Rupert Darwall: Suckered by Big Wind in the UK
The claim of ‘cheap’ cost is the biggest wind con of all.
Earlier this month, British prime minister Boris Johnson pledged that offshore wind – cheaper than goal and gas, he claimed – would power every home in Britain by 2030. “Your kettle, your washing machine, your cooker, your heating, your plug-in electric vehicle – the whole lot of them will get their juice cleanly and without guilt from the breezes that blow around these islands,” he said.
Cheaper than gas? Boris got suckered. At a meeting with a green energy supplier, the prime minister asked what the right proportion of renewables would be for the energy system. The answer: 100%. This is the patter of a snake oil salesman. As everyone knows, wind and solar are intermittent power sources. Grid-scale storage will not be remotely economical for the foreseeable future.
Adding more wind and solar also makes the power grid more fragile and increases the risk of blackouts. In 2016, a storm triggered a state-wide power outage in South Australia, a state that prides itself on its reliance on green energy. Last year, a swathe of southern England experienced a short blackout after a lightning strike triggered a cascade of disconnections within less than a second, cutting off power to four hospitals and disrupting hundreds of train services.
Taking coal- and gas-fired power stations off the grid reduces what grid engineers call the short circuit level (SCL) – that is, the amount of current that flows through the system when there’s a fault. SCL helps the grid operator maintain system voltage and recover from lightning strikes and equipment failure. Large coal and gas power stations create five times more fault current compared to wind and solar. A higher proportion of renewable generation means that there is less SCL on the system, which can create “operability challenges,” National Grid, the British grid operator, says.
The inflexibility of wind and solar can be seen with the impact of Covid and lower energy demand. In 2002, before widespread renewable deployment in Britain, National Grid’s charges for grid-balancing services amounted to £367m ($481m). This year, they were forecast to be £1,478m ($1,933m) before Covid struck. Reduced electricity demand now sees these balancing costs soaring to £2bn ($2.6bn). With renewables, the less you use, the more it costs.
And cost is the biggest wind con of all. In August, the British government published a report on generator costs. The renewables lobby used it to claim that wind was cheaper than new-build gas, a claim that Johnson swallowed whole. To make their case, the advocates ignored balancing and other system costs. When these are included together with the system benefits of gas, new-build gas comes out as the most economic source, when used efficiently.
Government-run auctions for the right to build offshore wind farms create the misleading impression that costs are falling. Far from falling, costs have been rising for the last two decades, as analysis of the audited accounts of wind developers by Edinburgh University’s Gordon Hughes reveals. Although new-generation turbines are larger and initially have better load factors, their performance degrades more rapidly. Compared to the government estimate of £2.16m ($2.83m) per megawatt hour for offshore wind, the actual cost came out to £3.99m ($5.22m), and that excludes an enormously expensive floating wind farm project – “we will build windmills that float on the sea,” Johnson says – which pushes the average to £4.49m ($5.88m) per megawatt hour.