Wind Power's Contribution: All Hot Air?

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A debate is raging in the UK following the release of the government’s Renewable Energy Strategy (RES) that could have relevance to similar objectives in the US.

The UK government has set out in the RES how they intend to raise the amount of UK power generated from renewable sources, principally wind power, from the current 5.5% to 30% by 2020, largely to meet EU targets. But critics have derided the projections arguing that a) the targets are not achievable and b) the cost will outstrip the economic benefits by between 11 and 17 times! According to the document, while the expected cost will total around £4bn a year over the next 20 years, amounting to £57bn to £70bn, the eventual benefit in terms of the reduced carbon dioxide emissions will be only £4bn to £5bn over that entire period. The money is to be raised by increasing energy bills to consumers. The document suggests this will be about $410 per household but a separate government report says electricity bills will rise by 13% and gas by 37% pushing more consumers into fuel poverty defined as any household that spends more than 10% of its income on heat and power costs. This is the often overlooked fact of renewable energy – it is more often than not uneconomical and somebody has to pay for the shortfall.

The UK is focusing almost entirely on wind power as the primary source of renewable energy. However, the RES has provision for tidal, biomass and energy conservation, the government admits it will require at least 3,500 on shore turbines and 4,000 off shore turbines. But Professor Ian Fells, an energy expert and Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, is quoted in the Telegraph as saying the Government’s plans were “hugely expensive” and “wildly optimistic” as they required 10 off shore wind turbines to be erected every day with good weather over the next decade. In the meantime, aging coal fired power stations will have to be closed because they don’t meet EU standards and older nuclear power stations are scheduled for decommissioning well before the new ones can enter service in 2018-2025. This will leave the UK with rolling black-outs from 2013.

Fortunately in the US, targets are more modest and the number of potential sources of renewable energy are broader, including geothermal and solar. But the situation in the UK illustrates how politicians with little scientific experience can get swept along by a powerful industry lobby into setting unrealistic targets. Unfortunately, when those targets look like they may not be achieved, those same politicians will just throw more of our taxpayer money at trying to achieve them than admit there could be a better way.

–Stuart Burns

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