TCS Daily

Time to Buy Candles

By Eamonn Butler - July 22, 2003 12:00 AM

Propellers are clustering on the cold, windy coasts of Europe.

Germany already prides itself in producing half of Europe's wind energy, and plans more offshore wind parks along the North Sea and Baltic coasts. Ending nuclear generation has been official policy there ever since the Greens joined the Social Democrat coalition in 1998.

Denmark too has more than 6,000 wind farms, which (it claims) costs little more than conventional coal-fired generation. It's a popular business, with tens of thousands of Danes owning shares in it.

But all this is eclipsed by plans announced in London by Trade Secretary Patricia Hewitt to give Britain the world's biggest wind-generation capacity within seven years. And she believes in it too: Britain's nuclear power stations are being phased out one by one, and there are no plans to build any more, much to the glee of her colleagues in the ruling Labour Party.

Well, to all these visionary North Europeans, I say: it's time to buy candles.

There's no way that we can rely on wind power to the exclusion of nuclear energy. Britain's wind farms are already subsidy farms. You can just put up a windmill and relax while the public cash rolls in. And of course, many people do. But would they be so keen to make the effort without that inducement taken from taxpayers?

The British target is to generate as much as 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020, with maybe half of that coming from wind power. That would mean building and installing 20 two-megawatt windmills every week between now and then. Not very likely. It would absorb a truly staggering amount of public cash. And is it even desirable?

The environmental case for windmills is not -- well, not very green. One or two might form an interesting tourist digression, but when 20 a week are going up they become an eyesore. Particularly since the most windswept parts of North Europe are also some of the most picturesque. And you can't hide windmills in valleys and fjords; they have to go on the hills, where you can see them for miles.

When you get up to them, they're pretty noisy. And messy: they regularly slice birds in half, including rare species like the Red Kite.

With marine windmills, it is seabirds that get chopped in half. And windmills at sea interfere with navigational radar and are a hazard to shipping and to aviation (it can get pretty foggy in the North Sea); not to mention the fact that their foundations contribute to coastal erosion. Indeed, few of the engineering problems of wind- or wave-generators at sea are well understood, and none has been properly costed.

But the real problem is that, miserable as it is for much of the time, the wind doesn't always blow on the North Sea coast. (And forget solar power, because the sun doesn't shine much there either.) For about a third of the time, there isn't enough wind to cook a piece of toast. So picture it: there we are, on Christmas Day, with an anti-cyclone parked off to the west of France, Britain and the low countries becalmed, and millions of households wondering why the turkey isn't cooking. I don't think Mrs Hewitt can expect to get many votes from that.

Denmark, where wind power generates about 15 percent of the electricity, has just removed subsidies for three proposed 150MW offshore wind farms, effectively cancelling them, because any more of this uncertain wind power would cause serious destabilisation of their grid.

No, you can't rely on wind power for your core electricity load. You need something reliable, like coal, gas or nuclear.

Of course, everyone has a downer on coal and gas because of environmental concerns, and in particular the absurd Kyoto targets. Mind you, in the great scheme of things, moving to wind power -- even if practicable -- wouldn't make a sigh's worth of difference. Europe accounts for just a few percent of world energy consumption. And world energy consumption is going to grow fast, as a result of rapid development in China, India, and other countries that aren't so politically correct about using fossil fuels. A few pious Europeans switching to renewables for what is a small amount of a shrinking proportion of total world energy demand is hardly going to do much to save the planet.

But the greatest hatred of the political activists is directed against nuclear energy. The big argument is about what to do with the waste -- although nearly all the problem is with the existing legacy, not the waste from new plants, which are much cleaner and more efficient.

Phasing out nuclear plants doesn't help meet the Kyoto targets that are driving so much of the renewables debate, because renewables just can't provide our basic energy needs. As they know in Sweden, where a reactor due to come offline this winter has stayed open in consequence, and in Finland, where the same has been found.

Using gas-fired generation to take on the core load provided by nuclear energy would just put up emissions again. Goodbye Kyoto. And hydrogen power, did I hear you say? Well, hydrogen's got a lot going for it in terms of cutting vehicle emissions, but you have to create the hydrogen in the first place, and for that you need electricity. Indeed, completely switching to a hydrogen transport economy would actually require a 50 percent increase in electricity supply.

However you look at it, we need a mix of energy fuels, and in the dark and chilly parts of Europe that's going to have to include nuclear energy for some time. Those politicians who are phasing it out so fast will soon be looking at an even darker and chillier future as the "generation gap" opens up. But I'll be all right, because I'm well stocked up with my candles.

Dr. Eamonn Butler is Director of the Adam Smith Institute, London.

TCS Daily Archives