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.
A huge expansion of offshore wind is planned 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.
Britain has more offshore wind power installed than any other country and has some of the world’s largest wind farms. The 300MW Foreness Point farm off the Kent coast generates enough electricity to power over 200,000 homes at peak output, and construction on an even bigger site, the London Array, begins in 2011.
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 and this is planned for. 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 the1980s, 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.
But to get the full benefits of jobs and economic development we need our own wind energy industry – designing and making turbines, erecting and running them.
At the moment there are NO British turbine manufacturers, so every time we build a new wind farm we’re effectively subsidising German and Danish companies. And because we import 80 per cent of the equipment and services needed for wind farms from abroad, costs for offshore wind have actually risen over the past decade.
This is a political failure rather than an inherent problem with wind itself – for years governments have talked up the desirability of clean energy but failed to do enough to support it.
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 30 years, but the nuclear industry continues to receive gigantic subsidies that dwarf those given to the renewable industry.
But there is cause for optimism. In their 2010 report Great Expectations, the UK Energy Research Centre predicts that production costs have peaked and that policy changes and investment can increase the competitiveness of the industry. Their recommendations include:
- policies to support technological innovation and to bring more of the supply chain to the UK
- continued and targeted support for ports and other facilities to bring infrastructure and services to the standard where they can handle large components made in the UK
- revising the system of financial support for new projects, currently delivered through the Renewables Obligation, to give long term security to investors and drive costs down.
The report’s advice is clear: wind energy is an affordable and practical option. But 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 a UK based industry.
Campaigning for a clean energy revolution
Despite these huge advantages, and the fact that Britain has some of the best wind resources anywhere in the world, Britain still has no wind industry to speak of. Far from being world leaders, we are being left behind, and the international market is led by the US, Denmark, Germany, Spain, India and China – all of which boast more capacity than us.
While successive governments fail to create the economic and regulatory climate needed to bring about a clean energy revolution, we are missing a huge opportunity.
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.