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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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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’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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