New review of evidence about onshore wind power to dispel myths for MPs

Posted on 11 Jun 2012 in

Onshore wind power clearly has a role in supplying the UK’s future electricity needs despite a number of myths about its costs and reliability, according to a new report by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy published today (11 June 2012).

The new policy brief on ‘The case for and against onshore wind energy in the UK’ reviews the current evidence about the extent to which it can contribute to future electricity generation, whether there are technological constraints, what the economic costs are, and what the environmental impacts might be.

It concludes that the challenges posed by the intermittency of energy supplied by wind farms are often exaggerated, but that the local environmental impacts of wind turbines need to be properly considered in planning decisions.

The policy brief, written by by Samuela Bassi, Alex Bowen and Sam Fankhauser, is being distributed this week to every UK Member of Parliament and will be launched at the House of Commons on 13 June.

The report points out that once the implications of the UK’s targets for reducing annual emissions of greenhouse gases, which include the effective decarbonisation of the power sector by the mid-2020s, are taken into account, the choice is between onshore wind and other low-carbon sources of energy.

It adds: “It is not a choice between onshore wind and fossil fuels. It has been argued that efficient combined cycle gas power plants may be a cheaper way of meeting our 2020 carbon reduction targets. However, it is clear that the further decarbonisation required in the 2020s cannot be achieved by heavily relaying on unabated gas power stations. Rational policy-makers need to anticipate this and avoid locking in high-carbon electricity generation.”

The report scotches the myth that wind turbines are too unreliable to contribute significantly to the UK’s electricity grid. It states: “Much has been made of the intermittent nature of wind and other renewables, which cannot produce electricity reliably on demand. However, the cost penalty and grid system challenges of intermittency are often exaggerated. There are several ways of compensating for the variability, such as additional capacity from fossil fuel power plants to meet balancing requirements at peak demand, bulk storage of electricity, greater interconnection, and a more diversified mix of renewable sources, as well as measures to manage demand, like smart grids and improved load management.”

The report highlights the cost advantages of onshore wind compared with other renewable energy sources. It states: “A key attraction of onshore wind over other low-carbon forms of electricity generation is cost. In terms of levelised cost – an economic measure which takes into account all of the costs of a technology over its lifetime – onshore wind is currently the cheapest renewable technology in the UK. It is expected that it could become fully competitive with older conventional sources of energy as early as 2016.”

But the report also acknowledges that “onshore wind raises potential local environmental issues, particularly through the visual impact of turbines”. It notes: “People value natural landscapes and are willing to pay to preserve them. This needs to be factored into the analysis. There are also wildlife effects that should be taken into account, although they are often relatively small and site-specific compared with other anthropogenic impacts.”

The report suggests: “These environmental impacts make more expensive renewable technologies – like offshore wind or solar photovoltaics – potentially more attractive. One can think of the extra cost of offshore wind as the premium society is willing to pay to avoid the local environmental cost of onshore wind.”

The report continues: “The choice between more affordable electricity (which would favour onshore wind) and local environmental protection (which may favour other low-carbon technologies) is ultimately a political one. However, given the economic and environmental trade-offs, technological uncertainty, and the absence of one clearly superior solution, the best approach seems to be a portfolio of different energy technologies to balance the cost to consumers and environmental concerns. Onshore wind has a role in that mix.”

The report recommends a number of regulatory measures “that can help to encourage onshore wind developments where they make sense and prevent them from happening where they do not”:

  • A clear price on carbon that underlines the relative merit of wind and other low-carbon forms of power production compared with hydrocarbon-based fuels.
  • A planning system that
    1. reduces the costs and uncertainties to project developers, thus making project development more efficient;
    2. factors in local environmental concerns and prevents developments in important environmental areas; and
    3. ensures appropriate benefit-sharing, or compensation, in areas where local impacts are acceptable.
  • Flanking measures to ensure that the electricity system can cope with intermittent resources, including adequate and sufficiently smart transmission and distribution systems, interconnection to other energy markets, energy storage, load management and flexible demand measures, as well as appropriate combination of fossil fuel (ultimately linked with carbon capture and storage) and renewable sources to ensure balancing and the ability to meet peak demand.

Notes for Editors

  1. The Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment was launched at the London School of Economics and Political Science in October 2008. It is funded by The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment.
  2. The Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy is hosted by the University of Leeds and the London School of Economics and Political Science, and funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council and Munich Re.