Monday, 12 December 2011

Renewable Energy: Vision or Mirage?

Over the last year I have written quite a few posts about wind power stations.The posts have discussed their situation on wild land, the economics of wind power, the distribution of the electricity and how National Grid is trying to cope with its unbalancing effects. I have shown how the wind energy businesses dramatically exaggerate the benefits of wind power in the reduction of greenhouse gases. I have included posts that show how the lives of people forced to live next to wind power stations have been wrecked.

The politicians and the wind industry would have you believe that wind power creates jobs and i have linked and posted papers on here that show exactly the opposite is true: Wind power actually has a net effect of costing jobs . 

You will have gathered that I am not a fan.

Well today the Adam Smith Institute published a document that neatly summarizes everything I have been banging on about in a very polished way. The front cover looks like this:

Adam Smith Institute Renewable Energy Cover Picture

The report covers the whole gamut of renewable energy so that, for the first time that I can recall, this is a report that deals with renewables in the round. It comes up with pretty damning conclusions. I have posted just the executive summary and the main conclusions. For an in-depth read you can go HERE. It’s an incredibly interesting read.


1. EU and UK national government policy is driving a move towards progressive replacement of fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) by renewable energy sources and nuclear power. However, with a few notable exceptions (hydro power in Norway, geothermal energy in Iceland, for example) available renewable power technologies are neither economically competitive nor easily capable of providing the degree of energy security demanded by a developed society.

2. This report reviews the options from a technical and economic standpoint and assesses the real contribution they can make to a future secure, affordable energy supply. At the same time, we consider the efficiency with which they can achieve one of their primary objectives: to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide.

3. We conclude that the renewable energy technologies which are commercially available or in development cannot form more than a minor part of the overall mix without putting the security of supply at jeopardy. The need for increasing amounts of conventional backup capacity as renewables form a larger part of the overall mix severely limits their contribution to emissions reduction.

4. On-shore wind is the lowest-cost option, but still requires financial incentives to encourage investment and has limited scope for expansion because of public opposition and lack of appropriate sites. Its viability would be reduced even further if developments had to carry the cost of the additional gas-fired generating capacity needed as backup. 28% of Ireland’s installed electricity generating capacity is in the form of wind farms, but only 13% of power consumed was generated by wind in 2010/11. UK capacity factors are lower.

5. Experience from other countries with larger percentages of wind generation shows that only limited savings can be made in fossil fuel consumption and that security of supply can only be guaranteed by having a large-scale backup capability or a high degree of interconnectivity with neighbouring countries having surplus capacity. Wind farms supply only about 10% of Danish electricity consumed, despite generating more than double this.

6. Burning of biomass to generate electricity has some merit and may be economically competitive as fossil fuel prices rise. However, its relatively low energy density increases transport costs, and in practical terms it can never make more than a minor contribution to the overall energy supply. To meet DECC’s targets for the UK, by far the greater part of the biomass would have to be imported. For example, UK-grown straw could generate less than 2% of the country’s electricity needs.

7. Solar power – the most expensive of currently available technologies – has little contribution to make in northern Europe. Germany has become the world’s leader in solar cell installations, paying billions of euros annually to provide just 2% of the country’s electricity from photovoltaic panels with a capacity of 17GW but which operate at a capacity factor of only about 10%.

8. A high contribution from intrinsically intermittent renewable power generation without matching conventional capacity as backup – even if demand and supply were to be better balanced via a Europe-wide grid – would require affordable and reliable large-scale energy storage capacity capable of providing backup over a period of days or weeks. No technologies capable of providing this exist or are in development.

9. The economically extractable supply of fossil fuels is not infinite and our dependence on them must inevitably decrease as their real price increases and viable alternatives are developed. Some public support will be needed to bring these new technologies to market. However, governments are currently indulging in the dubious practice of providing guaranteed, long-term subsidies to technologies which have little hope of becoming truly competitive for the foreseeable future.

10. In the meantime, taxpayers’ money would be far better spent on measures to increase energy efficiency, plus investment in proven nuclear and gas generating capacity to provide energy security as many of the UK’s coal-fired stations – and nearly all existing nuclear reactors – are decommissioned over the coming decade.

11. Neither can we ignore the possibility of building new coal-fired stations, or commercialising underground gasification, to make use of the large reserves of coal in the UK and other European countries, which could contribute to energy security for many years to come.


This review has shown that the renewable energy technologies which are commercially available or in development cannot form more than a minor part of the overall power supply without putting the security of supply at jeopardy. On-shore wind is the lowest-cost option, but still requires significant financial incentives to encourage investment and has limited scope for expansion because of public opposition and lack of appropriate sites. Its viability would be reduced even further if wind farms had to carry the cost of the additional gas-fired generating capacity as backup. Experience from other countries with larger percentages of wind generation shows that only limited savings can be made in fossil fuel consumption and that security of supply can only be guaranteed by having a large-scale backup capability or a high degree of interconnectivity with neighbouring countries having surplus capacity.

Our more detailed conclusions are:

•     Given that there is very little scope for development of new hydroelectric schemes, the only technologies which are sufficiently developed for large scale deployment in the UK are wind and solar power (both photovoltaics and concentrated solar thermal), together with burning available biomass.

•     Use of biomass is relatively attractive, having none of the drawbacks of wind or solar power, but the contribution it can make is constrained by the need to grow food and provide raw materials for transport biofuels and industrial processing. It can only be a minor part of the overall energy mix.

•     On-shore wind is the least expensive of the other options, but is still uncompetitive without continuing subsidies. It is also both intermittent and unpredictable, requiring conventional capacity to be on standby to balance the supply, and is subject to increasing public opposition. Service life, at 20 years, is short compared with conventional generating technologies.

•     Off-shore wind is considerably more expensive, although more acceptable to the public.

•     Despite the cost of cells having come down recently, photovoltaic systems are far more expensive than wind and require large subsidies. Their use in such high latitudes is not to be recommended, and the willingness of the government to provide large subsidies, particularly for small-scale installations, is difficult to understand.

•     Solar thermal systems are also only suitable for much sunnier environments than northern Europe.

•     Heat pumps are suitable as a source of heating in some circumstances, but only on a local basis. They are efficient at producing low-cost heat, but are costly to install.

•     Tidal barrage schemes, such as the proposed Severn estuary project, have limited potential. There are relatively few appropriate sites, they have a large environmental impact, and they are intermittent (although predictably so). Nevertheless, they cannot be ignored.

•     Neither wave nor tidal stream technology is close to commercialisation. The need to harvest energy during normal conditions while withstanding storms presents enormous engineering difficulties. However, tidal power currently seems to offer greater practical possibilities and neither can be completely ruled out as long-term options. That said, there is no foreseeable prospect of them becoming competitive with gas or nuclear  power generation.

•     Wind and solar power generation schemes operate at a fraction of their installed capacity.

•     Because – with the exception of biomass – renewable energy supply is intermittent, conventional generating capacity, particularly gas, has to be kept running on standby to balance the grid. This means that actual reductions in carbon dioxide emissions are lower than theoretically possible and that the cost per tonne is relatively high.

•     Intermittency also causes significant problems with balancing the grid to maintain energy security. While not insurmountable for modest levels of renewable energy, these problems limit the effective contribution which renewables can make to the energy supply.

•     With the exception of pumped storage, there are no means of storing energy on a large scale and for a significant period to smooth the contribution of wind and solar generation, which often peaks at times of low demand. Even pumped storage can only provide backup over a timescale of hours rather than the days or weeks necessary to guarantee continuity of supply in a renewables-based system. With the current state of knowledge, there is no foreseeable possibility of developing practical and affordable options.

•     There is no prospect of most renewable technologies – particularly solar and off-shore wind – being competitive with conventional power sources in the foreseeable future.

•     In light of this assessment, we conclude that taxpayers’ money would be far better spent on measures to increase energy efficiency, plus investment in proven nuclear and gas generating capacity to provide energy security as many of the UK’s coal-fired stations – and nearly all existing nuclear reactors – are decommissioned over the coming decade.


© Adam Smith Research Trust 2011
Published in the UK by ASI (Research) Limited Some rights reserved. Copyright remains with the copyright holder, but users may download, save and distribute this work in any format provided that: (1) the Adam Smith Institute is cited; (2) the URLs and are published together with a prominent copy of this notice; (3) the text is used in full without amendments (extracts may be used for criticism or review); (4) the work is not resold; and (5) a link to any online use is sent to
The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the publisher. They have been selected for their independence and intellectual vigour, and are presented as a contribution to public debate.
ISBN 1 902737 81 4
Printed in England by Grosvenor Group (Print Services) Limited, London


  1. What a load of utter nonsense from a left wing, minority, fringe group of tree huggers and.... oh hang on, The Adam Smith Institute you say, Ah :)

    Brilliant read Alan. Clear and concise in confirming what the rest of us have known for sometime. (Never realised solar energy was so inefficient)

    As I've posted on other forums, my optimistic side has hope that the weight of evidence is growing to a point that it just can't be ignored. The cynic in me still sighs and says as long as there is short-term profit to be had the desecration will continue.

    Cheers for putting this information out there. Compulsory reading for anyone who thinks the turbines are going to save us from the darkness

  2. Says it all really.
    (But not as eloquently or passionately as your good self)

    BTW, whatever happened to the Stirling Engine ?

  3. Thanks for posting this Alan. I would like to know also what the cost would be if and hopefully not when this type of folly was to get to it's max life of 25yrs. How much would the tax payer have to fork out to replace the installations when the power companies have flogged off the inefficient contraptions.

  4. Just been scanning todays media and noticed that by some strange coincidence a report by Reform Scotland was published today, saying how we will meet our renewable targets, will be exporting £2bn of leccy per annum, and will be world leader in the renewables industry.
    I googled Reform Scotland and noticed that the Advisory Board contains one James Mather ! Familiar , no?
    I also noticed that the WWF were highly critical of the ASI report. It doesn't make the struggle any easier when a crowd of thick green tossers actively supports the destruction of the environment.

  5. S'n'S; Andy, It's great to have an article from such an august outfit completely demolish the argument for the mad dash for renewables. And in a very readable way, too.
    Will the politicians take note, though? It's probably too late to avoid the power cuts already but it's never too late to try a more effective policy.

  6. OM: Passionate... Moi? I've been accused of many things in the past. but never of being passionate...

    As for the Stirling Engine - that was completely new to me - how utterly fabulous! It looks like you should be able to knock one up in the garden shed. We shall have to ask Stef to see if he can manage it. He's pretty handy in the shed department.

    As for our Jimmy... I wondered how long it would be before he would appear with his snout in the trough. There hasn't even been a decent interval, has there? When did he step down? May wasn't it?.

    Greedy bastard.

    As for the WWF, well- they're as bad as Friends of the Earth & Greenpeace. Woolly jumpered, man made sandals clowns totally screwing up our environment... What did Clarkson say he was going to do to the striking civil servants? Too good for that lot. Tie them to the rotors of a wind turbine.

  7. AlanR - What seems to be happening in the States is that the turbines, once they lose the revenue streams from the subsidies, are just abandoned and left to rot, falling to pieces.
    Over here, some of the planners have asked for bonds to ensure the things are taken down and the bases covered over, but it will still leave the road ways, substations all the pylons....

  8. The bases are the problem, Alan. The base for your average Highland turbine is in excess of a thousand tonne of concrete and steel. You can imagine the effect on the peatland/water table.

    But predictably (and perversely) enough the so-called 'greens' who get their knickers in a twist as soon as 'fracking' is mentioned or a mouse fart in a nuclear station, are conspicuously silent on the effect of this much concrete and steel dumped for all time on previously pristine and highly delicate ecosystem.

    The hypocrisy of these people is just mind blowing.

    Another thing to note: every time the Beeb reports on findings critical of the wind industry the last word is invariably given to a) Richard "summers are going to get drier in Scotland" (said in 2003)/"summers are going to get wetter in Scotland" (said in 2008) Dixon of WWF b) someone from Scottish Renewables, c) someone from the Government (sometime you get one of the above, some three of them).

    Now, compare that to reports critical of fracking, nuclear or coal and you'll NEVER have an industry representative putting the case in favour. The last word is always given to some so-called 'greenie' (i.e. some NGO parasite with her nose firmly in the trough).

    It makes you wish for a "Scottish Spring" in more ways than one...

  9. 25 years down the line, who knows how many times the ownership of these power companies will have changed hands?

    Every merger and takeover will be another opportunity for a smokescreen of deniability and avoidance of any responsibility for the cleanup (it not being the kind of cleaning up they're interested in!).

    My fear is that, like redundant ski tows and other bits of hardware, they'll just be left to rust.

  10. With about 5000 turbines requiring new gear boxes every ten years or so (simplified numbers to keep the calculations easier) that's 500 new gear boxes a year - which is ten a week. That's quite a bit of work.

    Factor in that they'll probably only be able to work on the turbines for half that time because of weather considerations and that's 20 new gear boxes a week.
    I am not sure how long it takes to fit a new gear box , but let's guess at a couple of days?

    That's 40 team days a week. Let's say they work five days a week, this means that you will need 8 teams of men working constantly on swapping gear boxes over.

    These gear boxes (sizeable bits of engineering) all need to be brought up into the hills on big trucks, (and the old ones taken away again) the mobile cranes have to be dragged there as well... A massive operation

    It's not like swapping a gear box in your Fiesta either... Imagine the difficulties of doing this out at sea...

    When wind farms become uneconomic due to the inevitable lowering of the ROC's, will they want to bother will all this? or will they let them just jam / catch fire...

    It will be interesting to find out exactly what is proposed in their planning submission for maintenance and removal.

  11. As it's that time of year, a (slightly modified) rhyme:

    Christmas is coming, the cats are getting fat,
    Please put a copy in the Government's hat.
    If you can't send a copy, a precis will do,
    If you can't send a precis, then God help you.

    Thanks for sharing.

  12. Your discussion about wind farms makes interesting reading. As with most things, there are drawbacks and there are people who make dubious claims about how great these things are. However, with investment and research, is it not possible that the technology could become more efficient and more durable? Many technologies improve over time, so why should wind turbines or solar panels be any different? Whilst these technologies may only provide a relatively small part of our energy needs, that is not reason enough to abandon them.

    On the subject of WWF, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, I sincerely think that our planet would be much worse off without them. Perhaps you should read up on some their campaigns which have helped to protect both our shared environment and other species on this planet. Incidentally, I don't own a woolly jumper.

  13. Hi Bernie. Thank you for your comment. Wind turbines are now a well established technology and improving their robustness cannot get in the way of the realisation that when we need their energy most, the wind does not blow - when high pressure dominates mid winter over the whole of Northern Europe.

    If you read the report in full (I have given the link in the main text of my post) you will see that as well as this pretty major structural failure, new OCGT power stations need to be built as spinning reserve for the variations in output. The existing CCGT power stations are having their lives cut drastically by the constant on-off demand necessitated by fluctuating wind energy. These OCGT stations are less efficient than the CCGT stations they are replacing.

    So - all in all - as the Adam Smith Institute Paper demonstrates admirably, wind power is a complete nonsense. To cap it all, after a penetration of something like 15% of our electrical requirements, their effects on greenhouse gas emissions are actually counter productive!

    I am not against WWF, Greenpeace and FoE in general but I am vehemently opposed in their approach to wind energy as they are supporting an industry that is destroying wild land. To do this in the face of overwhelming evidence that wind power is ineffective flies in the face of reason. They have established a totally untenable position and are sticking to it, no matter how ridiculous it makes them appear.
    In doing so they damage the otherwise excellent causes they promote, as engineers will forever doubt their integrity and learn to distrust them.

  14. Sadly there are two opposing ideas here.
    The well being of the planet and the preserving of our natural resources.
    And short term monetary gain for a small minority and a few mainly foreign companies who would appear to have no real interest in the natural environment that they desecrate.

    Now, where do Wind Turbines fall into those two camps?

    Bugger. I wasn't going to comment on this thread

    It's coming up to Christmas I need to be HAPPY.

    It's not helped by the fact that the Councillors have been advised to accept the Allt Duine proposal at the pending meeting.
    I got an email about it today.

    And I've got a cold as well!!!!!!

  15. News just in:

    It's the third story in the BBC Scotland webpage.

    In many ways it is a non-story because council officials routinely recommend approval for wind farms. It's a rare day when they recommend refusal. It is equally routine for councillors to overrule them.

    What is remarkable is that the BBC should give it such prominence.

    It is also remarkable that they should, for once, give the last word to the MCofS and not to the renewable industry or the WWF.

    No doubt, if it gets approved the likes of Moonlight Shadow will be dancing in the streets of Manchester to celebrate another victory for the green cause.

  16. In reply to Bernie, if I may, there is an interesting point to be made. It is true that technology improves all the time and in connection with wind the biggest 'improvement' would clearly be storage (pump storage or batteries, or the fabled Norway connector).
    But there is another side to the story.
    Because of the completely unjustified time pressure that is being put on policy, we have been importing Danish-German technology developed for the conditions they face there which are wholly unsuitable to our climate and landscape.
    There are other turbine designs which are both more graceful and more efficient (one in particular, is the size of a big cairn and is much more efficient, producing energy both at higher and lower wind speed than the Leviathans we are being lumped with).
    Back in the 1950s we were world leaders in nuclear technology. We have let that slip. And now as far as wind is concerned we are completely passive recipients of imported technology.
    If we had had a more reasoned debate on energy provision, with none of the browbeating from the usual suspects, we could have developed a technology that would have allowed us to harness wind resources without alienating a substantial portion of the population. It was the wind farms issue that completely changed my view of the likes of FOE and WWF. Up until then I was admiring and supporting their work and I was as 'green' as the next wooly jumper wearer. It is still incomprehensible to me why they went the way they did (other than: it is a *very* lucrative way to go for their extremely well paid officials).
    A lost opportunity indeed.


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