By Linda Holt, councillor for East Neuk & Landward
Wind farms only work with permanent public subsidy. Subsidy comes in
various guises. The most obvious is contractual where the operator receives
a guaranteed rate for electricity generated or a guaranteed top-up on what
he sells his electricity for.
Such subsidy is inherently neither problematic nor exceptional. Nuclear
power is also heavily subsidised.
Wind power is problematic because of its nature. Because they depend on
wind, wind farms generate electricity that is unpredictable, intermittent
and unreliable. This is unlike nuclear power stations which produce a
constant stream of electricity (baseload energy) or gas plants, whose
output can be varied on demand (dispatchable energy).
Wind’s intermittency would matter less if electricity could be stored at
scale. But batteries only store comparatively small amounts, and there is
no prospect of affordable batteries for grid-scale storage in the
Electricity can be stored as potential hydro-electric power by pumping
water uphill into reservoirs for release when required, like the Cruachan
dam which operates as an adjunct to the Hunterston nuclear power station.
However, Scotland lacks enough suitable topography, as well as the
political will and money, to turn glens into hydro-electric power
reservoirs for wind farms.
With storage not an option, the only way to control wind’s vagaries is to
accommodate it within the wider electricity system, using primarily gas and
nuclear generators to provide dispatchable and baseload power when wind can’t.
Balancing it in the wider electricity system constitutes a further subsidy,
for it requires upgrades and extensions to the grid as well as keeping gas
plants running on stand-by (“back-up”). But using the grid and other
generators to make up for wind’s shortfalls becomes more challenging and
expensive, the more wind generation enters the energy mix.
Increasingly, the grid is unable to take electricity from wind farms during
windy periods. Wind farms are then “constrained off”, the energy
effectively wasted and their operators compensated – last year to the tune
of £125 million.
While the precise causes of the August 9 blackouts in England, in which
Hornsea offshore wind farm is implicated, remain unclear, they testify to
the increasing fragility of a national electricity system struggling to
meet the challenges of increasing renewable generation.
Like other European countries, the UK has reformed its subsidy regime in
response to galloping wind farm development, exploding subsidy costs and
ever-rising consumer bills. Abolishing the Renewables Obligation in April
2016 sounded the death knell for new onshore wind farms.
The focus shifted to offshore wind farms, and the new Contracts for
Difference scheme for their subsidy. A kind of reverse auction, it
encouraged operators to put in unfeasibly low bids for the prices at which
offshore wind farms would generate. While many have heralded the apparently
huge drop in offshore costs, no wind farms have actually begun operating at
this rate. Industry experts doubt they ever will, suspecting the low offers
were a ruse to lock out competition and then blackmail the government on
pain of bankruptcy if the price is not raised.
The days where developers saw a prospective wind farm as a licence to print
money while policymakers extolled wind energy as clean, green and free are
long gone. In the end there is no escaping the laws of physics and
engineering, or economics.
In coming years, a great deal of money and attention will have to be spent
on improving the resilience of an electricity system undermined by too many
remote and intermittent wind farms, and on finding ways to pay the still
escalating costs of their subsidy contracts. There will be little appetite
for a second wind bonanza whoever is in power.