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Matt Ridley: Are Those White Elephants In The Water?

Matt Ridley, The Times

Pride in our offshore wind farms is wildly misplaced. They are costlier than all other forms of energy


Here’s a short quiz. Question One: which source of energy is allowed to charge the highest price for its electricity? Question Two: which source of energy is expected to receive the greatest capital expenditure over the next seven years? The answer to both questions is offshore wind.

Offshore wind farms are the elephant in the energy debate. Today, the energy department estimates that electricity prices are 17 per cent higher as the result of green policies and that this will rise to 33 per cent by 2020 or 44 per cent if gas prices fall, as many expect. Offshore wind is the single biggest contributor to that rise. Of the £15 billion a year that the Renewable Energy Foundation thinks consumers are going to be paying in total green imposts by 2020, the bulk will go to support offshore wind.

Britain is a proud leader in offshore wind. “The UK has more offshore wind installed than the rest of the world combined and we have ambitious plans for the future,” says Ed Davey, the Energy Secretary. I wonder why that is. Could it be that other countries have looked at the technology and decided that it’s far too costly? George Osborne says he does not want Britain out ahead on green energy. He should take a long hard look at why we are so far out ahead on this extravagant folly.

Currently we get under 3 per cent of our electricity from offshore wind, or less than 0.5 per cent of our total energy. If Mr Davey’s ambitions are realised and 20 per cent of our electricity comes from offshore wind in 2020, then we will need 20 gigawatts of capacity because wind turbines, even at sea, operate at less than 40 per cent of capacity. That’s about six times what we have today and the cost of building it would be greater than the investment in nuclear energy over the period.

On the face of it, sticking wind turbines in the sea sounds like a great wheeze. There’s no need to tangle with turbulent parish councils worried about their views, or to bribe landowners with annual payments. The wind blows a little more reliably and strongly. But the engineering problems have proved daunting. Three years ago the cement grouting began to dissolve on more than half of all Europe’s offshore turbines, leading the turbines to move on their foundations. This necessitated hefty repairs and redesign. The urgency of meeting political targets was partly to blame. “There is an alarming asymmetry between construction risks and the number of players who can manage these risks effectively,” says one insider.

As a result, costs have not fallen as expected. The Government had set a target of cutting the price it offered to pay for offshore wind power to “only” double the wholesale price, but it quietly abandoned that ambition this summer when it announced that the “strike price” for offshore wind would drop only a little. Connecting cables and transformers, dealing with corrosion, losing days to seasickness, stopping pile-driving during the season when it might upset porpoises — these have all proved more challenging than expected and have added to the costs and delays. Many in the industry think that the lifespan of a turbine in the North Sea is going to be a lot shorter than the hoped-for 25 years. One study by Gordon Hughes of Edinburgh University found that the operating efficiency of Danish offshore wind farms dropped from 39 per cent to 15 per cent after ten years. Certainly, Britain’s oldest offshore wind farm — off Blyth in Northumberland — has spent a good part of its first 12 years out of action.

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