Wind farm operators are on course to earn up to £10 million this year for turning off their turbines.
Official figures disclosed that 17 operators were paid almost £7 million for shutting down their farms on almost 40 occasions between January and mid-September. Continuing to make payments at that rate would lead to householders paying out £9.9 million in 2011 for operators to disconnect their turbines from the National Grid.
The scale of the payments triggered a review of the rules on so-called constraint payments. The payments are made when too much electricity floods the grid, with the network unable to absorb any excess power generated. The money is ultimately added on to household bills and paid for by consumers.
Last year, only £176,788 of such payments were made, but changes in the way the National Grid, which supplies energy to retail companies, “balances” the electricity network have meant a huge expansion in their use.
The rules meant that some renewable energy companies were paid more to switch off their turbines than they would have received from ordinary operations.
In September, it was disclosed that £1.2 million would go to a Norwegian company that owned 60 turbines in the Scottish Borders, thanks to a period of unusually high wind during the spring. Because of the rising cost, the National Grid “balancing” system could now be overhauled to reduce the use of constraint payments.
Constraint payments have added to political and public hostility to onshore wind farms.
A growing number of Conservative MPs are opposed to Coalition plans to increase the number of wind turbines. Ministers say Britain needs more “renewable” energy generation to reduce the dependence on gas imported from Russia and the Middle East.
Chris Heaton Harris, a Conservative MP, said the unpopularity of wind farms was eroding support for all sorts of renewable power. “I know from my mailbag and from the number of emails I receive every day on the matter that people are turning against renewables of just about every type because wind turbines are, among other things, so badly sold,” he said.
“Onshore wind generation requires a 100 per cent back-up of carbon-burning technology or nuclear energy, should the wind not blow, and in addition to the devastation of the visual environment there are the problems of noise and flicker. They are the wrong renewables choice.”
The turbine industry says that constraint payments are a sign of problems with the National Grid, and not the turbines themselves. Charles Hendry, an energy minister, confirmed the latest payments, and said the system the National Grid used to calculate the fees was being reviewed.
“Reducing or increasing the output of generators is a normal part of National Grid’s role to balance supply and demand, and it will pick the most cost-effective way to deliver what is required,” he said.
“However, the recent requirement to use wind farms to manage the system has raised questions as to whether the current market-wide balancing arrangements for wind are appropriate.
“National Grid has launched a consultation to seek views on the issues involved.”