Wind power is the world’s fastest growing energy source, and one which perfectly fits the needs of our own windswept islands. Among its many advantages, wind power is a clean, reliable and renewable resource.
Huge potential for the UK
The first wind farm in the UK was built at Delabole in Cornwall in 1991. By 2007, wind energy overtook hydropower to become the largest renewable generation source in the UK.
The UK is currently going through a large scale expansion of offshore wind up to 2020 – enough to supply a quarter of the UK’s total electricity needs.
According to the Offshore Valuation group, if developed still further to tap their full practical potential, offshore renewables would allow the UK to power itself six times over at current levels of demand and become an energy exporting nation again by 2050. This is equivalent to a billion barrels of oil per year, or the same as the average annual output of UK North Sea oil and gas production seen over the past four decades – resulting in cumulative carbon dioxide savings of 1.1 billion tonnes by 2050.
Wind energy meets our climate change needs. It’s practically CO2 free over the 20-year life of a turbine. The carbon emissions generated by its manufacture, servicing and installation are “paid back” within six months of installation. Every unit of electricity from a wind turbine displaces one from conventional power stations: in January 2009, wind turbines in the UK had the capacity to prevent the emission of 3,682,563 tonnes of carbon dioxide per annum.
Wind is a simple technology and a reliable, endlessly renewable resource. It can also play an important role in energy security – because the more energy we generate here in the UK, the less vulnerable we are to cuts in supply or hikes in the cost of imported gas, coal or oil.
Obviously wind doesn’t blow all the time – wind power availability is greater during the winter than at other times of the year and is on average stronger during the day than overnight. This means that wind power delivers around two and a half times as much electricity during periods of high electricity demand as during low demand periods.
Many onshore wind farms will run at about 35-40 per cent of their peak capacity over their lifetime. Coal, gas and nuclear power stations don’t operate all of the time either and are subject sudden shut downs and often long periods of repair work. Swings in energy demand from homes and businesses and the need to protect against failures of conventional plants actually require a similar amount of flexibility and back-up capacity on the grid system as wind power. Real world experience has shown that national power systems are up to the task. On windy nights, for example, wind turbines account for up to 50 per cent of power generation in the western part of Denmark, but the load has proved manageable.
Wind speeds are increasingly forecastable and averaged out across the country, the fluctuation is much less than for one farm. This means that while the output from one wind farm might dip as the wind subsides, the wind will still be blowing somewhere else, and the larger the nationwide network of wind farms, the smaller the variations in electricity generation. This has produced far fewer problems for electricity grid management than some predicted.
Research by Oxford University’s Environmental Change Unit showed that low speed wind events that affect 90 per cent of the country only happen for, on average, one hour every year.
Generating electricity from the wind makes economic as well as environmental sense. The costs of onshore wind energy fell fourfold in the 1980s, and halved again in the 1990s through a combination of innovation and economies of scale.
As world fossil fuel prices rise and become more volatile as reserves diminish, wind power can help insulate the economy and individuals from those price shocks. For example, the cost of electricity from gas turbine plants in the UK has almost doubled since 2006.
Together with other clean energy sources like wave and tidal power, wind development has been held back in favour of nuclear power. That may seem an odd thing to say given that no new nuclear plants have been built in Britain for decades, but the nuclear industry continues to receive gigantic subsidies that dwarf those given to the renewable industry.
If Britain seriously harbours big ambitions to maintain its position as a world-leading player in offshore wind, the government needs to bring in policies that cut construction costs and support the rapid development of the UK industry.
Campaigning for a clean energy revolution
While successive British governments fail to create the economic and regulatory climate needed to bring about a clean energy revolution, we are missing a huge opportunity. That’s why we’re campaigning for a clean energy revolution in the UK and globally. Investing in cutting-edge wind technology would be a perfect way to kick-start this high-tech green revolution, while enabling us to reinvent our traditional engineering acumen for the 21st century, build industrial capacity to export clean energy technologies to the rest of the world, and work to create a low-carbon future.