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December 14, 2011

Fact or fiction – challenging the myths around wind power

One of Isaac Newton’s Laws of Motion states that forces of action and reaction are equal, opposite and collinear. Certainly seems to be the case where the wind power debate is concerned. The anti-wind lobby are getting themselves organised – Communities Against Turbines Scotland held their first national conference last month. Lesley Riddoch in her Scotsman column tries to dispel some of the myths that she thinks are beginning to threaten our golden goose.


Lesley Riddoch, The Scotsman

What did wind turbines ever do to Bill Jamieson? The redoubtable Executive Editor of The Scotsman concluded last week that wind energy is based on “edifice economics, founded on sleight of hand taxation and powered by a gale of hope” which “will not keep Scotland’s lights on.”

Bill’s was an eloquent onslaught – but not the only one.

The first conference of Communities Against Turbines Scotland, in Ayrshire, held as the Institute of Mechanical Engineers (IME), said the SNP’s green generating targets were not based on a “comprehensive engineering assessment” and Citigroup warned independence would add £875 annually to average domestic energy bills to compensate for lost UK subsidies.

And then to cap it all, Prince Philip weighed in. Wind farms, he tells us, are absolutely useless.


I’ve no idea why an institute representing engineers should be so ferociously opposed to a massive expansion in engineering jobs. I’ve no idea why civic leaders think an independence referendum will deter investors more than their own relentless negativity towards renewables.

I’ve also no idea why Bill Jamieson has constructed such a selective case against wind energy. He observes that shale gas discoveries have revitalised America, an American solar power manufacturer has gone belly up, New York State has pulled out of an offshore wind farm project, General Electric is reconsidering offshore wind investments in Europe and a professor has calculated each green job in Spain costs the taxpayer half a million pounds in a programme driven by political grandiosity not reason.

Doubtless we should all see a parallel with the Dear Leader at this point. And yes, Alex Salmond does indeed like his turbines. But honestly, what is all of this about? Another Bill has a very different view. Last week, Bill Gates urged the US government to triple its investment in green technologies to $16 billion annually, warning the country lags behind China, France and Canada in the race towards a low-carbon economy. Did you read about that one? Thought not.


Shale gas may boost UK supplies – at a price. It will use up Britain’s permitted emissions and divert investment from green technologies.

Of course, it’s right to ask questions about Scotland’s energy policy. But to paraphrase Hugh Grant, these aren’t straight balls – they’re googlies. Important voices within Scottish civic society seem curiously intent on killing the golden goose that is the best set of renewable resources in the northern hemisphere. Why? Have they all had wind farms built next door?

International energy comparisons can also mislead.

The wind resource available in Spain and Germany is a tiny fraction of Scotland’s. Just as we get little energy from a solar panel, most of the Mediterranean gets little energy from wind turbines. Panicking here about the future of wind because of Spanish problems is daft. It’s like the Norwegians panicking about hydro because a dam’s been cancelled in Mali due to lack of rainfall. But Bill is right to say that governments everywhere have driven energy policy for political reasons – chief amongst them the pro-nuclear Margaret Thatcher.

Happily, a new realism is creeping into energy policy worldwide – each nation is maximising its own best energy resource. In Austria and Switzerland that’s biomass. In Norway and Sweden – that’s hydro. In Scotland – that’s wind, wave and tidal, though only wind is ready as a mature technology.

Put them all together – as European planners are doing now – and you have the makings of a multimodal European energy super-grid that can lessen gas dependence on Russia and oil dependence on the Middle East. In future, energy could be swapped across time zones and borders to cope with adjacent peak demands and lessen loads. Isn’t that vaguely exciting?

Apparently not. Bill writes: “From Europe come warnings of failed renewables projects, disappointing results and voter disillusion. And from nearer home comes troubling evidence of how the push in renewables is destroying jobs and confronting millions of households with huge rises in energy bills.”

Which failed renewable projects are these?

I’ll bet none has failed like Dounreay. Yet, when the Mountaineering Council warned that wind turbines will destroy the “wildness” of the National Park this weekend, the story got four times more space than news that burying radioactive waste properly at Dounreay will cost £100 million.

Let’s stay with costs awhile. Energy bills have indeed risen by 16-19 per cent since August but that’s almost entirely because of a 40 per cent increase in gas prices over the last year. Energy regulator Ofgem says: “Higher gas prices have been the main driver of increasing energy bills over the last eight years.” 

The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) predicts that “fossil fuel price volatility is a bigger driver of energy price variation than the impact of climate change policies”.

But what about the squillions we all fork out to subsidise wind energy? According to the DECC last month, the cost of the Renewables Obligation in 2009-10 was £1.1bn – an extra £20 on the average consumer’s bill. By contrast, the annual cost of nuclear decommissioning, according to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), is £2bn.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg New Energy Finance suggests onshore wind will be cost competitive with gas and coal generation by 2016.

Who do we believe?

Generating plants are reaching the end of their lives and informed decisions must be made soon.

The danger is that anti-turbine hysteria will encourage the wrong choices. If renewable naysayers succeed, vital upgrades in grid transmission won’t happen. And lest the hares start running on that one, Scottish Power and SSE estimate the work should cost consumers less than 10p per week.

The obsession with wind turbines also obscures a much bigger energy problem – wasting it. Fintry Development Trust has cut £600 from annual energy bills by improving insulation, design, and boiler efficiency, while at the same time the Scottish Government’s own energy use has risen.

But low-key ways to save energy will always play second fiddle to the intensely emotional crescendo surrounding wind turbines.

The longer we postpone a concerted shift towards renewable research, design, testing and deployment, the bigger the burden we leave to our children, grandchildren or whichever generation is unlucky enough to be alive when fossil fuels and prevarication finally run out.

By then, of course, they’ll have inherited so many other problems from our myopic generation, one more may hardly matter.

Emotions run high over turbines – but the stakes run even higher.