Monday, 10 January 2011

Rambling thoughts on wind and power generation, part 2

A turbine blade outside the Vestas factory on the Isle of Wight
In part 1 I discussed whether the environmental benefits of wind power generation were worth the environmental disadvantages. I thought that I would try and find some figures for the efficiency of wind power, especially in comparison with the environmentalist's hated figure, nuclear.

Many people claim that wind power is inefficient; after all, it is obviously at the whim of the wind, and no power can be generated when there is no wind.

So how bad is the situation? I have read many claims over the years, either stating that they are very efficient or terribly inefficient; naturally enough, environmentalists tend towards the former.

So what is the truth? A letter in issue 1278 of Private Eye gave me a useful pointer. A company called Elexon monitors the power usage in Britain. Its day-by-day reports  can be found at (note, this website does not seem to work in Chrome, but works in IE 8). Scroll down the page to 'Peak Wind Generation Forecast'.

There is a great deal of interesting information on this page, but one thing that stands out is the variability of power generated by the wind farms metered by Elexon. They currently estimate that 2.4GW of power can be generated by such wind farms; currently (07/01) 406MW, or one sixth of the installed capacity, is estimated as being generated. Tomorrow it should be 1263 MW, or one half of installed capacity.

As can be seen, these figures are risible.

It should be remembered that whilst the maximum installed capacity of 2.4 GW is double the 1.2GW generated by the Sizewell B power station, the actual power generated can be far less. Think about this for a moment: *all* the installed wind power in the country can generate only double what one of our nuclear power stations generate. Think of the 3,000 wind turbines on land and out at sea, and realise how there is no chance of wind providing anything near all of our power.

So what about cost? Sizewell B cost £2 billion to build, and was designed to produce power at about 8 pence per kWh, including construction costs. It is believed that modern designs will allow the costs of nuclear power to be reduced significantly.

Modern designs are estimated to cost 2.3 pence per kWh, including decommissioning costs. In comparison, wind power is estimated to cost 3.7pence per kWh for onshore wind and 5.5 pence per kWh for offshore wind. Such figures should always be taken with a pinch of salt as the devil is truly in the details, but it shows the problem of wind power. Not only can we not generate enough power using wind, but the power we do generate is massively costly.

The sad thing is that successive governments have seen fit to reduce the skillsets available in this country to the degree that we will need to buy nuclear reactor designs from other countries. The situation is not much better in respect to wind power, where the majority of turbines are being constructed abroad. (*)

The answer seems obvious to me: nuclear is far better, if only because of the sheer reliability of its base-load generation. The French realise this, yet we are going down the road towards installing as much wind power as possible. In my opinion this is a mistake that British consumers will pay for in the future.

The Vestas R&D facility under construction
(*) There was a great deal of fuss in the media when Vestas closed down their factory making turbine blades on the Isle of Wight last year. Imagine my surprise when I walked beside the Medina River last week and found a truly massive new building being built by... Vestas. It is part of a £50 million research and development complex. Although it will not employ as many people as the old manufacturing plant, it surely is a welcome development.

The scale of the building was quite something to behold.


Alan Sloman said...

Thanks for doing all that research David - It is pretty miserable, isn't it?

DeepestBlue2 said...

I'm having a bit of trouble with your final statements as well as some of the bits used to come to the them. The Nuclear plant you reference cost 8 pence per kWh to build. You state wind generation costs between 3.7 and 5.5 pence per. And yet somehow, that range is massively costly by comparison? What price do you put on the nuclear waste disposal? Or the fact that there is no waste to dispose of with wind power generation? I am not claiming wind can alone produce all of the power we need. But if you can reduce the power created by other less friendly means, doesn't that benefit all of us? Just something to think about.

Thanks for the research.


David Cotton said...

Hi Alan,

Yep, it's miserable. We're in a headlong rush to a solution that won't work; i.e. it is no solution.

Hi DeepestBlue2,

I did say that cost figures have to be taken with a pinch of salt, but I will try and explain. The 8p/kWh for Sizewell B and includes first-of-kind costs (AFAICR Sizewell B was to be the first of many reactors of the same design, but no more were ever built, mainly due to the anti-nuclear noise created by environmentalists). I included the costs as it was the last large reactor built in the UK, and is a good, known benchmark. Note that without first-of-kind costs the price was 6p per kWh.

But later I say nuclear costs 2.3p per kWh. That is from the report linked to and, yes, it includes the cost of decommissioning.

Modern nuclear reactor designs tend to be much smaller than older ones, and can be made in a modular form. May I point you at the Toshiba 4S series - Many other companies are working on - or have built - other modern designs.

As for: "there is no waste to dispose of with wind power generation..." Anyone who goes into the hills near a windfarm will disagree. There are not just the turbines but haul roads and power lines, often through delicate sites. I am guessing you are an environmentalist - are you happy to leave vast tracts of land scarred in this manner? If not, where can I find wind power's costs for putting the land right again afterwards? Are the funds held in an escrow account?

Additionally, the reason we do not have a solution for the nuclear waste issue is because environmentalists will not let us have one! They block every proposal. This has led to a political environment where no government wants to touch the issue for fear of inducing the wrath of the automatic naysayers.

Remember, the amount of high-level waste created by all Britain's nuclear reactors and weapons research over fifty years amounts to just 650 cubic metres ( That is tiny, especially when compared to the vast amounts of flyash created by coal stations, much of which contains concentrated heavy metals and other pollutants. As a comparison, York Minster has a volume of 140,000 cubic metres (note: I am not saying that we should store the waste in cathedrals!)

In addition, much of the medium- and low-level waste that needs to be stored comes from other sources, such as hospitals (actually, environmentalists need to answer the many questions about the availability of medical isotopes).

"But if you can reduce the power created by other less friendly means, doesn't that benefit all of us?"

The problem with wind power is that it is intermittent and cannot be relied upon. Therefore you need baseload generation capabilities just in case the wind power fails. This alone negates much of the usefulness of wind - even if the wind is blowing, you still need to have large power plants available to create the necessary power at the flick of a switch.

The prime issue is facing the country is ensuring that we have enough energy. We have tried to reduce consumption since the oil crisis, yet after nearly forty years usage creeps inexorably upwards. The evidence shows that the majority of people like to think green, but will only do so if it does not effect their lives. They want a bigger house. They want a powerful car. They want the latest gadget. They want the foreign holiday. Increased efficiency (and this is somewhere we have made progress) will not offset this.