Renewable Energy Foundation

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Cheltenham Science Festival Wind Power Debate

The following address was given by John Constable in Wind Power: The Great Debate on the 13th of June 2012 at the Cheltenham Science Festival, an event held in conjunction with the Royal Academy of Engineering. The motion under consideration was that: “This house believes that Britain should be a fan of wind energy”.

John Constable and the journalist Ben Pile spoke against, while the wind industry consultant Andrew Garrad, Jonathon Porritt, supported the motion. The event was chaired by writer and broadcaster Vivienne Parry.A show of hands at before the debate suggested that about 60% supported the motion, and this was unchanged at the conclusion.

1. We are often told that when thinking about wind power we need to see the ‘big picture’. I agree. Let’s do that. What does the big picture tell us?

2. It tells us that the climate change mitigation agenda has already failed. Global emissions have risen by 45% since 1990. Chinese emissions have almost tripled since that year, and now exceed those of the United States, which have themselves grown by 20% over the same period.

3. The trend is upwards. The emissions reductions agenda has failed. Who is to blame?

4. Jonathon is to blame, as is the green movement generally, for bullying OECD governments into adopting legal mandates for low carbon solutions that are technically primitive and consequently ludicrously expensive.

5. The result is that the example of the low carbon economy that we present to the world is deeply unattractive, and we have persuaded nobody, least of all our own populations, who are now waking up to the fact that the uptake of renewables, originally promised to us as a grass roots and small is beautiful affair, has become a bun-fight between target driven government and subsidy hunting corporates, with venture capital feasting in the space between. And there’s Jonathan and his friends, of course, cheering it all on from the margins.

6. Think about the costs, and lets think locally. In between 2002 and 2011 the UK consumer shelled out £7.3 billion in income support for renewable electricity alone, and the annual cost is currently about £1.5 billion a year and climbing rapidly.

7. To drive investment to meet our targets we will have to subsidise the renewable electricity to the tune of about £8 billion a year in 2020, and for next twenty years. A modest target for renewable heat in the UK will cost £2 billion in subsidies. These sums would be unaffordable in good times, and are completely so in the present situation. No wonder that the Treasury is seeking to lift this burden from domestic households and businesses.

8. Wind power is a key element in the mess that the green movement has made of the climate change agenda because the wind industry offered  rapid deployment at scale, in spite of its drawbacks it had one significant merit for the green NGOS; it was not nuclear. This was essentially a negative enthusiasm. Wind was good because it was not nuclear.

9. But wind requires heavy income support subsidy, 50% of the income of an onshore wind farm is subsidy, 66% of an offshore site. They’re just not ready. Wind also requires indirect subsidy in the sense that somebody else has to pay for the additional grid management costs that it imposes, for network expansion, and the provision of conventional support capacity to meet errors in the wind forecast and to guarantee security of supply on a cold, windless, winter afternoon.

10. The net result is extremely expensive emissions savings. Even at a generous estimate onshore wind costs about £90 of subsidy per tonne of CO2. Offshore wind is even worse, £180 a tonne, in comparison to EU ETS costs at under €10/tCO2. When system costs are taken into account these wind costs, already absurd, can only rise.

11. £90 a tonne is not in any sense a viable climate change policy, it’s a vanity project, and unsurprisingly it has failed at the international level, and is now failing in a Europe that can no longer afford such gestures.

12. So, between them, naïve enthusiasts and cynical speculators have set back the cause of clean energy some twenty years. Jonathon we can forgive; he meant well; but for the wind industry magnates, no apology will ever be sufficient.


John Constable