Littlejohn and renewable energy – both fueled by wind

I don’t normally blog about stupid Littlejohn columns – it’s a bit “dog bites man” – but today he’s written a piece about wind farms, and he’s really outdone himself on this one.

Here’s a quick rundown of the highlights.

At midday yesterday, wind power was contributing just 2.2 per cent of all the electricity in the National Grid. You might think that’s a pretty poor return on the billions of pounds spent already on Britain’s standing army of windmills.

In fact, for the amount of energy produced, onshore wind power is only slightly more expensive than coal, and less expensive than nuclear. Offshore wind is quite a bit more expensive, but hopefully this will come down as production gets more organised.

During the cold snap the turbines had to be heated to stop them freezing and were actually consuming more electricity than they generated.

Well, yes, but all power supply sources will stop working for one reason or another and fixing them will require energy. Wind is hardly unique in this. Over an entire year, a wind turbine of course generates more energy than it uses.

Even on a good day, they rarely work above a quarter of their theoretical capacity.

Well, no. On a good day (when the wind is around 15 metres per second, or a little over 30 mph), a wind turbine runs at 100% of its theoretical capacity – there’d be no point for the generator companies to spend money on extra capacity otherwise! Over a whole year – including days without wind – wind farms produce around 30% of their theoretical maximum power, but that’s a good thing. Imagine there was a wind turbine which ran at full capacity on an average day. What happens on especially windy days? The turbine would be unable to make use of this extra energy, and it would go to waste. Besides, no power source runs at full capacity, not that that really matters.

Britain’s 3,426 wind turbines produce no more electricity than a single, medium-sized gas-fired power station.

According to Renewable UK, Britain’s wind turbines have a maximum capacity of 5345 megawatts. Assuming they run about 30% of their maximum, that’s around 1600 megawatts generated on average.

Figures for gas power are a bit hard to come by, so I’m using the list of gas-fired power stations in England from Wikipedia, which I realise isn’t perfect. Nevertheless, the median capacity* of a gas power station is around 400 MW. Gas turbines work at 70-85% capacity, so a medium-sized gas power station actually generates an average of 280 to 340 MW. That means that in fact, Britain’s wind turbines are producing as much electricity as 5 gas power stations. Littlejohn really is talking rubbish here.

We are paying for all this through hidden charges which now make up a fifth of all gas and electricity bills. The average household has to fork out an extra £200 a year.

This figure comes from a piece the Mail ran the other day, based on the claims of climate change sceptic Benny Peiser, director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation think tank. When Full Fact looked at the figures Peiser was quoting, they found that green policies only add around £42 to the average fuel bill – around 4% of the the total cost. In other words, VAT has a greater effect than these “hidden charges”, which at any rate don’t just fund wind power but all sorts of schemes to increase energy efficiency and cut carbon dioxide emissions.

Earlier this year the National Grid was forced to pay £900,000 compensation to the owners of six wind farms which were forced to close down one especially gusty night — because they were producing too much electricity and there was no capacity to store it.

This is something called “transmission constraint“. The National Grid needs to keep the electricity supply extremely stable – if the voltage or frequency of the supply is too high or too low, it can damage electronic equipment. As a result, they sometimes need to force power stations to stop generating electricity or disconnect them from the grid. Naturally, this means the power station is not making money, so the National Grid pays them to cover the time when they’re not working. The National Grid doesn’t just do this with wind farms, it pays coal and gas power plants to shut down too.

Meanwhile, manufacturing industry faces a 70 per cent increase in its fuel bills — regardless of the level of world energy prices — because of a reckless levy on carbon emissions imposed by the Coalition’s tame racing driver. Some say he ran off with a lapsed lesbian and that he persuaded his ex-wife to take the rap for a speeding offence. All we know is: he’s called Chris Huhne.

Let’s ignore the terrible attempt at a Top Gear reference, and the complete misunderstanding of bisexuality (going out with a man doesn’t make a bisexual woman a “lapsed lesbian” any more than eating a salad makes me a “lapsed meat-eater”), and focus on the 70% increase. This, again, comes from Benny Peiser, and refers to something called the Climate Change Levy. Supposedly, the government “already admits that scheduled increases in the Climate Change Levy will see business power bills increasing by 70 per cent by 2020”, which is odd since the levy only increases with inflation (Edit: Thanks to knightofthedropdowntable in the comments, who points out that it’s been frozen for 2 years – in other words, against inflation it’s gone down). In real terms, the CCL has no real effect on bills in 2020 (see Chart 4). There will be an increase in the energy bills of large business when you take all policies into account, but the rise due to climate change policies is more like 10% – nowhere near the 70% claimed.

Why should Britain have the world’s toughest targets for cutting carbon emissions, especially when China is opening a new coal-fired power station every week?

I think you just answered your own question there, Richard! In fact, while its environmental policies aren’t great, China is actually the largest producer of wind power in the world. So much for wind power killing manufacturing.

Politicians are putting our economic recovery at risk by posturing over ‘global warming’ and dragging their feet over the obvious and urgent solution of building more clean, safe nuclear power stations.

There are plenty of good arguments for nuclear power, but if Littlejohn objects to the government subsidising wind power, I’d hate to think what he makes of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority’s £2.8 billion per year budget. Nice trick putting “global warming” in quotes, by the way.

So there you have it. Rubbish from start to finish. What a shock. But then, the reason Richard really dislikes wind power becomes obvious at the end…

My wife recently went for lunch in a Norfolk hotel which was overrun with Scandinavian technicians, living high on the hog, plonking offshore wind farms in the Wash and the North Sea.

I guess it’s nice to see that Littlejohn uses the same rhetoric – “overrun”, “living high on the hog” – whether he’s describing rich immigrants or poor ones. Shows a certain internal consistency, if nothing else.

* The median is a simple type of average. If you list all the power stations in order of their capacity, the median value is the one in the middle. As far as I can tell, that’s the best way to work out what’s meant by a “medium-sized gas-fired power station”.

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  1. #1 by A on Saturday, 11th June 2011 - 10:26 UTC

    “…the obvious and urgent solution of building more clean, safe nuclear power stations.”

    It’s as if Fukushima Daiichi never overheated…

  2. #2 by Crispin Fisher on Saturday, 11th June 2011 - 11:32 UTC

    His article gets off to a bad start when he tries to make out that the secret stealth tax has only been revealed this week. The DM actually produced an article about the ‘green tax’ in July 2009 when then Energy Secretary Ed Miliband visited a factory in Guildford. So LittleJohn is basically doing his bit for the environment by recycling old news.

  3. #3 by knightofthedropdowntable on Monday, 13th June 2011 - 11:48 UTC

    It’s everything you could expect from a Littlejohn article, using misleading garbage to tie together three of his latest pet hates when they are completely unrelated. The Carbon Reduction Commitment scheme (which may be what he is moaning about as it has only just started) was set up in 2007, and the Climate Change Levy you mentioned was introduced in 2001! Cutting edge news you have there, Richard – will you be warning us about the Y2K bug next? Also, as the CCL rate was held for two years at 0.47 p/kWh, and having gone up in April is now going back down to 0.47 next April, it is now well under inflation. Sadly, I don’t think the Mail will run with ‘Carbon taxes will reduce bills in real terms’ as a snappy headline…

    As for wind and nuclear, wind was at a constant 6% of the UK’s electricty for at least a week when I checked at the beginning of the month, and is running at 3.25% at this moment (I can link the site with this data on if you want, though it has lots of information that will be meaningless to most people). Nuclear runs at 15-25% depending on the total demand, which isn’t much better for the amount of investment it requires, and its load factor is only 70% compared to the 25-30% of wind isn’t great. Add to that the fact that your nuclear power stations consume fuel regardless of whether they are generating electricity (have you ever tried switching off radioactive decay?), and nuclear looks really terrible as an option, which surprises me as I thought I was fairly neutral about nuclear until I wrote this post. Well done Richard, you have converted me AWAY from nuclear power! *applauds*

    • #4 by atomicspin on Monday, 13th June 2011 - 13:08 UTC

      Yeah. In terms how much energy you get for each pound invested (PDF, appendix B), new build nuclear (£97 per MWh) is currently a worse deal than onshore wind (£88 per MWh) – though “green” coal is even more expensive than either. I mean, I’m fairly strongly pro-nuclear, at least for dealing with baseload demand, but I really hate when people (*cough*Littlejohn*cough*Delingpole*cough*) try to paint nuclear power as the magic bullet that will solve everything.

  4. #5 by knightofthedropdowntable on Monday, 13th June 2011 - 16:42 UTC

    That is one advantage of nuclear, it is steady as a rock for baseload demand, but that’s only because it takes days to switch them off (and back on), and the fuel is always decaying so there’s no point. It also emits less carbon directly, but you get nuclear waste instead. What astounds me is that these are the only two advantages to nuclear, but Delingpole et al try to argue for nuclear without using them! ‘Nuclear’s more expensive to build, more expensive to maintain and much more dangerous – so obviously we should use it.’

    Renewables don’t really make a good alternative for UK baseload, but the more I spend in this industry the better I think Europe would do with a unified Grid. We will need some much heftier cables across the Channel (3MW isn’t going to cut it), but as each country’s demand will peak at a slightly different time Europe as a whole will have a much flatter demand. Instead of each country trying to cope with the demand being 50% higher for one hour, Europe’s demand will rise as the Eastern countries enter the evening, then flatten out until Spain and Portugal’s demand drops 6 hours later. Also, with wind turbines all across Europe linked together, you are more likely to get steady power from at least some of it, as it’s bound to be windy somewhere.

  5. #6 by Iain on Tuesday, 14th June 2011 - 19:26 UTC

    As much as I like to believe anything the odious and mendacious twerp Littlejohn says doesn’t merit any attention whatsoever, good job in tearing down his ridiculous, uninformed opinions on this issue.

    If you’re looking for figures on power stations – and UK energy stats in general – there is wealth of information in the annual DUKES reports (www.decc.gov.uk/en/content/cms/statistics/publications/dukes/dukes.aspx). At the moment the 2010 report on 2009’s figures is the latest published, but I understand preliminary reports for 2010 stats are also available. Specifically, if you look at p.143 in Ch5 (Table 5.11) of the 2010 report it gives a breakdown of UK power plants with ratings.

    In a similar vein, the Centre for Sustainable Energy recently released a document that discusses, in a pretty balanced way, the common misconceptions and canards that are spouted about wind energy (www.cse.org.uk/news/view/1535). It covers, amongst other things, issues to do with energy balance, capacity (load) factors and intermittent electricity generation.

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