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The government’s wind

Surprise surprise:

The renewable energy industry suffered a setback today with the publication of a report showing that electricity from offshore wind farms will cost at least twice as much as that obtained from conventional sources.

According to research carried out by the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE), the cheapest electricity, costing just 2.3 pence per unit, will be generated from gas turbines and nuclear power stations, compared with 3.7p for onshore wind and 5.5p for offshore. The Academy also emphasised the need to provide backup for wind energy to cover periods when the wind doesn’t blow. The study assumed the need for about 65% backup from conventional sources, adding 1.7p to the cost of wind power, bringing its price up to two and a half times that of gas or nuclear power.

The other alternatives are: coal, which is about to get blamed for frying the planet and to be made illegal, here anyway; and: nuclear power, which is horrid horrid horrid and will never be allowed no matter how sensible they manage to make it.

Accordingly, it won’t be long before we all freeze to death. And since there will not be any electricity, we will not even be able to blog about it.

Prediction: the idiots who between them achieved this will then blame capitalism, for, er, exploiting people’s desire to stay warm, that is to say, not exploiting it enough, er, drivel drivel, shiver shiver, …

Actually, this is not all bad news. The bad news would be if there was no news about it all, and it was just happening. The story here is not merely that environmentalists are driving us all enviro-mental with their idiotically contradictory policies. It is that boring sounding people like the Institution of Civil Engineers are starting to get nervous, and even rather angry.

Nuclear engineers are getting in on the act too. Here is a bit lower down in that Guardian story:

RAE vice-president Philip Ruffles acknowledged that the findings may sound surprising, especially as the cost of nuclear decommissioning had been included in the research.

“The weakness of the government’s energy white paper was that it saw nuclear power as very expensive,” he said. “But modern nuclear stations are far simpler and more streamlined than the old generation and far cheaper to build and run.”

But the mad hippy lunatic scumbag tendency has no time for talk like that:

The British Wind Energy Association, who last year gave full backing to the government’s wind, questioned the reliability of the data which the RAE used: “BWEA assumes that the figures quoted for nuclear power are based upon reactors that are yet to be built and is not aware of any market experience that proves the costs claimed by the Royal Academy of Engineering,” it said.

But the reason there is no market experience of wind farming, surely, is because no one has yet expressed any desire for its product, give what it costs. With talk like that, the more lunatic your entrepreneurial scheme, the more it would be entitled to government money, so that it could acquire ‘market experience’. But maybe I have misunderstood the man.

Be that as it may, the real reason I included that last bit was the presence in it of the glorious phrase (from which a word must surely be missing): “gave full backing to the government’s wind”.

Here at Samizdata, we never give full backing to the government’s wind.

36 comments to The government’s wind

  • I have been wondering how many poor, elderly and sick people the Government is prepared to let die to meet its Kyoto conditions.The coming disaster in the electricity generating industry,hat tip John Prescott, is going to solve the pensions problem.As the rest sit staring into the embers of their furniture and wondering when granny will thaw out enough to bury, we can thank the enviromentalists who delivered us back to the Middle Ages

  • Whip

    I’m sure there are plenty of hippy luddites out there fantasizing about just such a scenario (power outages, that is). “Return to nature” and all that foolishness. They’ll think twice once their radios and televisions stop working and they can’t get their daily indoctrination from The Beeb. How will they know the sky is falling then?

  • zmollusc

    I was interested to see how long it takes to build a nuclear power station, I am sure that it was >10 years!
    When and if the lights go out, how long do you think it would take to set up nuclear piles at existing gas powered stations? Of, course, all the power would go to london to keep the fax machines and photocopies running so that the country didn’t grind to a halt.

    I say bring it on, I have enough tinfoil to keep myself in hats for my lifetime (2 days after sainsburys shelves empty).

  • This very matter was the subject of the thought-provoking IF program last night on BBC1. I posted a review over at my blog, but the short version is:

    – even the Beeb realises that wind power is not much good when the wind’s not blowing;
    – nuclear power is icky. End of debate;
    – gas turbines place us at the mercy of unstable foreign states;
    – cheap electricity is bad and we must all pay more for the electricity that we are wasting.

    It was, um, unsurprising, but the bias was occasionally a bit naked, especially at the end, where a woman from the Wind Energy Association or some such asks us all to dig deeper, while the images push the viewer towards the conclusion that Cheap Electricity Kills Children.

  • What is actually required is decentralised power production. Wind power can be useful, so can hydro electric, as can fossil and nuke. Like most of the previously state owned industries electricity generation is still working through an outdated monolithic business model, which is pretty much still under the control of the government.
    We should follow the successful model of ARPA net, build redundant, distributed and privately owned generation systems.


  • I was amused by the programs on the Beeb last night on the subject. The distaste shown for nuclear power shone through, it was almost beyond discussion in fact, although nuclear power seems like it would be a suitable medium term fix.

    Nuclear power is Evil. Windmill pipedreams are Good. Sickens me to see dogma blinding people over things as important as the energy supply.

  • Andrew

    The single most irritating thing about last night’s program was the sneering tone adopted by Paxman whenever anyone mentioned the energy market. ‘You don’t believe the ‘market’ (scare quotes implicit in the tone) can provide new power stations, do you?’

    It made me want to destroy my TV, while shouting ‘Yes, actually. I do believe the market can provide new power stations. That’s the whole point of the bl**dy thing, isn’t it?’

    And the second most annoying point was that Vince Cable was extremely articulate. It’s a shame his politics are so crazy (50% renewable power by 2050? – it’s possible, but it’s crazy).


  • The only really amusing thing about this is that energy professionals – the people who keep the lights on- knew all this since *forever*.

    The numbers don’t lie and this is a hard engineering and numbers game par excellance.

    Unless there is a major technological step in energy production all the “green” energy sources simply aren’t good (reliable/powerful) enough and consequently aren’t the way to bet – assuming you want to keep living in the 1st world.

  • Guy Herbert

    On nuclear power timescales:

    It can be 10+ years if you count the Public Planning Enquiry as part of the build time. (As at Sizewell.)

    But if you use state planning and funds to create more efficient technology, you can easily stretch it to 20 years. And as a bonus you get something that doesn’t work very well so is easy to sideline without anyone noticing when the crisis doesn’t happen as expected. (As with the AGR programme.)

  • zmollusc

    Erm, how will the ‘market’ create redundancy of power stations (as opposed to redundancy of workers)?
    I would think that market forces would promote short term gains from neglecting maintenance rather than encouraging far-sighted building programs.

    Better to buy an old station for £X and run it into the ground than spend £2X building something which won’t earn anything for 10+ years. Why should I sacrifice my share price today to make my successor rich tomorrow? The market only looks 10nS ahead, that is why the stock market is so full of shouting.

  • JSF

    The really, really annoying thing about this wind energy mania is that because the things are so unreliable, you have to have backup thermal generating capacity available.
    And those generators have to be kept spun up, so you’re burning fuel anyway, and almost certainly running the turbines at maximum efficiency.

    And the problem gets worse and worse as the amount of wind power onstream increases, and the problem can’t be dealt within the normal fluctuation margins of the grid.

    The whole wind thing is a gigantic state funded scam; without the subsidies no-one would touch the wretched things.

  • Andrew


    Wherever there is profit, the market will go. If you think it is too simplistic to price in future events, I suggest you short the price of oil/gas or your favourite power supplier, and put your money where your mouth is.

    The lights will not go out because the consequence of that outcome would be unthinkable and hence extremely costly. Do you think Powergen can afford the lawsuits if your granny kicks the bucket in the great power-cut of 2010? More likely that the price of energy will slowly rise to the point where building redundancy/extra capacity becomes economical. If the government stopped regulating the industry and holding energy prices artificially low, that would happen.


  • I have always though the government’s principle output was in fact ‘wind’. We just need to set up a bunch of big turbines next to Big Ben and above Congress…

  • Cydonia

    Z Mollusc:

    Erm, how will the ‘government’ create redundancy of power stations (as opposed to redundancy of workers)? I would think that government forces would promote short term gains from neglecting maintenance rather than encouraging far-sighted building programs.

    Better to buy an old station for £X and run it into the ground than spend £2X building something which won’t earn anything until after the next election. Why should I sacrifice my balance of payments today to make the next government popular ? The government only looks ahead to the next election, that is why Parliament is so full of shouting.


  • Steve LaBonne

    Perry, you missed the really telling consequence- since according to your observation governments are clearly the leading producers of methane which is a greenhouse gas, they must be shut down to slow global warming. Where are the enviro-kooks when you really need them?

  • zmollusc

    Andrew, I agree that the market seeks profit. I just don’t think there is profit in preparedness. The petrol shortage showed how few reserves of anything there are in this country, which is entirely because of the cost of storage. Just-in-time supply and no overheads or safety margin is the way the market works. If it all collapses, never mind, just set up again under a new name.

    I don’t think powergen are worried about lawsuits from frozen customers, either.

  • Jonathan L

    Z Mollusc

    I am working for a profit orientated private company and most of my work involves planning long term projects, many of which don’t make a profit for years. The time value of money is a basic principal in business and future profits have a value today, its just a discounted one. Future profits are included in the price of shares a company that announces a new project will see an increase in its share price.

    Neglecting maintenance is the most stupid economically illiterate thing that a company can do. It would be a quick road to bankruptcy. But then thats why ignorant people like yourself are not running companies.

  • Andrew


    All businesses expend capital in order to keep producing. Energy is no different. The energy companies may not get into storage, but they will build new (more efficient) power stations as older ones become obsolete. In order for that to happen, the government has to get off their back. Energy prices are unrealistically low, due to Ofgem ensuring that the market remains ‘competitive’ – i.e. enforcing a cap on prices. From the Ofgem website: ‘Ofgem will continue to regulate those companies that cannot be opened up to competition. These are the natural monopolies, which run the gas and electricity pipes and wires such as the gas pipeline and electricity distribution networks.

    Customers are protected from unfair pricing by these monopolies through price controls set by Ofgem. In the past three years these price controls have reduced customers’ bills by £1.25 billion a year.

    Nuclear plants cost about 10-15 bn to build. That 3.75 would have been a nice bit of collateral on a loan, dontcha think?


  • M. Simon


    You are all a nice bunch and I enjoy your company immensely.

    But I’m afraid that at points you misunderstand and at other points you have been mislead.

    Think of wind as a hedge against fuel cost increases. The units are all capital very little subsequent input.

    In America where the cost of natural gas right now is quite high compared to coal with no significant restrictions on coal use, wind generated electricity is now cheaper than gas.

    Since wind and gas are dispatchable over the same time frame when the wind is blowing you save on fuel costs with only the added cost of a TG sitting idle. Not a bad deal.

    But it gets better. We are still coming down the learning curve on wind turbines. As the size in MW capacity increases every doubling lowers the cost per KWh by about 30%. One or two more doublings in size and the cost will be down to the cost of coal or gas in your country. One more doubling after that and you will be saving at least 30% on your cost of electricity.

    So long term investment wise it may be a good thing to accelerate the demand faster than straight economics would suggest.

    But that is not the best deal we can get. Super fly wheels are in development that can store large amounts of power economically in a small space. They are already in use on satelites to store power for the regular periods of darkness. As we get the efficiency of these units up to where electrical losses are about .1% (currently considered feasible) these units could store power for not just a day, a week, or a month but a season or two. With that kind of storage (provided of course the economics are right) shifting wind from winter (when the wind is usually stronger) to summer might be cost effective.

  • Andrew

    Always preview.

    The socialist blurb about customers being protected from the market somehow slipped out of my italics, and is also of course from our quango’d buddies at Ofgem, not from myself.


  • M. Simon

    BTW there is a reason that you can’t treat the power grid like you can the internet.

    Power does not come in packets. With very little storage on the power grid input must match output exactly.

    Now due to resistive loads there is a bit of a margin. A few percent these days with so many negative resistance loads on the grid (like computer power supplies). But essentiallly to maintain voltage within a narrow range input and output must match with resistance absorbing the variations.

    So currently the way small distributed power is handled (just plug it in) is OK. If there is a lot of it though it must be made dispatchable. An interesting problem.

  • The internet analogy is more about redundancy of power producing plants and better connections between them. A big power plant costs a lot of money as has been mentioned above, but smaller plants that use natural gas fuel cells, agri diesel generators, wind and water power can be built for much less capital outlay and exist in the community that it serves.

    Dont forget that Nuclear power works and should remain as the mainstay of the country’s industrial usage.

    We’ve used wind power for hundreds of years, we’ve just not developed efficient ways of converting the kinetic power to electricity yet. This increase in efficiency will come with investment, what I dont see the point in is having huge farms all in the one place.

    Electrical load is also fairly predictable, we know when power surges will happen to a fair degree, there has to be some ‘give’ in the system but this technology is established.

  • M. Simon


    How could I forget that nuclear power works. I was a reactor operator in the US Navy. Trained on the Enterprise type reactors and Destroyer reactors. My problem with them is that there is already quite enough plutonium in the world. I would limit reactors to military use.

    Huge farms all in one place is about transmission costs.

    I agree about load prediction and stuff. That is the reason generators are dispatchable. Power in America is bought and sold at a kind of auction on the basis of so many megawatts for so many minutes. Plus start up and shut down costs.

    With a 30 Mph wind sensors 30 miles from the generating station gives you an hour notice.

    That will be another cost reduction driver. As more wind stations are built they can feed each other information so that future generating capacity is easier to predict.

  • M. Simon

    Did I mention that wind like loads is more predictable on a seasonal basis than on an hourly basis. What can be predicted is the kWh produceable over a year’s time.

    That is the advantage of the off shore turbine. It’s output is very predictable. What drives up cost is getting the electricity to shore.

  • zmollusc

    Oh Crap, I’m ignorant again!
    Silly me.

    “Neglecting maintenance is the most stupid economically illiterate thing that a company can do”
    I couldn’t agree more, but the people making the decisions are not the ‘company’, and if their ‘term of office’ will suffer financially by investing in maintenance and development then they have a disincentive to plan for the long term.
    You can also ditto government, as Cydonia points out.

  • Whip

    Posted by M. Simon:
    “In America where the cost of natural gas right now is quite high compared to coal with no significant restrictions on coal use, wind generated electricity is now cheaper than gas.”

    Can you please point me to non-biased references that support this statement?

  • Cydonia


    kind of you to cite me, but I’m afraid I was disagreeing you (albeit via a rather clumsy attempt at parody).

    For reasons others have already explained, it is meaningless to criticise markets for being short-termist. Investment time frames in markets are simply a function of consumers’ time preferences (or at least they are when governments keep out).

    My point was simply that when Governments are responsible for capital projects, they tend to be far more “short-termist” than private enterprise since their time frame is the time between elections or job moves. This is why chronic underfunding of state-owned utilities and other such things is a perennial problem. You are wrong if you think that Government funding necessarily tends to increase rather than reduce capital investment as compared to the private sector. There are numerous examples of this in history (mines, railways, hospitals to name but a few)

    But I should stress that even if government funding leads to more rather than less capital investment , that would not be desirable either – the only “correct” level of investment is that which people have shown they want through their own voluntary choices – viz the market). Otherwise, it is just politicians imposing their views (or the views of their supporters) by force.


  • Brock

    Distributed power is not economically efficient with current technology. We will probably get there one day, but we aren’t there yet. Large power plants are still the cheapest way to go (err, privately held, competetive ones, anyway).

    M. Simon – do you really think Super Flywheels are going to be market competetive any time soon? I hadn’t heard about much progress on that front, but it’s not my forte.

    The cleanest power source available now would be a Hydrogen (as opposed to Oil) economy where the H was produced with nuclear power. The nuclear waste could be recycled, but as M. Simon points out, we would then have to implement security measures to keep it out of dangerous hands.

    I know this may sound crazy, but does anyone else worry that if we build up too much wind infrastructure we will adversely affect the weather? I have no science to back me up really, but conservation of energy says that more Wind Power for lightbulbs means less Wind Power for rain clouds. Just a thought.

    I think our best long-term solution (other than a break-through in fusion) will be large solar arrays in space that beam the power back to earth. You can collect a lot of power that way. (and no, you would not fry birds in the air. The lasers would be diffuse to be safe.)

  • limberwulf

    the point is that successful businesses (run by success minded people) are going to look into the future. Use of information for projecting markets is a huge industry for a reason, and Ive known more than one entrepreneur that worked up a business plan that wouldnt turn a profit for 4 to 8 years. There was no shorage of investors for those entreptreneurs either. whenever fools get into the market with only short-term personal profit in mind, they are quickly displaced by people that actually think. That is the beauty of the market, it finds a balance in spite of fools. The State on the other hand, can find no such balance, and fools in the state (the state seems to attract them like flies to dung) have unchecked ruinous power.

  • Eric

    Whatever else, it’s increasingly obvious that wind farms – onshore at least – are anything but environmentally friendly. Nor are they a wonderfully reliable energy source.

    Taking all things together and as a child of the nuclear age [ie. I’m early 50’s vintage] I’m inclined to put my limited faith in nuclear energy as the overall cleanest [if not ideal] and most sustainable source of power for let’s say the next 500 years or so.

    But a better alternative all things considered might be to burn people. After all, there’s an enormous surplus, they’re horribly environmentally unfriendly and they have very little intrinsic value!


  • M. Simon



    But there is always google if you really want to know.

    BTW what would you consider non-biased?

  • zmollusc

    I seem to have given the impression that I think more highly of government than of businessmen, so I should state that I think they are about equal in my regard.
    It must have been a series of bizarre coincidences that prevented me hearing the popular catchphrase “Crikey, it’s a good thing that the company keeps us trained up with the latest techniques else we would stuggle to master the new equipment the management continues to shower upon us. It’s no wonder entrepneurismness has died out trying to compete with established firms’ forward looking leadership”.

  • M. Simon

    America with it’s vast streches of farmland in the interior has no visual pollution problem with siting wind farms on real farms.

    Add in the fact that the large turbines kill about 1.5 birds a year (compare that to house cats or high rises) and the environmental problems are minimal. At least in America.

    Large scale solar arrays in space have been suggested for years. There are a few problems. The best place for them is geosynchronous orbit. But it makes the most sense to use that orbit for comms satelites.

    Another part of the problem is that the idea of a huge microwave beam from orbit is not too appealing. I don’t much care for it myself. Then there is the heat rejection problem from generating the microwaves. Getting rid of heat in space is hard.

    Now solar power is improving but it will be another decade or three before price is any where near coal fired plants.

    For the near future we pretty much have, coal, oil, gas, and wind.

    As to the reliability of wind: it doesn’t seem to be much of a factor until wind’s share of the grid supply is above 20%.

    In fact given a number of wind installations wind can reliably be expected to produce 20% of it’s name plate rating as base load. Considering that the average turbine produces about 30% of it’s name plate rating on a year around basis 20% base load is not bad.

  • John Anderson

    M. Simon, wind power may be effective in two or three more hardware generations. but at the moment it is a farce. As an example, the project to supply Long Island will cover as much area as the Island, and is expected to be able to power the homes – but not businesses, hospitals, police stations …

    And to get more than micrograms of Plutonium from a nuclear reactor, you have to design the reactor to do that – a “breeder” reactor. A reactor built to generate power will produce “ash” with about the same radioactivity as the starting ore dug from the ground – and of the same type[s] of atoms, mostly isotopes of Uranium: left-overs insufficiently compacted to sustain a reaction. Because recycling this ash has usually been done in breeder reactors, recycling has become a no-no politically: as far as I know, tossing “spent” fuel into the crusher along with the new ore would work, but is politically dangerous.

  • Tom

    I don’t know if large scale use of windmills is economical or not (I doubt the report is accurate, but I suppose it could be), but the two individuals I knew who had windmills for their homes did pretty nicely with them the first year or two (I haven’t seen either in almost 20 years, so I have no idea what happened after that).

    1st, the regular electricity is still hooked up to your house, so if you don’t have any wind, the power company takes over. 2nd, both of them ended up getting a small amount of money back from the power company at the end of the year (the power company has to buy back any overage).

    If I remember correctly, and I”m not sure that I do, it cost them each $1500 -$ 2000 to have the things installed (again, almost 20 years ago). Probably took about five years to pay for itself.

    I have no idea about how reliable the physical equipment is /was. does it breakdown after the first year or two? If so, does it cost much to fix?

    I guess if they got five or six reliable years of out the things, then it was worth it. If not, it probably isn’t / wasn’t.

    Personally, I’d love to try one for my house. Mabye I will some day.

  • Paul Weir

    I believe that wind farms are a very poor way to generate power and nuclear power is the best. nuclear power is very safe and runs up to 90% of the time. People are only affraid of it because of the 25 year long Greenpeace campaign of outrighgt lies and misinformation about nuclear power and EVERY other campaign they have mounted. It has already been proven that the “Chicken Little Brigade” at Greenpeace and every other enviromental group make up a never ending stream of hobgoblins to scare the public through the media press releases with their end of the world “WHAT IF” scenerios. The ONLY reason they do this is to get new members. These days the green in Greenpeace stands for cash lots of cash, and they are ADDICTED to it, so they will do ANYTHING to keer it coming in, including wrecking the country and the economy because they don’t care what happens since they want to go back to the 16th century anyway, not realizing that the streets will be covered with manure and far worse and the rivers will be full of sewage with pollution 1000 times worse than we have now. And their life expectancy will be about 26 years. The truth is our planet is doing just fine and global warming is also another Greenpeace fabrication. So be happy and live your life the way YOU want to and ignore these liars the next time they dream up the end of the world which should hit the press anytime since they have a large lease payment due on their expensive office space. Thanks, Paul Weir