January 23, 2005
The answer isn’t blowing in the wind
Despite the government’s energy initiatives, wind farms will not save the planet, writes David Bellamy
There is no getting away from the fact that Scotland is a windy place and one of its blessings is that, much to the delight of the tourists, fishers and field sports enthusiasts who provide the bulk of the jobs and income in the Highlands and islands, midges stop flying when the wind is blowing.
Sadly, over the past 10 years Scotland has fallen under the spell of the wind in a much more debilitating way. Thanks to the directives of the Kyoto protocol that demand something must be done to counteract global warming, the subject has been pushed to the top of political agendas across the world in recent years. Global warming — or at least the carbon-induced version described by many campaigners and politicans — is not something I can believe in.
But look at the advice issued last Thursday to every MSP by Scottish Renewables, the body representing Scotland’s renewable energy industry, ahead of a debate on climate change. In this document, Maf Smith, its chief executive, claimed recent hurricane-strength winds were a sign of things to come if carbon emissions were not cut.
He added that if Scotland wants to reach its target of obtaining 40% of power from wind by 2020, there need to be about 70 wind farms.
Only the 70? Enough, then, to put a large ugly footprint on the landscape. Smith’s reasoning is part of a new orthodoxy on wind power. In November, Sir David King, the British government’s chief scientific adviser, went on a world tour to spread his claim that “global warming poses a greater threat to the world than international terrorism”. The main weapon that he claimed could cause this mass destruction was the continued release of carbon dioxide due to our profligate use of fossil fuel.
This apocolyptic vision is underpinned by the British government’s energy white paper of 2003, which had one clear objective: to reduce cardon-dioxide emissions by 10% (from the 1990 base) by 2010, while heating every one of our 24m-plus houses in an affordable way.
The timescale chosen by the government made it impossible not to opt for wind power, an alternative which had slowly been developing across Europe for around 20 years. Increasingly, politicians embraced it as the clean, green saviour of the human race.
In Scotland that logic adds up to the scenario described by Smith, though a fortnight ago a more pessimistic assessment by the Scottish Wind Assessment Project found planning applications for about 250 windfarms may represent as many as 6,500 turbines. Whatever the outcome, Scotland is poised to become a vast testbed for these green totems to the sky.
Supporters argue that wind farms are a small price to pay for saving the planet. They forget to mention that over those 20 years wind power, in the guise of onshore farms, had demonstrated that this energy source is unpredictable and uncontrollable, the proven yields from which are disappointingly low.
Trade associations, English and Scottish governments and the Welsh assembly took no heed and continued to spearhead the dash for wind, proclaiming that if Denmark, the world leader, could supply 20% of its electricity from wind, just think what we could do.
Fortunately, in the last three years Denmark has discovered the disturbing facts that a reliance on the vagaries of wind increases the need for dedicated back-up which cuts any reduction in carbon emissions to the bone. This blows the whole idea of wind as an alternative saviour of the world to pieces.
At least the British government’s energy white paper makes it clear that, without dangling giant carrots in front of potential investors, their dreams will not materialise. Indeed, reaching their first emission- reduction target will cost consumers more than £1 billion a year, most of which will go to multinational companies.
To complicate the matter further, these payments are not considered as subsidies paid for through tax, but will simply be added to our electricity bills. This is surely the most blatant “stealth tax” ever perpetrated. It increases the price paid for wind electricity to more than 7.5p per kilowatt hours (kWh) compared with about 2.5p/kWh for wholesale thermal electricity.
Think about it. This is a yearly £1 billion direct debit from the nation’s spending power. Any person who uses electricity from the grid will be paying an extra £17 a year for the privilege of feeling green.
Yet any one of us can go out and buy a six-pack of long-life light bulbs for less than £7. Installed at home they would save at least 1,000kwh during their three-year lifetime. Indeed, all the House of Commons needs to do to reach their 2010 renewable energy target, and lead the world to Kyoto and beyond, would be to spend half this amount a year on these energy- saving bulbs.
Each home would save more than £50 a year on electricity if the government’s target were achieved with energy-saver lamps in this way. This would leave more than £500m for all those other useful local job-creating ideas for which Greenpeace used to campaign.
Traditionally the pro-wind lobby, when faced with technical criticisms it cannot answer, just shouts in a louder voice, as it has demonstrated this week by mailing Holyrood members.
But, above the noise, will they ever answer the key questions? How many gas- and coal fired power stations can be closed down if their dreams come true? Where will the back-up power come from when the wind is misbehaving? Is the carbon dioxide produced by all those standby power stations accounted for in their statistics? Why are all electricity users going to have to bear part of the burden of an annual £1 billion stealth tax? Surely there is no need to “subsidise” such a buoyant industry? And in these days of high winds, which Smith finds so ominous, isn’t it ironic that wind turbines were obliged to shut down, because they do not work when wind speeds exceed 50mph? The answer to that one, of course, is it was the wrong kind of wind.