Wednesday, July 11

Why Chris Heaton-Harris is Wrong about Wind Farms

Chris Heaton-Harris is a British MP representing Daventry, UK. He has recently been conducting a campaign against onshore wind farms across the UK. Caroline Dineage the local MP representing Gosport has been backing Chris Heaton and his campaign. During a radio broadcast on BBC Radio 4, The Today Programme (5th July 2012), Heaton made a number of statements about UK energy use and policy that were incorrect.

The statements are listed below (in italics) and were transcribed from the show. Each claim is addressed individually:

  1. We will hit our (UK) 2020 targets later this year (2012).

The 2009 Renewable Energy Directive set a target of 15% for the amount of renewable energy that should be in use in the UK by 2020. This is a huge challenge and it should be pointed out that this target is for all energy, excluding transport. So where has Heaton gone wrong?

Well if we look at the latest statistics for UK energy we find that renewables account for 11.1% of electricity used in Q1 of 2012. However this figure does not include other energy uses, such as gas used for heating. This of course is where Heaton is misleading, because the EU directive includes all energy used not just electricity. In order to prove his point Heaton has only used part of the data, once other energy sources are included, then renewables represent a smaller proportion (3.8% in 2011) of final energy consumption. In fact it is likely that renewable electricity generation will probably need to be about 30% of electricity in order to fulfil the 15% overall target.

It should be pointed out that because we are dealing with climate change and carbon emissions, not aspirations for renewable energy, the targets set by the EU for 2020 are just a start. So it would be wrong to imply that once the 2020 target is reached, that the UK would never have to do more with the energy supply. The impression Mr Heaton gives is that the target is all there is.

  1. DECC have set 13GW (wind energy capacity), we have 5GW built, 6GW through the planning ‘gate’, 8GW going through planning at the moment. Which proves the level of subsidy is way to high.

During this part of the discussion neither Mr Heaton nor the interviewer made it clear that the figures discussed included offshore wind energy targets. These targets are generally greater than the onshore wind energy targets.

One of Mr Heatons objections to wind energy is that it is too expensive, but given offshore wind is more expensive, his objection would suggest he doesn’t like offshore wind energy either. The logical conclusion from this is that he doesn’t want the renewables targets to be met at all, since realistically offshore wind must be installed to meet the 2020 UK target.

DECC figures for 2011 are:

Offshore wind = 1.83GW
Onshore wind = 4.65GW
Total = 6.48GW

So roughly speaking Heaton is correct. However the vast majority of planned additional capacity is for offshore wind, which is where most future wind projects will be. Because his first claim is incorrect (that we have nearly met EU targets), the level of subsidy is not to high at all if we are going to achieve 15%. Reducing Renewable Obligation levels for onshore wind farms drastically now would mean we would struggle to meet the 15% even with more offshore projects coming online.

  1. Lot’s of these companies are not interested in renewable energy; they are interested in harvesting a subsidy.

Heaton is making an assumption here. Many of the companies he is possibly referring to, started in the renewable energy business before subsidies were available. The whole point of the subsidies is to achieve carbon emission reductions, they wouldn’t be installing wind farms if the farms didn’t reduced carbon emissions and there is plenty of research that shows renewable energy reduces carbon emissions. Heaton is also stating an obvious fact here and making it sound bad.  Renewable Obligations are financial incentives to install renewables so does it matter if a company ‘believes’ in the installation of renewables?
The primary outcome is emissions reductions, the morals of the companies isn’t a factor in achieving a target. Although if they were more interested in installing renewables one would assume they would install more turbines (like Ecotricity), not less. So logically the companies that are allegedly after subsidies and aren’t interested in renewable energy are probably installing fewer turbines!

  1. The subsidy doesn’t change until April 2013 and if they (wind farm applications) are through the planning gate they can get constructed very quickly.

(The implication being that if they (6GW of turbines) are constructed and connected to the grid before April 2013, they will get the current subsidy)

This is just an extension to the Heaton fallacy - that we will meet our renewables targets in a few months. As stated previously his assumption only takes into account electricity, as soon as you include other energy sources (a requirement of the 2009 directive and embedded in UK law), we see we have a long way to go yet to achieve 15% renewables.

  1. We have picked the wrong technology, wind is intermittent, and if it’s not blowing it’s not going to achieve anything.

Well the rain is intermittent; does Mr Heaton suggest that we should not drink water or use it to wash?
Plants seem to be quite successful at utilising the wind yet apparently us humans are just not brainy enough??
The fact is, Mr Heaton is discussing an engineering problem and we wouldn’t have the economy we have today without a whole string of engineers across history solving the unsolvable. Heaton is relegating human ingenuity to the rubbish heap and such attitudes are typical of the ‘conservative’ business types wanting to avoid risk.

  1. Two Decembers ago we had our coldest December on record and we had a massive anti-cyclone above us and the wind didn’t blow and the lovely turbines didn’t turn and no energy was produced.

Even if the wind didn’t blow, carbon emissions over a 12-month period drop because wind farms replace high carbon energy sources when the wind does blow! The issue of no wind or intermittent wind just means that the grid has to cope with this new situation.

It is an engineering issue; there are plenty of issues like this related to fault tolerance that have been solved over many decades, so adding a new one doesn’t mean we need to give up. Why should we give up, if previous great engineers didn’t also give up with similar problems?

Heaton is kicking the teeth of the engineering and systems professions, by believing that they are not competent to devise methods of dealing with such scenarios.

As well as the idea of smart grids, various companies are developing new methods to store energy so that when there is plenty of wind, some of the energy can be stored and used when the wind isn’t blowing so hard. For example, Isentropic have developed a system that is as cheap and efficient as hydroelectric pumped storage systems. The first Isentropic system is to be installed soon at a Midlands substation.

  1. Wind energy doesn’t help energy security.

You have to question if there ever has been energy security!
Fossil fuels are not secure because they are a finite resource and governments need to plan for the time when we have none left. Nuclear (fission) energy isn’t secure in the UK because the fuel has to be imported and there is always a risk of an accident.

It should also be pointed out that large power stations are at more risk of attack than distributed renewables such as wind turbines.

Which is easier to bomb?
A large power station in the middle of the countryside?
Or tens of thousands of wind turbines, solar panels and other systems, evenly distributed across the nation?

Basically Heaton doesn’t understand security and it is no coincidence that the military have a new interest in renewables in combat zones, because they reduce the dependency on potentially long supply lines for energy. The same principle applies to wind energy and other renewables, producing energy locally reduces dependency on our supply lines from foreign nations.

  1. What the subsidy does is provide £500 million to rich land owners, the big six energy companies to produce expensive energy. This reduces the chances of growth and pushes thousands of people into fuel poverty.

Energy is getting more expensive and it will continue to get more expensive over long time scales no matter what false economics and spin you use regarding market prices and the anti-science called economics. However the costs of wind energy are coming down all the time and again engineering is giving us cost effective ways in other areas of development.
Can todays economic problems be blamed on wind turbines?
Sounds like a scape goat to me for failed ecomomics and politics practiced by the main political parties. More investment in green tech would boost long term growth, rather than endanger it. Plus of course current flooding and attrocious weather in the UK is an indicator of massive costs to home owners and businesses if we do not cut carbon emissions.

  1. In the US as we speak energy prices are collapsing, and they are going to hit their carbon emission targets, through a game changer, shale gas.

The simple fact is that the US does not have any carbon emission targets. The only way Heaton could make such a claim is by imagining some fictional US carbon emissions target.
Plus shale gas or any gas does little to reduce carbon emissions over the longer term. It may slow things down a bit and prolong the upward trend in global temperatures by reducing the steepness of the temperature curve. But the fact is CO2 is a long lasting green house gas, so eventually we will hit the same high temperatures using gas as we would using coal and oil.

  1. I would prefer to spend the money we are spending on onshore wind on projects like installing CHP boilers in all social housing projects.

Heaton justifies his view here with the faulty belief that we will hit our renewable energy targets in the next few months, but as pointed out previously, he has cherry picked data and excluded the full range of energy sources consumed (see claim/comment 1. above). Although micro CHP in homes is useful, there is no way it is ever going to make the same impact on carbon emissions as renewable energy.

2009 Renewable Energy Directive:

2012 DECC bulletin:

Critique of the Stuart Young report:

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