Anti-wind movement gains momentum
Earlier this year, RenewableUK - the trade association for British renewable energy industries used it's annual parliamentary reception to announce a wind landmark for the UK. The opening of the Ormonde Offshore windfarm off the coast of Cumbria boosted the UK's wind capacity to 6 Gigawatts – enough to potentially power 3.3 million homes.
Keynote political speaker, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the Rt Hon Danny Alexander MP, said:
"Working together, we can reach even greater heights. We are eager to ensure that the UK becomes the natural home for the most innovative, ambitious and inspiring renewable energy companies in the world, and we will continue to work with the industry to drive down costs and encourage even stronger growth in the years to come".
It's good to see such a robust statement coming from the Government given the recent barrage of negative press for renewables. Over the past three months there have been four reports criticising the UK's renewables policy. One, from KPMG, although at the time unpublished, formed the basis of a Panorama program and hostile UK press coverage, KPMG subsequently withdrew the report because it was deemed "ripe for misinterpretation" and used parameters that "produced large swings in financial outcomes". The others, from the Adam Smith Institute, Civitas, and now the Policy Exchange, all follow similar lines, citing “high costs”, and advocating the use of nuclear and gas to tackle carbon targets.
James Murry writing in Business Green after the most recent offering from “Policy Exchange” says:
“(the government's) …Patience is obviously wearing thin. Following the release today of the third major report in the last two months criticising the cost of the Department of Energy and Climate Change's (DECC) renewable energy policy, officials have hit back branding the latest report from the Policy Exchange think-tank as "flawed" and "not credible"”
The DECC's reaction has been the same throughout – “the figures “£400 pounds per householder by 2020” are wrong”. They say:
“The report overestimates costs while ignoring key benefits of policies. Our policies are aimed at keeping the lights on and bills down, boosting energy efficiency and helping get us off the hook of relying on imported oil and gas by creating a greener, cleaner and ultimately cheaper mix of electricity sources right here in the UK” and "We have published a full breakdown of the impacts, which shows that when you take both costs and benefits into account, by 2020 energy and climate change policies will have a net effect of reducing the average domestic dual fuel bill by seven per cent (£94), compared to a scenario where we didn't implement our energy and climate change policies."
According to Murry:
“Government sources were privately even more scathing of the report, arguing that the recent series of studies on the projected cost of renewable energy policies all followed a similar pattern of making bold statements that then "don't quite stack up" when the assumptions contained in the reports are analysed.”
The government has every right to be irritated by the wild claims about the costs of renewables - it's difficult to imagine how wind - which makes up only 1% of total household energy bills could be responsible for a £400 hike in costs.
Have we got it wrong?
The question remains, how can so many reports produce such damming, (and similar), figures, so far at odds with the government's, not to mention the renewable sector's multi-billion dollar investor's position? Are independent generalist think tanks better equipped to see faults experts from around the globe have missed, or are we witnessing the birth of a new myth in the UK - on a par with the massive disinformation campaigns mounted in the USA?
Their arguments against wind include the high cost of providing back-up for intermittency (the fluctuating nature of wind supplies), the high cost of subsidy, uncompetitiveness, and “environmental impacts of turbines”.
One of the most recent, the Civitas report, "Electricity Costs: The folly of windpower" (January 2012), argues that intermittency will cost around £67 per MWh for offshore wind. Using this figure Civitas place a £179 price tag on off-shore wind. This represents a huge hike over the widely accepted £16/MWh intermittency costs, a sum accepted by both the Government and the National Grid. Their explanation of the sudden 30% leap in cost depends on a highly technical debate about complex variables.
To give an idea of the range of charges assigned to intermittency it's worth comparing figures from Chris Varrone, an energy consultant, writing in Clean Technica. He gives a good account of the technicalities of integrating wind into the energy mix for the layman. His costs for backup/grid integration “based on multiple academic and industry studies” are between £2- £3.20 per MWh.
The gulf between Verone's and Civitas's estimates of intermittency costs show how easy it is to take mountains of data and pick out the bits that suit a particular point of view. The Government's preferred cost of £16/MWh has the support of an informed consensus - and almost certainly represents a far better analysis of those data mountains.
To an extent wind is answering it's critics with some robust performances - supplying over 20% of all Spain's energy need throughout February 2012, is just one example. But obscure papers raising issues about even more obscure technicalities, by and large way beyond the understanding of mere mortals, have fuelled huge and often damaging headlines for renewables over the past year. One easier way of assessing the validity of the "think tank reports". Ask the questions "Who's paying"?, "Who are the authors", and " and "What is their angle"?
The "report that never was" from KPMG, illustrates the "WWW" test perfectly. KPMG declined to release then distanced themselves from the report that fuelled the Panorama headlines, while the consultant most associated with the report resigned.
Now Swedish consultants AF Group, who collaborated with KPMG on the original document, have issued a report, "Powerful Targets", believed to be covering many of the areas of the disowned KPMG paper. It's been published as AF's own work and has been instantly branded "a very, very poor piece of work" by the DECC's chief economist, energy director general and director of strategy.
An unusually frank DECC spokesperson said:
"The report's assumptions are so flawed the conclusions are near pointless".
"AF aren't planning for enough generation capacity; they're putting all our eggs into just two energy technology baskets and keeping their fingers crossed that gas prices come good."
"If this sort of short-sighted analysis informed our policies, we'd not meet our carbon emission targets and keep the lights on, and the consumer would certainly be worse off."
AF apparently have strong connections with the nuclear power industry as did the consultant who resigned from KPMG. No one is trying to suggest there has been any attempt to deliberately mislead in the AF report - but it seems quite possible that their biases and perceptions have heavily influenced the reports conclusions. It's hardly surprising that KPMG, who have a strong record in the area of sustainability analysis for business, wanted to distance themselves from the original.
The KPMG/AF report is better than some of the other recent offerings which range from merely ill-informed to mendacious. The problem for renewables is that it's headlines people see - not the retractions made months later. Those headlines are undoubtedly helping fuel a rising tide of resistance to wind, and there's evidence to suggest that the media campaign flowing from this series of flawed reports is no accident.
The UK campaign is a little different from those waged in the USA, which have successfully wiped climate change of the Republican political agenda. More a case of "Confusionism" than denial, on the assumption that the British public are unlikely to swallow the Climate Change is a Hoax" message, the broad thrust of the current batch of think tank reports is to acknowledge we need to tackle carbon emissions - but that renewables are not the way forward. So what are the "think tank solutions"?
images: windfarm in Spain - Molly O'Brien,