This blog post aims to provide objective facts in response to frequent claims made by anti-wind campaigners.
‘The Wind Farm Scam – an ecologist’s evaluation’ written by John Etherington in 2009 is often hailed as a definitive text by anti-wind groups and whilst it does raise some important questions, it approaches the topic from a prejudiced perspective and contains significant factual errors. A critique of the book was published by Prof. John Twidell in the peer reviewed journal ‘Wind Engineering’ (Note 1), and this post is a summary of that critique.
When dealing with the topic of wind-power many critics, Etherington included, tend to use emotive language in their arguments. This is totally inappropriate in situations where the information provided is supposed to be objective. This style of writing serves to bias the opinion of the reader before they have even had a chance to digest the facts. For instance in ‘The Wind Farm Scam’, Etherington uses expressions such as ‘wind monsters’ and ‘the heroic defenders of the land’. More extremely, he describes himself whilst writing the book as ‘abstracted, even obsessed, by the need to expose the failings of this damaging industry’, not typically considered to be a good state of mind when an academic is trying to write a book grounded in fact and reason.
Many groups who are opposed to wind energy developments rightly point out the intermittent nature of the electricity that is produced. There is, however, often an issue regarding how this problem is framed for discussion. For instance in his book, Etherington defines intermittent as ‘unpredictably variable and intermittently available generation’ when in fact the output from wind turbines is predictable with weather forecasting from weeks in advance, and accurately predictable hours in advance. This is information which the National Grid can and do use already to help them plan their interventions to maintain system balance. The second point in this definition ‘intermittently available’ is also deceptive. It implies that wind turbines are either on or off, whereas a more appropriate term would be ‘variable power’, as modern wind turbines are capable of operating in a range of wind speeds, with different power outputs. Naturally when there is no wind, there can be no wind power, but this happens rarely given the distribution of turbines across the entire country – a fact many anti-wind groups somehow fail to point out.
Energy subsidies are a highly contentious issue. Those opposed to the development of renewable energy projects are often quick to point to the support given to renewable projects, which is designed to stimulate a market that will eventually be able to survive without subsidy. These subsidies (Renewables Obligation and Feed in Tariffs) amount to approximately £45 of an average £1,400 bill per household per year (Note 2) – across all technologies.
However, people often fail to acknowledge two important counter-arguments. The first is that as a result of large volumes of renewable electricity being available in the electricity markets with negligible direct costs (the fuel is free) the cost of wholesale electricity was reduced by £1.55 billion in 2014 (Note 3), worth approximately £18 per household. Another oft overlooked fact is the very high, much more disguised, subsidies offered to fossil fuel generation technologies. In the UK these include:
- The basic UK electricity supply infrastructure established by the pre 1989 nationalised industry
- The government owned nuclear industry and the sale at low-cost of capital assets
- Acceptance by government of the costs of treatment and disposal of nuclear waste
- Considerable ‘legacy’ costs from the previously nationalised coal industry
- Significant tax concessions to companies for oil and gas exploration, and for coal extraction
Beyond these are significant externality costs, such as increased expenditure on healthcare due to pollution.
The sum of global fossil fuel subsidies was estimated recently by the International Monetary Fund to be approximately £3.4 trillion per year (Note 4). As such it seems that a relatively small short term investment could well be justified by reduced costs, both internal and external, in the coming decades.
Some argue that power supplied to the grid at low voltage is never actually used by the system, as the power cannot be pushed back up through the grid. This argument fails to take into account the basic principle of Ohm’s law, which is that current flows down a voltage gradient, hence this principle ensures that electricity enters the grid as there is a voltage gradient from the generator to the grid and then flows out of the grid at the nearest outlet (or load) again down a voltage gradient.
There is some confusion with regards wind turbines meeting the grid frequency of 50Hz. For instance, Etherington believes that turbines have to reach exact synchronism with the grid before a mechanically switched connection is made. Thanks to induction generators and solid-state electronic interfaces wind turbines are capable of operating with grid synchronicity over a range of wind speeds.
Supply and Demand
There is often a tendency when discussing our electricity system to focus exclusively on the supply side, with renewable technologies often coming under fire for being inflexible on the demand side. It is important to remember that demand is always changing and supply needs to be changed to match it but also that the demand side has some flexibility of its own. By leveraging the flexible demand side, there is a great opportunity to bring more renewables into our electricity system and we should view this as an opportunity rather than a threat. Additionally, it is important to note that for the National Grid, losing connection unexpectedly to a 2 GW nuclear power plant is a far greater test than the steady and predictable variation from aggregated wind power.
(1) Twidell, J. (2010). Critique of the book ‘The Wind Farm Scam - an ecologist’s evaluation’, (2009), John Etherington, Stacey International, London. Wind Engineering, 335 - 350.
The writer, Sam Angwin, is a former employee of WREN, but the views and opinions expressed in this blog are his own and should not necessarily be interpreted as the views of WREN.