Wind energy promises a clean and free source of electricity. It could reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and will reduce climate change. But does wind power live up to the claims made by its advocates?

How benign is its impact on the environment? Will it really be able to deliver the promise of clean, cheap and reliable electricity?

Or would the money spent on it be more effectively directed towards supporting new technologies which will allow us to develop more reliable and cheaper forms of baseload energy in a cleaner way. On June 26th the Government announced plans to give the green light for up to 10,000 new wind turbines to be erected across Britain. There are fewer than 2,000 turbines in Britain today so the increase is unparalleled.

Britain has been given binding EU targets to generate 15% of all energy from renewable sources by 2020; this will mean that nearly 40% of all electricity will have to come from renewables. The challenges now facing Government, local planners, wind farm companies and consumers are considerable. They are only likely to grow if the Government is to reach the EU’s target.

They include:

  • For central government, a substantial increase in the subsidy given to wind companies through the Renewables Obligation. This will increase electricity bills.
  • For local authority planning departments, a massive rise in (almost certainly unpopular) applications for new wind farms · For wind farm companies, an increase in subsidies as raw materials become more expensive and planning applications become longer and harder to approve
  • For electricity customers, an increase in their utility bills to subsidise thousands on new wind turbines across Britain. Households currently trapped in fuel poverty (of which there could be 6 million by Christmas and half of whom are pensioners) will be the worst affected.

This huge increase in renewables, particularly wind, will require a substantial increase in the amount of money taken from consumers’ electricity bills to subsidise new wind farms through the Renewables Obligation (RO). The RO is the Government’s principal policy instrument to encourage the development of the renewable electricity sector. It is an indirect subsidy system drawing funds from consumer bills and passing them to the renewable electricity sector. This currently amounts to £1 billion a year, an amount which will have to rise significantly to fund the construction and development of thousands of new turbines. But what of wind’s performance as an energy provider? Wind generation does not provide a reliable supply of power. It must be ‘shadowed’ by baseload power stations such as nuclear and coal as it is intermittent.

Over-reliance on it could lead to supply interruptions if the wind does not blow, blows too hard or does not blow where the wind farms are located. Importantly, such high-demand periods of cold and hot weather correspond to periods of low wind so overdependence on intermittent wind can actually increase carbon emissions as conventional power stations are required as back-up. Importantly wind farms perform well if their average output reaches as much as 35% of their generating capacity, but this rarely happens.

Evidence shows that, throughout Europe, wind turbines have produced on average less than 20% of their capacity in recent years. In comparison coal fired plants run at about 75% capacity and nuclear plants can operate as high as 92% capacity.

This level of consistent baseload supply helps keep prices down. New plans for thousands of unpopular (see poll at end) wind farms will also tie down and dominate local government planning procedures for long periods.

Councils examining wind farm applications are not obliged to take into consideration the economic viability of the project or whether the topography and meteorological conditions are suitable. Before turbines are proposed meteorological masts are erected to gauge wind speeds and conditions, but these mast results do not have to be made public to either the planning inquiry or local community.

This lack of accountability and openness is undermining confidence in the planning process on wind applications. Given this, only the wind turbine company knows if it is erecting turbines which could effectively be useless. Wind farm companies have deep pockets (partly filled with income from the Renewables Obligation) with which to fight planning applications. For example, in Norfolk an unpopular wind application which was overwhelmingly opposed by local residents has already been rejected by a planning inquiry twice, but the wind company is appealing and could seek a third planning inquiry. If that is unsuccessful, they look set to resubmit their scheme. Ironically, under the RO subsidy scheme developers can keep returning until they have worn down the inspectors and the local community who have had to fund their own legal representation, costing around £35,000, so far.

One could argue that through taxes and subsidies given to the wind companies from their own bills the local community are inadvertently funding the potential despoliation of their landscape and environment. Importantly, the MoD has opposed proposed wind developments as they will interfere with national air defence radar and pose a threat to trainee helicopter pilots. The Royal Academy of Engineering has calculated that the cheapest form of wind energy is two and half times more expensive than nuclear or coal generated electricity, the first of which is a carbon free baseload source This significant price differential is likely to get worse, not better, as the cost of the raw materials required for wind turbines soars. The Government has now accepted that the total costs of meeting the EU’s binding 2020 renewable target will be £100 billion. This is the equivalent of over £4,000 for every household in the country. Some analysts have claimed it could be as much as £4,700 a household. This will drive many, many more households into fuel poverty, where more than 10% of household income is spent on energy costs.

A renewable energy source which should be better examined and supported is undoubtedly tidal, as David Cameron set out last week. Tidal is not environmentally intrusive and can provide more reliable and sustainable renewable energy. It does not blight our precious landscape and our 11,000 miles of coastline and severe tidal ranges offer huge potential. Importantly, one British tidal company, Lunar Energy, has already had to go to Korea to develop its technology as the support framework there is substantially more advanced than in Britain. Britain must now develop its nuclear, clean coal (with the ability to retrofit carbon capature and storage technology when it is ready) and tidal resources to meet the looming energy gap.

Overzealous support for environmentally invasive and unreliable wind farms will not plug the energy gap but will drive energy prices even higher.