Matt Ridley has written an excellent article in this week’s Spectator about the bizarre rebellion within the Conservative Parliamentary Party whereby various prominent MPs, including Boris Johnson, Theresa May and Michael Gove, are demanding an end to the ban on on-shore wind farms on the grounds that it is a reliable source of sustainable energy that is cheap and getting cheaper. This is particularly urgent, the rebels argue, given the impact of the war in Ukraine on gas prices.
Why is the rebellion bizarre? Let Matt count the ways.
There is no ban on wind farms – it is actually a bog-standard planning requirement that they be confined to areas designated for that purpose and with community support. Nor do they offer a cheap solution: the costs are high and rising. In fact, relying on the wind for power would guarantee that electricity is expensive for ever, because wind’s unreliability poisons the market, driving up the price of gas-fired power too.
This week the prices offered to anybody – anybody! – who could guarantee to supply power on the chilly, windless evening of 29 November shot up briefly to about £1,100 per megawatt-hour (MWh), more than ten times the normal rate. Demand was forecast to peak at 41.2 gigawatts, supply at 40.7. In the words of Mr Micawber: result, misery. At such a price, enough supply did indeed come out of the woodwork, but not from the wind industry, which can’t just turn on the wind when it wants. Growing reliance on unreliable wind has left Britain paying sky-high prices on still, cold days. Remember when the secretary of state for business used to pose for the cameras while blowing up old coal power stations? They would be handy this winter.
The Ukraine war has driven gas prices higher, but, says Andrew Montford of Net Zero Watch, it would be daft to assume that this is a permanent state of affairs and design a policy on the assumption that wind will be cheaper than gas in the future.
Claims that onshore wind is cheap come thick and fast from politicians in thrall to the most well oiled of crony-capitalist industries, the wind merchants. The claims are not supported by the accounts of onshore wind farms, which indicate a breakeven cost of around £80/MWh for the very cheapest farms. And this, note, is for the efficient wind farms with 200-metre turbines (twice the typical height), located in the windiest sites and spaced at least 1,200 metres apart so they don’t they steal each other’s wind. The cost estimate doesn’t even count the need to carefully manage backup power generation for those times and places where the wind is not blowing hard enough, or blowing too hard. Nor does it count the cost of building and running transmission lines from remote wind farms to places where people actually live.
Wind farm accounts also show that this cost is rising, not falling, presumably due to such grid constraints, the fact that the best sites have gone, and the rising costs of steel, concrete, copper and neodymium making new machines pricier. Yet even £80/MWh is nearly double the cost of gas-fired power at the long-term average price of gas.
But that is if gas is allowed to supply electricity continuously without much interruption. If you keep telling gas power stations to switch off because the wind is blowing, as we do, then they will have to (and do) charge more to cover the inefficiency of heating up and cooling down the gas turbines. The more wind we add, the higher the price of gas-fired power. In this way, wind locks in high electricity prices, hastening the deindustrialisation of Britain, or what’s left of it.
Worth reading in full.