John Etherington The Wind Farm Scam. An Ecologist’s Evaluation. Stacey International, London, 2009. 198 pp. £17.95 ISBN: 978 1905299 83 6
The mountains of Powys and Cardiganshire carry what from a distance look like a Golgotha of gibbets. –-Simon Jenkins, The Times, 15 February 2002.
It is ironic that one of the greatest threats to the countryside and coastline of Britain now comes from the Greens. Their dominance, as all three main political parties claim green credentials, has led to a consensus that we must be seen to do something about global warming whether it is necessary, whether it works or not and whatever we sacrifice in the process. As John Etherington relates in his excellent book, this consensus has given validity to an otherwise dubious source of energy, wind power, with tragic consequences. We are destroying our landscapes and coastlines with a monstrous army of wind turbines, just as the Danes, the main pioneers of wind technology, seem largely to have decided to pull out of it. Basically, the turbines are simply not fit for purpose and depend on back-up from conventionally-produced electricity as well as a substantial subsidy financed by a levy enforced by stealth on electricity users. And that’s only the start of the problems.
Dr John Etherington came from an engineering background. He retired in 1990 as Reader in Ecology at the University of Wales at Cardiff and has subsequently devoted himself to research on the problems of wind power and other intermittently available sources of electricity. He is a Thomas Huxley Medallist at the Royal College of Science. He would probably wish me to mention his main ally in the battle against wind power, a remarkable lady named Angela Kelly, the chair of the ‘Country Guardian’ organization. (Details at http://www.countryguardian.net)
The book has a foreword from the journalist Christopher Booker who draws a parallel between the folly of wind power and the folly of the tower blocks built in the 1960s. It is endorsed on the cover by the botanist David Bellamy who says, “Wind power is a swindle… Please read this book to find out why.”
After a very brief historical introduction, John Etherington gives us a short course on the construction and engineering of wind turbines and their components and then proceeds to the factors that determine the theoretical amount of wind energy that that can be converted into electrical energy. As he explains, the amount of electricity actually generated is always much less than the amount that would have been generated had the turbine been running continuously at maximum capacity. The ratio of the actual to the optimal generation is known as the load factor and it is commonly about 26%. It is one of the most over-estimated factors in current technology.
The amount of energy that a turbine can capture from the wind is a cubic function of speed of the wind. This means that doubling the wind speed should give eight times the energy. This sounds like good news for electricity producers but it is rather a mixed blessing because the reciprocal relation applies too. Halving the wind speed gives one-eighth of the energy and if the wind falls to a quarter of its previous speed, as can easily happen, the energy captured drops to 1/64 or only 1.6% of the previous amount
That cubic function is a mixed blessing in another way. Some of the energy that is captured acts on the turbine’s structure, so that if the wind blows too vigorously the turbine assembly is liable to self-destruct unless steps are taken to ‘spill’ the excess energy harmlessly, and the author outlines the methods used to do so. Obviously, spilt energy produces no electricity.
Overall, the limitations on electricity production imposed by the effects of wind speed are roughly as follows:
- Up to 5 m/s wind speed, negligible production
- Between 5 and 15 m/s, production increases steadily with wind speed
- Between 15 and 25 m/s production continues but increasing wind speed has no effect on it because energy is being spilt
- At 25 m/s, production ceases to avoid damage to the turbine
It may be helpful to know that 15 m/s is Beaufort Scale 7 or Near Gale.
The rotor blades of the turbine describe a circle, and it is the area of this circle, known as the swept area, that determines the amount of wind energy that the turbine can capture. This area is πr2, where r is the radius of the circle which is, of course, the length of the turbine blade. This means that doubling the length of the blade increases the energy capture and electricity production by four. This puts a premium on long-bladed turbines which need to be mounted on high towers and are therefore unsightly in the landscape. This trend to high towers is reinforced by the drag exerted on the wind by the roughness of the land surface, which becomes less the further above the ground you go.
Replacing smaller turbines with larger ones does not give as much benefit you might expect, because taking more energy from the wind means you need a larger distance between turbines, that distance being proportional to the square of the power. And that is not all; the strength of the materials needed follows a cubic relationship with the power. These square and cubic relationships will, the author suggests, ultimately limit the size of wind turbines that that is feasible.
In the next section, Dr Etherington gives a concise account of the problems that label the whole wind energy enterprise as an act of complete folly.
An inconvenient truth about electricity
Electricity differs from other energy sources in that it must be used instantaneously as it is generated. If generation either exceeds demand or fails to meet it, trouble ensues and the supply is interrupted. The book gives a clear explanation of why these problems happen and then leads us through the topics of alternating current and phases to the problems of linking and synchronizing AC generators which, Etherington comments acerbically, is not as simple as connecting hose-pipes.
The risk of generation failing to meet demand and causing chaos hangs over all forms of generation and leads to the necessity for ‘back-up’. But, for the reasons outlined above, you cannot just plug the back-up in and switch it on. You need a ‘spinning reserve’, that is, a reserve gas-fired generator which is turning over all the time so that it can be phased in and brought up to full power at once. Even if the spinning reserve is turning over gently it is still producing carbon dioxide. And every wind farm must be able to fall back on a spinning reserve.
An inconvenient truth about wind
The wind does not blow to order. It stops blowing in anti-cyclonic conditions in the UK in both winter and summer, occasionally for quite long periods. But it doesn’t actually need to stop blowing to stop electricity generation. That stops if the wind speed falls below about 5 m/s (See above.) It also stops if the turbine has to be switched off to avoid damage from wind speeds in excess of 25 m/s. Etherington summarizes these problems by referring to ‘intermittent generation’.
The key problem with intermittent generation is that if a wind farm has of necessity to stop generation, it cannot by itself get going again because of the synchronization problem. The author likens the situation to that of a car without a battery; everything works fine while the engine is running but the car is dead if it stops. The car needs an external source of electricity to get moving. The wind farm needs an external source of electricity to get generating.
The problem is compounded by the fact that large areas of the country are likely to have broadly similarly wind patterns, particularly in anti-cyclonic conditions, so you cannot assume that if one wind farm has ceased generating there will always be another to compensate for it. The book covers these topics in much greater detail than I can and it also draws attention to a number of points at which the government and the Wind Energy associations have made some questionably truthful assertions. We can perhaps refer to these assertions as ‘wind-speak’ as a gesture to George Orwell.
Back-up – A massive problem
The brief account given above of the need for back-up probably disguised the scale of the back-up problem. National Grid plc aims for a system margin of 20% over peak demand to guard against plant or transmission failure and the government and the wind industry claimed that, “The reserves needed to guard against the loss of a large power station will readily cope with small perturbations due to the wind.” But Dr Etherington was not so sure, pointing out that that is true at the moment with wind accounting for just one percent of generation nationally, but it would definitely not be certain if that one percent became ten percent. He quoted Dr Dieter Helm who is on record as saying, “the paradox of building windmills is you have to build lot of ordinary power stations to back them up”.
In fact, events have overtaken this discussion. Since this book was published, it has been announced that seventeen new gas-powered generating plants are to be built in the UK specifically to provide back-up for wind generation. These will be there to provide the necessary spinning reserve but, because they are only turning over much of the time, they are not running efficiently and are producing more carbon dioxide per unit of electricity than if they were running normally.
In summary, because we have been persuaded that we have a carbon dioxide problem, we rely on the wind to generate some of our electricity. But the wind does not blow all the time, so we have gas-powered generation as back-up. The wind does blow some of the time but we dare not switch off the gas-powered plant when it does. This turns over gently but inefficiently and producing more carbon dioxide than otherwise necessary, adding to the problem we set out to solve. This is known as ‘caring for the environment’.
It is clear from book that it would almost certainly have been better, economically and environmentally, not to have involved the wind in electricity generation in the first place John Etherington has no doubt made this point himself and he gives some worrying examples of wind generation failures that could not be met by the back-up provided. These are on the grand scale – ‘much of Spain’, ‘most of Texas’, ‘Europe-wide’. “Who’s next”, one wonders. Needless to say, this section is again replete with ‘wind-speak’.
Incidentally, those interested in the environmental problems caused by the installation of wind turbines would do well to visit the Cefn Croes website
Financing wind power – Licensed kleptomania
Dr Etherington starts his chapter on finance with a startling statistic. “During the 21st Century, renewably generated electricity in the UK, largely wind power, has earned its generator and/or supplier up to three times as much per MWh as thermal generation (gas etc).” We have paid the difference between the sources through our electricity bills, which have been subjected to a levy. The kleptocracy responsible for this raid on our bank accounts has maintained a degree of secrecy about it almost as effective as that of the code-breakers of Bletchley Park and remarkably few people seem to know about it.
Because electricity from wind power is so expensive, no sane supplier would try to sell it to users. The last government got round this inconvenient truth, as has the present one, simply by telling the suppliers that they had to include a fixed percentage of electricity from wind and other renewable resources in the mix they sold or be fined. This is the essence of the notorious ‘Renewables Obligation’. John Etherington has battled valiantly through the sordid details to provide an account of it for the book. I would agree with him that the legislation surrounding the Renewables Obligation has been written in a way that deliberately obscures the meaning. You are not intended to understand it.
Does wind energy actually abate carbon dioxide emissions?
For many people it is axiomatic that wind energy lessens emissions and some would be shocked that this article of faith is being questioned. Obviously, a key issue is the amount of carbon dioxide displaced per kilowatt-hour of electricity produced by a coal- or gas-fired generating plant. For many years the British Wind Energy Association used a figure of 860 g CO2/kWh for coal, but when this figure was challenged through the Advertising Standards Agency it was mysteriously halved. This meant a doubling of the number of wind turbines needed to achieve a set carbon target – at a stroke.
This is not the only problem for the wind energy faithful. The carbon dioxide emitted by the building and (inefficient) running of the back-up generating plant make it less likely that net abatement of carbon dioxide emissions will be achieved. Other obstacles to abatement listed by the book arise from carbon dioxide emitted during the manufacture and installation of the turbines and even as a result of soil disturbance.
John Etherington’s final killer blow in the abatement discussion is to quote the government’s own figure for the saving per year of carbon dioxide emissions by renewable electricity, mainly wind. This is 9.2 million tonnes per year by 2010, less, he observes, than the emission from a medium-sized coal-fired generator. (The book was published in 2009.)
It is also, he points out, less than four ten-thousandths (0.0004) of global emissions and will have no measurable impact on atmospheric concentrations and not the slightest chance of deflecting climate change over a millennium.
This is perhaps an appropriate point to mention that the book contains a useful chapter entitled ‘Climate change and Kyoto – Is it all necessary?’ This may not be new to some but it is helpful in its context and it includes the classic early quotation in which IPCC seems to question its own existence: We are dealing with a coupled non-linear chaotic system, and therefore the prediction of a specific future climate state is not possible.
Turbines, landscape and wildlife
Simon Jenkins, quoted above, likened wind turbines to a “Golgotha of gibbets” and most people not working for the government or the wind industry seem to see them as a blot on the landscape. The author comments dryly that the Danish Wind Industry said it all on its website when offering advice on choosing sites for wind farms: “Look for a view…..we would like to have as wide and open a view as possible in the prevailing wind direction.”. This complements evidence to a recent Public Inquiry into some 125 m turbines, which stated that “There would be significant visual impact up to a distance of 10 km”.
The usual dismal quota of ‘wind-speak’ was in evidence when Etherington investigated the impact of turbines on birds and bats.
Unfortunately, turbines are a particular threat to the large birds of prey that we tend to value highly. Many such birds have their habitat in the wilder parts of the country, which have also become the habitat of the randomly-predatory wind turbine.
Noise and flicker
The British Wind Energy Association likens the noise of a wind turbine to that of a stream flowing about 150 m away. This is pure ‘wind-speak’ and the reality is that an object similar in size to the wing of a jumbo jet passing through the air at 150 mph makes a substantial noise, and there are three such objects hurtling round. A blade passes the tower every one to two seconds giving the noise a pulsating quality, which some people find very uncomfortable. If there are several turbines you may get ‘beat’ phenomena and there are other noises coming from turbulence. John Etherington comments that, “It is a deliberate untruth that ‘noise isn’t a problem’”. He goes on to relate the sad story of a family who were driven from their home by turbine noise, the home becoming, in the opinion of a local estate agent, impossible to sell. He goes into some detail as to the nature of the noise
Flicker, mentioned briefly, is another potential irritating turbine-related problem. It occurs when the sun is behind the hub of the rotor blades which then cast moving shadows across the landscape.
Turbines as hazards
A turbine blade may weigh 10 tonnes and, if it is moving at 150 mph, is not only noisy, it is potentially dangerous, particularly as its aerodynamics will enable it to travel some distance. The author gives some attention to issues such as metal fatigue and the fall of chunks of ice from that accumulated on turbine blades. As turbines encroach more and more on human habitations, one is left with an uncomfortable feeling that it is only a matter of time before human beings join Golden Eagles on the turbine fatality list.
One group opposing wind-farms has compiled a synopsis of wind-power hazards in the UK and finds unsurprisingly that no-one is looking after human safety. They conclude that, “Neither the Developers, the Local Planning Authorities, the Highways Authority, the National Grid nor the Health and Safety Executive assess the risks to the public during the progressing of a planning application.”
Other turbine-related problems identified by John Etherington include aircraft safety and effects on television, telecommunication and radar, some of them relating to our national security.
It seems perfectly obvious that wind farms visible from peoples’ homes have an adverse effect on the value of the homes, even before noise problems are considered. Obvious, that is, unless you happen to be fluent in ‘wind-speak’. Etherington gives us one or two particularly risible examples of ‘wind-speak’ on the topic before he moves on to the related topics of tourism and employment.
I went on the first of a series of memorable holidays in Cardiganshire 61 years ago and I have had many other holidays there and in Dyfed. I am sickened by the unspeakable idiocy of the man responsible for ruining the area with wind turbines. According to Etherington’s book, tourism earns about £2 – 3 billion per year for Wales, 7% of the Welsh GDP. This is far more than agriculture contributes, but agriculture does supplement tourism in the main. The tourists like to see the hills dotted with sheep!
By contrast, wind energy generates no more than 0.2%of the GDP and is an obvious threat to tourism. Despite the ‘wind-speak’ to the contrary, the Welsh and Scottish Tourist Boards have clear evidence that tourists are put off by wind turbines. This situation was as predictable as it is appalling. The government must have known it was risking the Welsh tourist industry to appease the proponents of Green dogma. That it did so suggests that it was either very callous or very stupid or both.
We used to hear quite a lot about Green jobs. So far as the wind industry is concerned, we just need to say, “What Green jobs?” Most of the turbines are manufactured overseas and they were installed at two sites at least by Danish engineers. Britain has almost no turbine industry and ‘Green jobs’ in this context is best categorized as ‘Government wind-speak’.
‘Wind-speak’ has featured frequently in this review and it is no surprise that John Etherington devotes a chapter to it under the title ‘Misrepresentation and manipulation’. This chapter is a shocking indictment of the kind of kind of practice that the government and the wind industry have felt justified to bring to reality their obsession with wind power. Planning law has been treated with contempt and truth is mainly notable for the economy with which it has been used. Here’s one example. “Eight or nine people out of ten want wind power.” Not true and what twaddle anyway? It reminds me of a cat-food advertisement of yesteryear.
The truth is that wind power is about money – the money filched from your bank account via your electricity bill. This goes mainly to wealthy developers in wind energy many of whom are not British. For example, the very large wind farms off Thanet and North Norfolk are respectively owned by Swedish and Norwegian companies. The very large wind farm off Thanet, for example, is now Swedish-owned. The main British beneficiaries are those who own land. Etherington comments, “What landowner, other than a true country lover, could resist the E.ON UK advertisement: “Cash crop – cash in on our renewable energy” which offered landowners earnings of between £5000 and £8000 per year for each turbine, much more than the value of the land they would occupy. This was a lifeline for some hill farmers and others working marginal land but a tragedy for the landscape. It was also splendid news for some people with large Scottish estates.
John Etherington ends his book by quoting the geologist Malcolm Rider, who wrote:
“The Highlands are being humiliated by wind farm developers who insist that they are saving the environment. They lie; they are here to make a profit. Wind farms produce very little and intermittent electricity. Most of the time they do not work. How can the blade of a bulldozer ripping up 6,000 years of beautifully preserved archaeology be saving the environment? How can the turbine blades smashing a golden eagle to bits be saving the saving the environment? How can the government of Scotland destroy such a prize? And use public money to do it?”
I was beginning to suspect that wind power was not all it was made out to be when I saw this book advertised on Amazon, but I was not prepared for the can of worms which John Etherington has painstakingly exposed. I am very grateful to him for doing so and I echo unreservedly Christopher Booker’s remarks about the book in his foreword.
I was shocked by the levels of greed, folly and mendacity that the book reveals but these become more explicable when you remember that, in reality, wind energy has less to do with saving the planet than with lining pockets. I was also concerned by the extent to which wind energy and its parent climate change have manipulated politics. This was strongly evident in the contempt shown for the planning laws and it also came out in one particularly fatuous comment by Ed Miliband. “It is socially unacceptable to be against wind farms in your area.” What a plonker!
This country is now in an extraordinarily difficult, even tragic, situation. The last government committed us to wind energy without checking that enough of ‘the right sort of wind’ blows. It does not, and we are stuck with wind turbines that simply do not do the job they were claimed to do. And we are building more! They are useless without back-up from gas-fired generating plants and it is now apparent, to me at least, that it would have been far better to have to have left the mountains of Wales and Scotland inviolate and built the gas-fired plants in the first place. Wind farms represent the triumph of dogma over reason and epitomize the tragedy of human folly.
Part of the tragedy is that wind turbines look to be an irreversible phenomenon, for both political and practical reasons. Politically, the Green tinge to all three main political parties will probably ensure that they are long venerated for their ‘powers’ of carbon dioxide abatement. Also, the dreadful loss of face that would be involved in admitting that they are not fit for purpose should ensure their survival for a good time.
The practical reason for their irreversibility is that we made a terrible mess of the environment putting them up and we don’t want to make a similar mess pulling them down. The concrete bases for the thirty-nine Cefn Croes turbines were each prepared by making a hole the size of an Olympic swimming pool and filling it with concrete. Those bases will be there for a very long time as a monument to the folly of wind energy.