The paper, titled ‘The case for and against onshore wind energy in the UK,’ by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy, aims to examine how onshore wind can contribute to future electricity generation – and what the technological, economic and environmental barriers are.
The wind debate
“There is a lively ongoing public debate about the role of onshore wind energy in meeting the UK’s future electricity needs and environmental targets,” the report reads, referring to the letter to David Cameron, signed by 100 MPs earlier this year, urging him to rethink the government’s plans for onshore wind energy production as well as the planned £500 million a year in subsidies paid to the wind industry. The debate was fuelled further this month after it emerged that the Chancellor was demanding further cuts to the Renewables Obligation (RO) incentive scheme for onshore wind farms, which industry experts claimed would effectively "kill off" new developments. The Department of Energy and Climate Change initially proposed a modest 10% cut, however it was revealed that the Treasury is now demanding cuts at 25%.
Tory MP Tim Yeo, the all-party energy and climate change select committee chair, criticised the ‘Treasury intervention’. "The way to… realise the savings the Treasury wants to achieve is to have more onshore renewable energy, which requires lower levels of subsidy, and less offshore, which requires more. We need to change the balance," Yeo said in The Guardian.
Renewables central to a low-carbon economy
To meet the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions targets – to effectively reduce them by half by 2025 – would require a power sector that is virtually carbon-free by the mid to late 2020s. Some renewables opponents have argued that efficient combined cycle gas power plants would help us achieve our targets. However, the LSE report says, “It is not a choice between onshore wind and fossil fuels,” and that policy makers need to avoid ‘locking in’ further high-carbon electricity sources.
“The UK must undertake a shift in its energy supply towards much less carbon-intensive sources. Renewable energy, such as onshore wind, is central to this ambition,” the report’s introduction reads.
Contribution to the energy mix
The report examines how much onshore wind could contribute to the UK’s energy mix. By early 2012, onshore wind capacity had reached 4800 MW and was already a significant proportion (28 percent) of our renewable energy output. However, in order to reach our targets by the mid 2020’s, onshore wind capacity would need to increase to 15000-25000MW, requiring the construction of approximately 4000-8000 new turbines.
As of April of this year, the construction of enough wind farms to meet this target was either approved or awaiting approval. However, the report warned that all planned installations are unlikely to be built as approval rates were estimated to be around 69 per cent. Output could be higher however, and technology efficiency improved, to make up any gap.
The ‘intermittency’ problem
The report examines the impact of onshore wind energy’s ‘intermittency’ on the electricity system. Because wind cannot be ‘constant’ at all times or during peak demand, wind energy requires balancing and output management – which detractors often argue cancels out any economic benefit.
However, the report says that the challenges are often ‘exaggerated’ and that a combination of smart transmission and distribution systems, interconnection to other energy markets, energy storage and load management measures can address the ‘intermittency’ problem.
The cost of onshore wind
Cost, the report states, is the key advantage that onshore wind has over other low-carbon energy sources. It is much cheaper than offshore wind and other renewables, and will remain so for some time. We have abundant wind resources in the UK and the technology is mature, requiring less development. And, the report says, it would put less pressure on fuel bills. “This is important at a time of heightened sensitivity about the cost of green policies and their impact on fuel poverty.”
The LSE report recognises that onshore wind raises environmental concerns, due to its visual impact on local environments. “People value natural landscapes and are willing to pay to preserve them, even if the impact of wind farms on wildlife are sometimes exaggerated,” the report states. Reducing the amenity value of nature (a measure of the associated benefits of living in or near to desirable natural areas), constitutes a real economic cost that needs to be considered. The report recommends that turbines should not be allowed in areas of outstanding natural beauty or high ecological value.
Local communities may oppose wind projects because they are not fairly compensated as well. “In a typical UK wind project, the benefits accrue nationwide (to a project developer and ultimately electricity consumers), while the environmental side-effects are borne locally.”