How clean or green is wind power? Setting the record straight
A recent article in the Spectator, by Matt Ridley, has challenged the importance of wind energy in the national and global energy mix, dismissing it as irrelevant and saying that it causes greater environmental damage than we are willing to acknowledge.
The author’s initial source is a report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) which states that wind energy contributed 0.46 per cent of global energy consumption in 2014. Although this is true, the conclusion that wind energy is therefore trivial to the point of irrelevance is not accurate. Wind energy primarily inputs into the electricity sector. Over the past year, it has provided around 11 per cent of the UK’s electricity and it met 10.4 per cent of the EU’s electricity demand in 2016, up from two per cent in 2005. This is no mean feat.
On cost alone wind is worth pursuing
Electricity only constitutes 20 per cent of the UK’s final energy consumption, the rest driven by heat, transport and other industrial processes, which currently does require vast amounts of fossil fuels. But to suggest that wind cannot meet all this demand and is not worth pursuing is disingenuous. Onshore wind energy is now one of the cheapest sources of energy in the UK and the world, competing with fossil fuels without subsidy. Offshore wind has already shown a spectacular drop in costs, falling from over £150/MWh in 2010 to current estimations of £85/MWh, giving nuclear energy a run for its money. This dramatic drop in prices, coupled with obligations to reduce our carbon emissions, is disrupting the energy sector resulting in four important changes to the global energy system:
- The electrification of transport and heat sectors.
- Increased flexibility of the power sector to handle variable wind and other forms of renewable energy.
- A shift towards a more distributed and decentralised power system.
- Changing the economics of fossil fuels and making them increasingly uncompetitive with renewable energy.
The emerging system will increasingly rely on wind, solar and battery storage to provide clean electricity on demand.
Out of date assumptions
Matt Ridley’s wind technology comparisons are also out of date: there is a consistent mention of 2MW turbines, but these are last generation technology. Newer 3MW turbines in Spain have just won an auction at €43/MWh (£36.80), which is 15 per cent cheaper than the UK’s wholesale price over the past year, a price that only covers the running cost of old gas and coal plants, not the cost to build new ones. And offshore wind turbines are now four times larger at 8MW, with some even going up to 15MW, meaning they deliver more for less and with reduced land use worries.
The author seems to suggest that gas alone can solve our climate challenge while meeting our energy needs. But turning off all the world’s coal plants and replacing them with gas would only cut global emissions by ten per cent. Although that is still worth doing, and gas has a useful transitional role in some places, why would we pay more for dirtier energy when renewables are becoming cheaper than gas plants?
Another charge is the environmental and resource impact of wind power, claiming that coal, steel, cement and other raw materials embedded in its supply chain makes it ‘unclean’. This is not a new insight and it is indeed true that wind energy comes with its own set of externalities that need to be factored in. It is important to do a comprehensive cost benefit analysis of wind energy, but that should be done in comparison with other options, like gas, which Ridley suggests we double down on. Such studies have been done and have shown that wind power has net positive benefits on human health and climate as opposed to natural gas which has a net negative impact.
Wind industry generates skilled employment
The fact of wind turbines using steel, cement or carbon fibre isn’t always a bad thing: in the UK, the skilled manufacturing required to make wind turbines provides high quality, well paid jobs outside south east England. Globally, the wind industry employed 1.1 million people in 2015. And, because wind turbines displace carbon emissions from fossil fuels, they pay back the carbon cost of their manufacture in less than a year. We also know that there are ways to decarbonise steel production: our own analysis shows that the UK could have a competitive steel industry based on recycled steel, made with clean electricity instead of dirty coal. Or we could use carbon capture and storage to allow steel to be made with very low emissions.
The impact of wind farms on migratory birds is also important and being discussed, as I write, at the UN climate conference in Germany. But the resolution being proposed doesn’t appear to be a blanket ban on wind turbines but, instead, to find adequate technological solutions that can minimise the dangers posed to the natural world. For instance, enabling wind turbines to turn off within minutes or using moving deflectors that avoid collision with birds. Considerations have to be made at the planning stage through strategic spatial mapping that informs the location of wind turbines to minimize the impact on local ecologies.
It is important for the wind industry or anybody in the energy sector not to rest on their laurels. Decarbonising the existing power sector is a significant but, ultimately, a small part of the energy transition necessary to address our climate challenges. But, if the direction in which the global energy industry is moving offers any indication, wind and other forms of renewable energy will be at the very heart of it.
[Text in paragraph eight updated, 22 May 2017]