The "Justification" For Wind Power

As a naïve adolescent I used to think socialism was a good idea, without stopping to think how it would actually work. (The concept of equality and fair distribution of rewards seemed to have a lot going for it.) I also used to think the idea of wind power had a lot going for it too — “use nature’s energy to generate power” — and on the face of it, the idea has a lot to commend it. Like my early dalliance with socialism, though, wind turbines often don’t stack up to the cold hard light of day.

Wind Power and Carbon Emissions

Take, for example, the situation in the UK. In the Renewable Energy Strategy published in 2009, the government outlined a scenario for the UK to reach 30 percent of electricity production from wind by 2020 in order to meet EU targets on reducing carbon emissions. Currently, the country is at something around 10 percent in terms of installed capacity and rising fast. Those EU emissions targets are an integral part of the equation. The UK’s race for wind is in large part being driven by the desire to reduce emissions, but those emissions are coming from much more than just electricity generation, so the government is also targeting other industrial activities for ways to reduce carbon emissions.

The principal way industries are being “encouraged to reduce emissions is by punitive carbon taxes. Yet ironically, a Telegraph article outlines how these carbon taxes are working against the construction of wind turbines and other green technologies in this country by adding significant layers of cost to domestic concrete, steel and other heavy industrial manufacturers. Inevitably this will result in wind turbine manufacturers importing the concrete, steel and other materials necessary to assemble turbines in this country, but will fail to reduce global carbon emission by one kilogram — it will simply shift the emission overseas. For example, every MW of installed offshore wind turbine generating capacity needs 150 tons of cement, yet due to carbon taxes, it will soon be cheaper to import cement from Spain than making it in the UK.

Offshore vs. Onshore

Even as we question the wider strategic approach to wind power and its place in the drive for lower carbon emissions, at the tactical level, serious questions are arising about the suitability of wind power in many onshore urban environments. A report by Nick Collins details the ludicrous economics of a 2-MW turbine installed in a business park at Reading, west of London. The 280-foot turbine has operated at an average of just 17 percent of its capacity since it was installed in 2006. It is generating about £100,000 worth of electricity, but is receiving £130,000 in public subsidies (subsides paid for by consumers via increased tariffs). Last year it ran at just 15.4 percent of capacity, while wind farms in Scotland are said to run at 40 percent of their installed capacity and the record is 58 percent for Burradale in the Shetlands.

What this says is turbines should not be supported with taxpayers’ funds or enhanced tariffs paid for by consumers for inland urban areas where the wind speed is low. It represents a total waste of money and would be better spent (if subsidy is the only way this technology can be made economically viable) on offshore or at least windier shore-based sites.

The fiasco of the Reading turbine receiving more subsidy than it generates, and of the very industries that are meant to serve the wind power construction market being taxed out of participating in future development, illustrates what happens when muddled government bodies get involved in complex issues with competing priorities. They are just not able to work in a joined-up manner a bit like trying to balance the economics of socialism.

–Stuart Burns

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