11 Mar 11 Eddie's Blog Global

Thriving on controversy

Mr Booker wrote a mighty long article in the Daily Mail on February 28th.

The subject was wind energy and how inefficient it was. One of the big questions has to be “why was Mr. Booker given so much space in a daily paper?” Mr Booker’s record gives a clue as to why he should write on wind energy: he is the one who denies the theory of evolution, the one who says global warming is a lie, he who founded Private Eye, and a man who thrives on controversy.

Mr Booker argues like a good lawyer. He throws so much guano around in the hope that some will stick, that there are a thousand starting points to rebut the man. So my intention is not to respond to his agenda at all. Why let him frame the question? Better to restate the obvious, documented advantages of wind energy than to sling mud in the gutter of Mr Booker’s making.

Free fuel
Wind energy uses a free fuel source. No matter what price the oil, coal or gas comes in at, wind costs the same and its fuel source is free. When oil was $30 per barrel wind costs what it costs. Now that oil costs $115 per barrel wind costs the same as it used to.

Fixed cost
The fixed nature of the costs means that the riskiness of the electrical system is reduced. Fossil fuel prices fluctuate wildly, and these costs are passed on to the customer. The introduction of wind onto the system reduces this price risk for the customer. A study carried out in Scotland showed that if the wind component of the system were to go from 21% to 32% then ipso facto, the price the customer pays would drop by 6%.

Yes there are high costs associated with building wind farms. There are lots of tonnes of iron and concrete used in their construction. We are, after all, starting a once off transition to sustainability in the way we make our electricity.

Longer lifecycle
However, once built, they last more or less forever. Sure the blades may have to be replaced, every 30 years or so, but the main components such as the tower, the foundations, the nacelle bed plate, the hub, the electrical substation, all last more or less indefinitely. They are not subject to heat, or pressure, the reasons why all thermal power stations fail to get past 30 to 40 years in age.

Because the capturing of wind energy needs large civil engineering structures to do the job, the building of wind turbines has to be supported in the first flush of youth. In the UK this support lasts for 20 years. For the rest of their lives these majestic structures utilise free energy and deliver inherently low cost electricity. In other countries the support may be of different duration from the UK, but the fundamental truth remains: support is only necessary to deal with high capital cost, the running costs are extremely low and the fuel is free.

Political instability
Imagine if we found a way to power the UK entirely with wind energy. What would be the consequences of this? The fuel source would be entirely our own and free. There would be no pollution. The fuel source would last forever, once the initial investment had been made. No worries about the political instability in any part of the world; no holding of the country to ransom, or the need to do business with bloodthirsty tyrants to gain access to their oil or gas.

Go one step further and imagine the UK making ten times more electricity than its customers need. What would Mr Booker think about this? Millions of people employed in maintenance, trading, and manufacturing. Billions of pounds earned in selling the precious commodity to countries not as well endowed with natural wind resources as the UK.

Export potential
In this, the major exporting scenario, 95% of wind energy would be made at sea. The capacity factor would be 41%. What percentage of the wind farms would be owned by British people? Many would argue that this doesn’t matter, so long as the machines were built. However it seems to me that the vast bulk of ownership would rest with British entrepreneurs and businesses. For have not nations always built their wealth on their natural sources of comparative advantage? Our long and illustrious history has been grounded in our island status. Have we not learned over the centuries to turn our isolation as an island, into one of our greatest strengths?

Up above we asked the question “what if we found a way to power the UK entirely with wind energy?” Although it’s going to be a while before we need to do this it is very helpful to answer the question in the present tense. Do we need, for instance, to build as much gas plant as wind plant? Do we see ourselves remaining an electricity island, isolated from our neighbours? Then the answer would be” perhaps.” However the technology exists to interconnect all of Europe. So in the very short term we can rely on the backup of Germany and the rest of the continent to support a much larger dependency on wind.

In the slightly longer term we use the grid to even out the local variability of wind. After all, the wind is always blowing somewhere. If we can connect up all the “somewheres” together, do we not deliver an even amount of electricity all of the time? The mathematics indicates this is so.

What happens in the massive export situation we foresaw above? By the time this happens we will be using exclusively electricity powered cars. In this most likely of futures, the battery in each car acts as a backup to the grid. On a windy night the overproduction of electricity from wind gets stored in your car. When put along with smart grids these same batteries act as millions of small power stations the next day. For do not most of us simply drive our cars to work and leave them parked all day in readiness for driving home in the evening?

In this distant scenario the Alps will be connected strongly to the Scandinavian mountains. The great reserves of hydro power, kept behind dams and available for backup will further reinforce the security of our electrical system. The whole lot will be connected to the solar resources in the Sahara.

I would expect that by 2050, when we have to have full freedom from fossil fuels in our electrical setup, that we will be connected to the geothermal resources of Iceland. These are fully switchable, just like fossil fuels are today.

The vision is freedom, freedom from pollution, freedom from price hikes, freedom to be in charge of our own political future. Interdependence with our European neighbours reinforces the freedom from war that it took us ten centuries to learn.