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So, today’s ministerial statement from the Department of Energy and Climate Change (available here has confirmed that the subsidy available for onshore wind farms will drop by 10%.

Now, while I work in the wind industry, my expertise is on the measurement and analysis of the wind itself rather than the funding mechanisms used to support it. In their coverage, BBC News are grudgingly positive about this, and the tone of their article matches pretty closely my own appraisal of this. It is good that the funding has not been slashed 25% as was previously suggested as that would be a very steep climb in a very short time and such things tend to have strong impacts. I have far less concerns about a 90% subsidy.

The UK’s system for subsidising renewable electricity generation for large-scale projects is based on a ROC: a Renewables Obligations Certificate. This is an unusual scheme internationally, where the more common form is a simple feed-in tariff which pays a bit extra for every kilowatt hour from a particular source.

ROCs are distributed based on generated energy, and different sorts of generation earn different amounts; the amount of ROCs earned is loosely tied into how mature the technology is. The “renewable obligation” referred to in the title requires suppliers to generate a proportion of their electricity by means of renewables, a proportion which then increases year on year. Suppliers then have to present their ROCs as evidence that they have met their legal commitment. However, the certificates are not tied to the supplier themselves, but can be traded with other suppliers. While my understanding of the whole process is pretty sketchy it actually seems quite ingenious because of course from a government perspective they don’t care if individual suppliers meet an arbitrary percentage target: they care that the country as a whole meets that target.

Today’s announcement says that onshore wind will no longer earn one ROC but instead will earn 0.9 ROCs.

I first heard this suggested a few months ago, and I was rather surprised at the idea that the number of ROCs would drop below 1. (Which demonstrates my failing to pay attention as other technologies have earned less than 1 ROC per MWh before now.) After all, what is the certificate supposed to be saying? The whole point of the system was not so much to support emerging technology (although they worked that in), but rather to incentivise electricity suppliers to support the UK’s legally binding targets to reduce our CO2 emissions. I therefore assumed, wrongly as it turns out, that a non-thermal plant with no direct CO2 produced during operation would not earn less that one full certificate per megawatt hour, representing 100% renewable electricity.

The way the system is set up, there are knock-on effects from reducing the ROCs earned by onshore wind, above and beyond the financial implications (and my feeling is that the technology is now mature enough to weather this small loss of subsidy). Energy generated from onshore wind will now count less towards a supplier’s renewables obligation than their generated output would suggest. But the targets remain legally binding.

The reduction in subsidy is partially justified in the ministerial statement with the followeing text:

…delivering the best possible deal for consumers has been at the heart of the RO banding review. In considering the final shape of the banding package, we have focused on the need to balance cost-effectiveness with the range of objectives that the RO must deliver.

Any gap between current generation and the legal target, this year or in the years ahead as the target increases, will have to be met by some form of generation if we are to meet our legally binding targets. It may be more wind farms, or companies may risk more on offshore wind or emerging marine technology: all of which are more expensive than onshore wind and which will cost the consumer more in subsidies.

I think it is probably right, all in all, that the subsidy for onshore wind should decrease. I’m very interested to see how it plays out from here though.

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As I said earlier, I’ve been reading the Geek Manifesto lately. This is the sort of thing you don’t read if you want a quiet life of rolling your eyes when people are wrong rather than gathering friends to overdose on homeopathic remedies outside a chemist.

It has come to my attention that one Mr Griff Rhys Jones has recently weighed in on the wind farm question. He has been quoted as claiming that wind farms are “green tokenism”, and being “randomly deposited” across the country. (Apparently this is from a column in the Radio Times, which is not online.)

Fresh from my perusal of the Geek Manifesto, it occurs to me that there are some parallels between this occurence and the British Chiropractic Association vs Simon Singh libel case. In the BCA case, Simon Singh had claimed Chiropracters made bogus claims; the BCA then sued for libel claiming damage to their reputation. In the case of Mr Rhys Jones, a celebrity has similarly made comments which are highly damaging to the reputation of an industry.

Only I can provide all sorts of evidence that wind farms are not “randomly distributed”, and that far from being “green tokenism” they actively contribute to our electricity networks saving on fossil fuels.

(I’ve not linked to much for the first statement about not being randomly distributed because to be honest it’s a bit of a blog post in itself and I don’t think anyone’s written it yet. Basically I need to demonstrate that there are financial incentives to build in the windiest places, that there are well established procedures in the industry for establishing windiness before construction, and that these procedures are generally followed. Some of the evidence may be commercially sensitive, but certainly there’s a solid case there.)

Has the reputation of the wind industry been libelled? Well, let’s be honest, Mr Rhys Jones is no more guilty of that than dozens of journalists, editors and commentors in print and even more random people online. But maybe they are all guilty of libel. Because I see far more accusations of bad practice from random people than I’ve seen any evidence of it. I’m not saying that the industry as a whole should start suing for libel when critics make rash statements which aren’t backed up by even a modicum of evidence. Neither am I saying that the wind industry is perfect. But no industry is perfect.

I do wish that celebrities, whose opinions are magnified in today’s culture, would try to remember that if it isn’t backed up by evidence it’s only an opinion.

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There are some people who feel that those who are pro-wind-power must by definition be anti-nuclear. This is far from true in reality: both power sources include very different challenges but actually complement one another in some ways. Most engineers will tell you that we need a variety of generation sources to keep the power flowing on demand; running the grid with wind energy only would be a recipe for blackouts unless something really changed. Like hydro, nuclear is a generation method that doesn’t burn carbon and that is basically controllable on demand. Some environmentalists argue that in fact it is essential to include nuclear in the mix if you want to reduce carbon emissions in your electricity generation.

I don’t have any moral objections to nuclear; but I appreciate that it brings enormous challenges.

Still, it’s looking increasingly like nuclear power — or at least new nuclear power stations — will not be contributing much to the UK’s electricity generation in the near future. A summary of the situation:

There’s a lot there to suggest that the privatised electricity market in the UK simply doesn’t have the stomach for new nuclear generation.

Meanwhile, the UK’s existing nuclear facilities are aging; Germany intends to stop using nuclear at all and Japan has hardly started back up after the tsunami over a year ago.

Locally and globally the message is the same. Nuclear power — fission at least — may well have had its heyday.

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Scotland:
Hydro generation ‘high’ after warm and wet winter.
“A wet and mild winter has contributed to record levels of energy production for many hydro power stations across Scotland.” (2 March 2012)

England:
Drought may last until Christmas: Environment Agency
“Official drought zones have been declared in a further 17 English counties, as a warning came that water shortages could last until Christmas.” (16 April 2012)

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I didn’t make it to the Scottish Renewables conference this year in Edinburgh, though I would have liked to. It’s not really an analyst’s sort of place; more somewhere that policy makers get together. There’s a whole other blog in the problems that can and do stem from continually keeping the policy makers and the scientists apart, but perhaps I’ll come back to that another day.

I did stumble on this blog post, titled “Intermittent Wind” by Matthew Taylor of The RSA (I adore the RSAnimate talks, for what it’s worth). It makes some good points on the nature of the wind farm debate north and south of the border.

A lot of the negative press I’ve been responding to here has its genesis in the English press; particularly the Daily Mail and the Telegraph. Both are vehemently anti-wind-farm, but both are also highly English in character rather than Scottish. The sort of rhetoric they employ to sell their papers is far less common in specifically Scottish publications.

In his post, Taylor suggests that there is a fundamental difference between the overall cultural attitudes of the Scots and the English towards renewable energy in general. Is it fair to conclude, as Taylor does, that “the Scots’ enthusiasm for renewable energy… crosses party lines and includes most of the public”?

My simple answer when people ask me what I do is that “I build wind farms”; so far answering that to strangers has only provoked active disagreement once, and most people I’ve spoken to have gone on to confide that actually they quite like them. But that’s far from a large or representative sample. The Scottish Government’s research on attitudes held by people living close to wind farms suggests that the majority of respondents don’t mind their local wind farm, and generally, with a few exceptions, found the reality of having one nearby to be less burdensome than they had anticipated. Similarly, a 2005 summary of attitudes (pdf) published by the BWEA suggested that even in England positive views of wind farms are more common than negative views. This University of St Andrews paper from 2005 (pdf) also concludes that most Scots (“[l]arge majorities”) support wind power.

So anecdotally, and through industry, government, and academic research, it seems as though wind power is more popular than might be concluded after reading the comments on a Daily Mail piece. Is this more true in Scotland than England? I suspect not, based on the BWEA piece, but then Scotland is starting to rely heavily on the renewables industry and therefore has a real economic interest in assessing and demonstrating public support in a way that Westminster simply doesn’t.

More crucially, Taylor leaves with a warning that the success of the renewables industry which we’re investing so heavily in up north may well depend on English support, even if Scotland goes on to independence.

Is this true? Well, perhaps. It seems pretty certain that England will not meet its carbon reduction targets without Scottish windfarms, although not being a lawyer I don’t know how the legally binding targets would be applied if Scotland and England became separate entities. It’s also true that in an electricity system which relies heavily on intermittent energy sources, a handy centre of demand to which excess energy can be sold certainly helps. If Scotland were to go independent, England would still have to meet their demand, and it would seem foolhardy to rely on the goodwill of another independent nation to supply your needs. The most likely scenario as far as I can see is that England would buy Scottish electricity on some sort of market to meet both electricity demand and legally binding targets.

Such a system provides an easy answer to the question posed by Taylor’s imagined speaker:
“‘Why’ he asks ‘ are we paying a poll tax on our energy bills – a tax that hits the poorest hardest – in order to send money up to an independent Scotland, much of which is then repatriated to the overseas HQ of large energy companies lining the pockets among others of German investors (EON) and the French Government (EDF). It’s time to stop subsidising the Scots and making foreigners rich on our energy bills. It’s time for English clean coal (or nuclear, or simply imported gas)’
The answer would be because England didn’t have sufficient clean energy to meet its targets. In other words, England would be paying Scotland to develop wind farms so England didn’t have to. And what would the Daily Mail find to object about in that? I certainly can’t imagine them suggesting that more English wind farms should be built.*

In his third warning, Taylor warns the renewables industry against taking it for granted that the environmental credentials of our industry are known and falling into complacency. Instead he extorts us to join in with the wider green movement to get our voice heard and place the industry firmly within its environmental context. I think that’s an important message to be heard. I also think that the wind industry is training up the people who will go on to form the wave and tidal industries, and perhaps the energy storage and electric vehicle industries.

There is also no harm in more people in the industry standing up and having their say. After all, we can’t let the vocal minority have it all their own way, can we?


* I still object to the tax rhetoric. Energy companies are privately owned, because the Government decided to sell them off. Private companies charge for their product, and reinvest some of their earnings in infrastructure and staff etc, with the rest becoming profit. If the government believes private enterprise alone will not support the necessary infrastructure then they agree subsidies with an industry, and renewables are far from alone in receiving them. While this does represent an investment of taxpayer’s money, it’s hardly a tax. Neither can the energy bills themselves be equated with a tax: it’s a price. If the speaker wants wholly subsidised energy with a fair, non-market driven cost to consumers then they should be discussing renationalisation. Building nuclear power/gas/coal power won’t significantly help, as they also require subsidies and investment. Back

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I’m not really a climate scientist (a physicist, since you ask), and all this talk of apocalyptic doom is a bit depressing. So here are some interesting things:

In my end of the woods, I’ve been doing some really time consuming and exhausting analysis work. It requires creativity, focus and technical knowledge, and came packaged with loads of data to go through and a tight deadline. Said deadline is tomorrow, but as it’s someone else’s job to check the numbers I’ve already worked out I feel like the pressure is off me a little now. Perhaps when it eases I’ll be seen back on twitter on occasion (@turbinetastic).

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One thing about windy weather is that it keeps wind farms in the news. It continues to amaze me how obvious newspapers can be in picking the stories that reflect the particular views they either hold themselves or expect their readers to hold.

Some recent pro-wind power headlines:

  • UK national grid glides through windy challenge (Guardian)
    A commentary on the challenge facing the national grid during the storms and the fact that power outages were due to equipment failures rather than an inability to react to unexpected wind variability on the part of the grid.
  • Weather ‘doubles’ UK wind farm output (BBC)
    Report that turbine capacity factors doubled during the storm compared to the more usually-reported 30% figure.
  • SSE wind power passes milestone (BBC)
    A report that energy company SSE has now installed more than 1GW of onshore wind power and has more onshore wind capacity than hydroelectric capacity.
  • Wind energy output up 18% in 2011 (Ecotricity)
    Ecotricity reports that its like-for-like wind generation is up 18% compared to 2010 in 2011. (Misleading, in my opinion*).

I particularly liked the first one, which struck me as a very thoughtful piece on the way that, despite the undeniable challenges it presents, our mostly-aging electricity network is actually coping with the variability of wind without blackouts. I suspect that this is mostly due to a lot of legs paddling furiously behind the scenes, and it’s nice to see their hard work getting a mention.

Some recent anti-wind power headlines:

Now, I am a firm believer in free speech, within the usually accepted limits of appropriateness and accuracy. Wind farms do not provide a “magic bullet” that will solve all our energy problems, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either deluded or trying to sell you one. Further, these are large, industrial machines which have to be clustered together on our hillsides — some people will not like them.

That’s all fine. What worries me is the lack of balance. We’re a nation of busy people and most of us are either time-limited or money-limited. Few of us are going to get out each morning and buy all the newspapers to get a balanced view of the pros and cons of each issue. Instead, we tend to buy the papers, watch the TV channels or visit the websites which most strongly reflect our existing views. And we visit them not to be challenged or in search of accuracy, in the main, but in search of confirmation of our existing bias. So those people who see the pre-wind propaganda will dismiss the anti-wind propaganda, and vice versa. If they even notice it at all.

If I have a point, it’s that I’d much rather live in a world where people are presented with facts, read them with an open mind and come to their own conclusion. Even if it means they disagree with me, that’s fine. Instead, we’ve set up a world in which people become further and further immersed in their own prejudices. There’s not much we can do about this, as far as I can see, but we should have our eyes open to it, at least. Especially when it’s our own prejudices we’re affirming.

* The Ecotricity article is misleading because it compares a year which will likely turn out to have been windier than average (2011) with one of the lowest wind speed years in recent history (2010). It’s basically presenting two extreme points on a graph and pretending there’s a useful message there. Sure, it’s probably true, but that doesn’t make it meaningful. (Back)

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