Coffee House

Alex Salmond’s wind farm delusion

21 September 2012

4:53 PM

21 September 2012

4:53 PM

Last year, in an interview with the Today programme, the chief executive of National Grid told the show’s no doubt stunned listeners that they would have to get used to not having electricity as and when they wanted it.

That here in the developed world we should be wondering whether the lights will be going out in a few years time, whether our children will go to bed in the cold or whether we will spend our evenings shivering around log fires is rather amazing. That our political leaders have achieved this — if achieved is the right word — in the face of the shale gas revolution with its promise of cheap and abundant energy for centuries to come is truly extraordinary. How have we come to this?

We all know that climate scientists have said their computer models show that the world is going to get warmer, and catastrophically so. And they are very sure of this. They are more reticent about their models’ almost unbroken record of overestimating future warming but, undeterred by these shortcomings, other scientists then take the model predictions as gospel truth and try work out what this warming might mean in terms of impacts on the real world. Then the economists get involved; they crunch the numbers even further, giving us the economic cost of the theoretical impacts of the hypothetical predictions of the unvalidated climate models. And through all this shuffling of numbers and through the fug of the associated hype and exaggeration, through the crushing of dissenting views and the fiddling of data and the hiding of adverse results emerges a single number, the answer to the question of life, the universe and everything: 43.

Forty three — about £30 — that’s the mean estimate of the damage caused by a tonne of carbon dioxide according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Now as an aside I should point out that this theoretical cost is actually expected to fall largely on our grandchildren. Economists broadly agree that climate change will not push the global economy below where we are now until the world has warmed by a further two degrees. With the IPCC suggesting that this will take nearly a century under current emissions patterns, it’s likely that few people alive today are going to live to see it.

In response to this cost being imposed on our descendants — and descendants moreover who are expected to be much, much richer than we are — politicians have put together a series of cunning five-year plans. As with most five year plans, the results seem to owe at least as much to Edmund Blackadder as to Stalin.

The UK plan is to reduce carbon emissions by 34 percent by 2020 — regardless of the consequences. That’s bad enough, but the Scottish government’s bid to out-Blackadder their Westminster counterparts almost defies belief. The idea seems to be that Scotland can turn itself into a Celtic version of Denmark — the Danes generate 30% of their electricity from wind turbines. Scotland is allegedly going to generate the equivalent of 100% of electricity consumption using renewables, exporting much of this power to England.

The idea that this is a plausible future for Scotland relies on that combination of ignorance and wishful thinking that you only ever get at Holyrood. Denmark has make wind power work — after a fashion — simply because of who its neighbours are. Wind turbines works well alongside hydroelectric, so on windy days the Danes export the majority of the power they generate to Norway and Sweden, where the much larger grids can absorb the power surges. When the wind doesn’t blow, they can buy hydro power in return.


It sounds great on the surface, but it is actually an extraordinarily bad deal. The Danes pay top dollar for the hydro power they buy from Norway, but have to almost give away the surplus wind power that they generate. The Danish consumer in effect subsidises the Norwegian housewife.

What is even more remarkable is that all their spending on wind power has made almost no difference to the amount of carbon dioxide the Danes emit: their per capita emission levels are almost identical to ours. But electricity prices are a different story; the Danes pay more for their power than any other country in Europe – twice as much as us in UK. So the Scots who are worried about their fuel bills this winter really ain’t seen nothing yet.

Alex Salmond may want to copy the Danes, but it will simply not work the way he wants it to. The UK could simply never generate enough hydro power to run alongside the wind farms – to do so we would have flood every valley in the Scotland. The bitter truth for Mr Salmond’s brave new world is that if Scotland is going to have wind power, he is going to have to combine it with the only other fuel that can accommodate the erratic output of the wind turbines: gas.

The good news is that the shale gas revolution now provides gas in glorious abundance. The bad news, however, is that wind power and gas don’t work together nearly as well as wind and hydro. As the wind huffs and blows, the electricity supplied to the grid surges up and down like a yoyo. The rest of the grid has to try to fill this wildly fluctuating gap between supply and demand – no easy task.

Now, don’t get me wrong. This can be done, but at a cost. Nuclear power stations and combined cycle gas turbines are in trouble, however. They are designed to give steady output and excellent efficiency, rather than ramping up and down in response to every puff of wind. So you either have either have to run them at suboptimum efficiency or, more likely, replace them with open cycle turbines, which cope better but are much, much less efficient.

So although you might save some carbon emissions by introducing wind power into the system, you can actually end up losing some or all of those gains because you’ve made the rest of the grid inefficient. And if wind turbines end up making nuclear power stations uneconomic, pushing them out of the system altogether, you will actually end up with an overall gain in carbon emissions.

All this inefficiency and subsidy doesn’t come cheap. When you examine the costs involved in meeting the UK and Scottish plans for energy provision, the numbers are truly eye-watering. Gordon Hughes, professor of energy economics in Edinburgh, puts the cost of meeting Britain’s 2020 emissions targets through a mixture of wind turbines and gas backup at £120 billion. We could get the same amount of electricity from gas-fired power plants costing only £13 billion.

Wind power is an order of magnitude more expensive than gas, and you still have to have the gas-fired power stations for when the wind doesn’t blow.

The Institute for Public Policy Research put out a report last week extolling the virtues of windfarms for reducing carbon emissions. Yet when Colin McInnes, another Edinburgh academic, crunched the numbers behind this report he found that the IPPR’s own numbers implied that it was going to cost us more to mitigate the damage caused by a tonne of carbon dioxide than the cost of the damage itself. And not just a bit more, but several times more. The medicine is much, much worse than the disease itself.

Gordon Hughes’ numbers are even more startling. He estimates that even under the most optimistic view of a wind-dominated future, the cost of mitigating global warming would be nine times the cost of global warming itself.

Alex Salmond’s cunning plan bets the house on taxpayers and consumers continuing to fund vast transfers of wealth from the poor to the rich in the form of feed in tariffs and subsidies. If he achieves his dream of independence, he will be relying on Scottish taxpayers willingness to subsidise electricity for the English. It all has something of the air of a latter-day Darien scheme about it. Plausible at first glance, but in reality beset with flaws that could lead to its overwhelming Scotland entirely.

We have a latter-day Darien scheme run by a latter-day Blackadder. What could possibly go wrong?

Andrew Montford is the author of The Hockey Stick Illusion, a best-selling account of a notorious global warming scandal. He blogs at www.bishop-hill.net.

This article is an adaptation of a speech given at the Spectator debate on the motion ‘Scotland’s energy policy is a load of hot air’. The motion was passed by a majority of 126 to 50.

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