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Hissing in the wind

The political battlefield, increasingly centred on energy, is not confined to the Big 6 to be or not to be of passing through wholesale prices. Or to the various levels of state intervention now being promoted by the various political parties

Indeed another front in the pre-general election posturing on energy is the future of wind energy with increasingly polarised views from both sides of the House.

For their part, Labour have allegedly proposed that they will commit to the building of new wind farms should it win May’s general election.

The news was leaked from private conversations between Mike Parker, Head of Onshore Wind at RWE Innogy UK and senior Labour figures. Parker, without naming names claimed:

“[I have seen] very strong support for onshore wind in one-to-one conversations. It gives me confidence to continue with what we are doing [developing new onshore wind farms]”

That position however has not actually been publicly aired by the Labour party who have declared that their official view is simply that:

“There are a number of ways you could decarbonise the power sector. Onshore wind is one, but there are other renewable technologies like solar, as well as nuclear power, and carbon capture and storage, all of which will have an important role.”

However a clue to its real importance to potential future Labour energy policy came in the following official statement, which claimed:

“[Onshore wind is the] cheapest large-scale form of renewable energy . . . supported by over two thirds of the public, so it makes no sense to impose an arbitrary cap.”

This opinion is in direct contrast to the thoughts of the Conservative party for whom Prime Minister David Cameron has made clear that he sees the culture of subsidies around wind power should end with his “enough is enough” rhetoric.

57% rejection rate

Those words have been backed up in action with a new report revealing that 57% of all new UK onshore wind farms were rejected in 2014 through new planning procedures and the controlling hand of Communities Secretary Eric Pickles.

The report, compiled by the Fabian Society, revealed that the rate of planning application rejections for wind farms is more than double the level of 24% in 2009 before the Coalition came into power.

Indeed the increase from 2013 from 37% to 57% in 2014 illustrates the renewed vigour of rejection under Pickles’ stewardship.

Despite the polarised views of the two main political parties the debate over the validity of wind power as a key and reliable constituent of a balanced energy mix remains in limbo.

1% of demand

Indeed only last week, when the brief (very) cold snap hit, unsurprisingly electricity demand was at its highest level of 52.54 GW according to figures provided by network operator National Grid.

But the imperfect storm of low wind speeds and cold temperatures meant that the UK’s wind capacity, which is supposed to make up 10% of the generation sources, produced just 573MW of energy, or enough energy to meet 1% of total demand.

Or to put it another way of the 12GW of capacity available from wind energy just 4.78% was available.

These ‘efficiency’ numbers don’t look a great deal better on a wider review period with, according to National Grid, UK wind power on average producing just 28% of its theoretical capacity.

Seeing these numbers quickly explains why controversy surrounds the intermittency of wind energy and its appropriateness as a key component of the UK energy mix.

Dr Lee Moroney of the Renewable Energy Foundation said:

“Low wind speeds frequently accompany low temperatures as happened [last Monday]. The proliferation of wind farms encouraged by Government policy is misguided because a reliance on wind energy in these conditions leads to inevitable extra costs for consumers.

“Either reliable backup electricity supply from conventional sources must be provided when the wind does not blow, or extra costs in the form of constraint payments are incurred when there is too much wind on the system. It is a lose-lose situation for consumers.”

However Jennifer Webber, Director of External Affairs at RenewableUK, countered that:

“It’s wrong to cherry-pick statistics for short periods when the wind didn’t blow, as they’re unrepresentative of the full picture of the benefits wind provides for the UK.

“To get a proper idea of how well wind is performing as a vital part of our energy mix, you have to look at National Grid’s official figures over a meaningful period. In December, wind energy provided a record monthly high of 14 per cent of all the UK’s electricity needs.

“As a whole, 2014 was wind energy’s most productive year so far in this country, generating nearly 10 per cent of Britain’s electricity – equivalent to the annual demands of a quarter of all British homes.”

This is borne out by the fact that at points in December, wind energy contributed 18% of total supply when the serendipitous convergence of cold temperatures and high wind speeds occurred.

No wind, no power

Therein lies the crux however; wind power relies on wind, no wind, no power.

Traditional fuels are far more consistent and reliable in their capacity to produce energy at all times of the day regardless of the weather and therefore are far better able to meet the vagaries of demand. They are however not renewable and carry myriad environmental concerns – whether nuclear, coal or gas.

The fact is that wind power can never achieve this level of certainty of production however that in itself doesn’t mean wind energy is bad, it means it can only be part of a much wider fuel mix and not a dominant contributor.

As DECC succinctly explained:

“We need a diverse energy mix to reduce our reliance on imported fossil fuels and renewables, including wind, are helping us to achieve this”.