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Telegraph 16 July 2004

Wind farm claims are so much hot air

Niall Ferguson
(Filed: 16/07/2004)

It is a scene worthy of H G Wells. Hideous, grey metallic monsters are invading our green and pleasant land. Some can scale our mountains. Others stalk our shores. At night, they can still be seen by their flashing red eyes. Soon these hideous aliens will be everywhere. How could mankind have been so foolish? What madman allowed Britain to be overrun by this monstrous new species?

The madmen responsible for wind turbines are our politicians. And if the people of Britain do not act soon to halt this alien invasion, hundreds of miles of our ancient countryside and shoreline will be disfigured for a generation. This is not the War of the Worlds. It is the War of the Winds.

As I write this, looking out the window of our newly acquired house on the Glamorgan coast and trying to imagine how the 30 turbines due to be built directly opposite will look and sound, I am of course a sitting duck. I accept that some will say that my opposition is mere Nimbyism, but there is no denying that the Government's commitment to wind power is a huge con perpetrated in the name of environmentalism.

Not only will it do virtually nothing to halt global warming, but it will also impose major economic burdens on ordinary Britons as both taxpayers, energy consumers and property owners. The sole beneficiaries of this misconceived policy will be a few power companies and their friends in high places.

The view from Sker Point, west of the pretty seaside town of Porthcawl, is breathtakingly beautiful. Even United Utilities admits that its wind farm will wreck - sorry, "significantly affect" - what they poetically call the "visual amenity".

Nimbyism aside, my objection is not just that wind turbines are a much more expensive way of generating power than conventional power stations. We could all put up with bigger bills if it meant, in the cant phrase, saving the planet. The key problem is that wind power is so inefficient that it scarcely replaces conventional sources of energy at all.

United Utilities makes the typical claim that its Scarweather wind farm will have a total capacity of "up to 108 megawatts" - "enough energy every year to power 82,000 homes, equivalent to a city the size of Swansea". What's more, the company argues, its turbines "will save just under six million tonnes of carbon dioxide [from] being released into the atmosphere". The price tag? A snip at 60 million - even if it does last only 22 years.

Well, perhaps not quite such a snip. As the Royal Academy of Engineering has pointed out, coal, gas and nuclear plants produce power for between 2p and 3p per kilowatt hour, compared with 5.4p for land-based turbines. What's more, because of the technical difficulty of building, servicing and transmitting the power from them, offshore turbines are even more expensive, generating power at 7.2p per kilowatt hour.

And wind varies: any energy supplier wanting to buy power from wind farms must also line up substitutes for those days when the wind is either too weak or too strong.

Wind farms can stand in for other forms of power only when the wind is not too weak and not too strong, but just right. The rest of the time, the more reliable power stations have to step in. This means that the true cost of wind power includes the cost of providing back-up power to compensate for the wind turbines' intermittent output. And guess who picks up these extra costs? Step forward the consumer - not to mention the taxpayer.

The German wind power industry has already received tax breaks worth an estimated 1.1 billion euros just to erect its turbines. On top of that, the "windustry" is guaranteed a price of 8.8 cents per kilowatt hour, compared with the average market price of 3.5 cents. Yet the German grid is now plagued by the unpredictability of wind power generation. In one region, the wind was strong enough to utilise more than half the available capacity on only 36 days of the year - less than one day in 10.

Not only are all these costs now being passed on to ordinary Germans in the form of rising electricity and tax bills, but an even bigger price is also being paid by home owners next to wind farm sites, where property values have collapsed. The only beneficiaries have been the super-rich Germans who have invested in wind farms because of the huge tax breaks - not to mention the politicians in the industry's pocket.

We are making the same mistakes in Britain. Not a single wind farm would be built here were it not for the Government's starry-eyed commitment to increase the share of energy we produce from "renewable" sources from 3.9 per cent to 20 per cent by 2020, with a long-term goal of cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 60 per cent over the next five decades.

The Department of Trade and Industry has decided that nearly three quarters of the additional "renewable" energy should come from wind turbines. To ensure that this happens, electricity suppliers are being forced by law to buy a rising proportion of their power from wind farms.

What this represents is a return to the planned economy in the name of environmentalism - a kind of Green Stalinism. The consequences are the familiar Soviet ones: centralised decision-making and localised devastation. In our case, the inspector's report, drawn up after a public inquiry, clearly recommended against United Utilities' proposal. It was simply ignored by the fourmember subcommittee of the Welsh Assembly, which gave it the green light.

What is so absurd is that, no matter how many wind turbines we build, global dependence on fossil fuels will scarcely be diminished at all. Indeed, if we are not careful, we ourselves could end up relying even more on precisely the sources of power the Government claims it is against.

Why? Because even as it has pumped money into the white elephants known as wind farms, the Government has been unthinkingly running down the one reliable source of CO2-free power. Over the next 20 years, all but one of Britain's 16 nuclear power stations will close.

And it will take a lot more than an invasion of 400ft turbines to compensate for that.

The author is a Senior Research Fellow of Jesus College, Oxford