Hot air

The UK government's commitment to wind power is an expensive gesture, at odds with the nation's needs.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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Topics Science & Tech

The UK government has given the go-ahead for a massive expansion in the use of wind power to generate electricity. Does this represent the future of energy – or is it just gesture politics?

Trade and industry secretary Patricia Hewitt says huge expanses of seabed along the north-west coast, the Wash and the Thames Estuary will be licensed for the building of wind turbines, to the tune of £6billion. When fully operational, the turbines will be capable of producing five percent of Britain’s electricity needs – the energy equivalent of six nuclear power stations (1).

Sounds straightforward: build some turbines and let the wind blow. But the electricity produced will be more expensive than that currently produced by coal- and gas-powered stations. And it won’t be reliable: if there is no wind, or too much wind, there will be no power. Electricity companies will have to buy this energy when it is produced, not when they want it.

So wind power might provide expensive energy in the summer, when it isn’t needed, just because the wind is blowing – and no power during winter periods, if the wind was to come to a standstill. If we had to rely on wind power for any more than five percent of our energy needs, such unpredictability would be a big problem. Why is the government investing in this unreliable technology?

The government argues that wind power makes use of an otherwise wasted resource – after all, Britain is one of the windiest parts of Europe. But what’s the point of utilising this ‘free resource’, if we have to spend more money on making it work than we currently do on generating electricity with coal and gas?

Others point out that wind power doesn’t produce greenhouse gases. Yet the connection between global warming and carbon dioxide is a matter of speculation. The world does seem to be getting warmer, but it remains unclear whether that is due to carbon dioxide emissions.

What wind power does represent is a chance for the government to show off its green credentials. A maximum of five percent electricity-generation means that wind power will not hike prices up a great deal – but nor will it be of much practical benefit. Our power supplies will still mostly come from gas and coal; and greater quantities of these will have to be imported, as domestic supplies decline.

The government is putting off the inevitable: when it will have to announce the building of new nuclear power stations. Britain’s nuclear stations, which provide 23 percent of the country’s power, are approaching the end of their lives. It might prove unpopular in our anti-nuclear age, but the government will have to replace the old stations with new ones. Either that, or rely on gas imports from West Africa and former Soviet republics (2).

The expansion of wind power looks like a very expensive gesture, at odds with the nation’s needs. It also represents a shift in outlook, from pushing back the frontiers of what is possible to a policy of low horizons, where we get by with just enough power and live within our ecological means. When it comes to generating energy, the government should stop pissing in the wind.

Read on:

Welcome to the Wind Age, by Jennie Bristow

(1) Boost for offshore wind power, BBC News, 14 July 2003

(2) See The State of the Nation 2003, Institution of Civil Engineers

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