wind farm programme has been devastating.
Immediately following the letter, the heads of some of the biggest energy companies in the UK have expressed their concern about the government’s commitment to the development of wind farm sites. Companies that were planning sites, turbine factories and research centres have understandably expressed worry over the possibility of the government reducing subsidies and funding for wind energy and many have reconsidered investments of hundreds of millions of pounds. A £100m investment from General Electric Energy, for example, is now ‘on hold’.

But why? Why could this symbol of humanity’s beginning to respect the world they live on be doomed to become a phase we went through; an attempt made and failed?

Firstly, the effectiveness of wind farms is a matter of some contention. The Tory MP who co-ordinated the letter to David Cameron, Chris Heaton-Harris, described wind energy as “intermittent”, and many have raised similar concerns. Due to their very nature, wind turbines do not provide a constant flow of energy; rather they stop and start with the wind. This has been heavily criticised by opposition to wind energy as it makes the energy they produce hard to store.

It is true that wind farms rarely work to their greatest potential. The average wind turbine will produce around 30% of its theoretical maximum output, that is, the amount they could produce if they were constantly turning. However, wind farms do produce energy 70-85% of the time, although the energy they produce differs with the strength of the wind. Furthermore, conventional power stations only produce around 50% of their maximum potential output and, surprisingly, wind farms produce the amount of energy equivalent to that taken to produce them slightly quicker. A wind turbine will produce the amount of energy taken to produce it in around three to five months, compared to six months for fossil fuel or nuclear energy plants.

The other reason the signatories of the letter gave is a much more understandable one. Wind farming as it stands, is highly expensive. Not only is producing and installing the turbines expensive; one of the main problems with wind as a major source of energy for the UK is adapting the national energy grid to take in the energy produced from wind farming. A recent report shows that the cost of connecting renewable energy sources to the national grid has now risen by over £4 billion to an estimated £8.8 billion.

The MPs who signed the letter pointed out that this cost will be met by the taxpayer, and in a time of recession many would take issue with this. Mr Heaton-Harris, in justifying the letter, asked: “how many people will be forced into fuel poverty because we continue with such a high level of direct and indirect subsidy to the wind industry?” It seems ridiculous to expect people to accept not being able to keep their families warm in the name of saving the planet. We may all feel the concerns of the global warming scientist, but in a time when belts are tight and money is scarce, this cannot be the main priority for a lot of people.

The question stands as to how much we value cutting down carbon emissions if it means we cannot look after ourselves properly and an answer is hard to come by. Most of us want to save our planet, but we don’t want to sacrifice ourselves in the process.

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