Anti-Wind Power Study Kicks Up Storm In UK

A think tank’s study that concludes natural gas and nuclear power are more cost-effective ways to tackle climate change than wind power has caused a row in the United Kingdom, with some media heralding the research while the country’s leading clean energy industry group has denounced it as “based on the work of anti-wind cranks.”

The study [PDF] from the social policy institute Civitas repeats a familiar charge of wind opponents – that because it ebbs and flows and requires fossil-fuel-based backup generating capability, any emissions benefits from wind are limited at best. “Wind power, backed by conventional gas-fired generation, can emit more CO2 than the most efficient gas turbines running alone,” the Civitas study said. Wind becomes even less attractive – because it becomes more expensive – when a cost is placed on the CO2 produced by the backup energy sources, Civitas said.

civitas wind study

image via RWE npower renewables

The Civitas report was authored by Ruth Lea, an economist who in 2009 wrote, “I believe that man-made global warming is a huge con, propelled by clever propagandists who don the green cloak of environmentalism to wreck freedoms and control people’s lives.” But the study’s scientific foundation is built on the work of Colin Gibson, who was director of the U.K.’s electric power transmission network in the 1990s, and Kees le Pair, a Dutch physicist.

For instance, Lea writes: “C. le Pair has recently shown that deploying wind turbines on ‘normal windy days’ in the Netherlands actually increased fuel (gas) consumption, rather than saving it, when compared to electricity generation with modern high-efficiency gas turbines. Ironically and paradoxically the use of wind farms therefore actually increased CO2 emissions, compared with using efficient gas-fired combined cycle gas turbines (CCGTs) at full power.”

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.


  • Reply January 12, 2012


    u201cInstead, wind can be integrated into our existing electricity system to act as a fuel saver, enabling us to harness the weather when itu2019s available.”nnThis statement by Dr Edge is frankly absurd, as it totally ignores the efficiency of operation of the thermal plant on the grid – which is after all what this Civitas report is about.nIt remains, whatever he may claim to the contrary, u00a0that there must be sufficient capacity of plant available instantaneously onu00a0DEMAND to satisfy the nations needs, or there will be power cuts.

  • Reply January 12, 2012

    Michael Goggin

    As weu2019ve noted before, the fossil fuel industry and allied groups are engaged in a desperate misinformation campaign to muddy the waters about one of the indisputable benefits of wind energy: its proven record of greatly reducing fossil fuel usenand harmful pollution. Each of these attacks has been roundly rebutted by government data and studies by independent grid operators conclusively showing that pollution and fossil fuel use decline significantly in lockstep as regions ramp up their use of wind energy. In fact, much of the data indicates that the emissions savings of wind energy are even larger than expected because wind energy tends to disproportionately displace dirtier and less flexible coal plants relative to less dirty and more flexible natural gas plants. Weu2019ve also pointed out numerous critical flaws in each of these fossil fuel industry-funded attacks on wind energy. In the interests of space we wonu2019t repost all of the data and citations here, but they can be found at the following links:n n latest incarnation of this misinformation campaign against wind energy comes from a Web posting by a Dutchnanti-wind activist, C. le Pair. While we wouldnu2019t ordinarily expect non-peer-reviewed attacks on wind energy on an obscure Dutch anti-wind website to receive much attention, in this case major publications like The Atlantic and The Guardian have covered his claims. Fortunately The Atlantic and The Guardian articles were duly skeptical of the anti-wind activistu2019s claims and included quotes from professors and other experts pointing out many reasons why the anti-wind claims were false. n, the quotes from those experts did not comprehensively address all of the flaws in le Pairu2019s work, so we will do so here:nnPower Grid Operations:nnAs others have pointed out, le Pairu2019s attack is based on a serious and fundamental misunderstanding of how the power grid operates. Le Pair assumes that changes in the output of each wind turbine must be compensated by corresponding changes in the output of a fossil-fired power plant. u00a0nnFirst of all, le Pair fails to understand that the output of all wind turbines connected to the power grid is combined, which greatly reduces the variability of their aggregate output. Dozens of studies have found that when hundreds or thousands of wind turbines spread over hundreds of miles are aggregated, changes in output at one wind turbine are almost always canceled out by changes in the output of the other wind turbines. ( The short-term variability in wind output is the most greatly reduced, as it takes hours for a single weather event to affect a significant share of a wind fleet spread over hundreds of miles. This short-term variability is the most important as this is what grid operators must accommodate by using fast-acting, expensive, and inefficient reserve generation, and fortunately wind energy adds little to the need for these reserves. Longer-term (over an hour or more) variations are far more easily and efficiently accommodated by grid operators.nnSecond, le Pair fails to understand that changes in aggregate wind output are combined with all other sources of variability on the power system, which cancels out many of the changes in wind output. Since the dawn of electricity more than a century ago, power grid operators have been kept busy 24/7/365 continually changing the output of power plants to accommodate changes in electricity demand and supply. Electricity demand changes drastically as people turn appliances on and off and as factories come on and offline. Small changes in the weather can drastically change the number of people running air conditioners or electric heaters. Many changes in electricity demand are unpredictable or imperfectly predictable, which make them harder for grid operators to accommodate. Because most of thesenchanges in electricity use are random, much of the time electricity demand is decreasing when wind output is decreasing or vice versa, meaning that the changes in wind output are canceled out.nnSimilar to the unexpected changes in electric demand, all conventional power plants experience unexpectednoutages on a fairly frequent basis due to mechanical or electrical failures. These outages occur instantaneously and without warning, requiring grid operators to maintain enough fast-acting backup reserve generation 24/7/365 to replacenthe largest power plant on the grid, which is often the 1000+ MW needed to replace a large coal or nuclear plant. As noted above, these reserves are far more costly and inefficient than the slower-acting reserves that modestly increase in need at high penetrations of wind energy.u00a0nnLe Pair also assumes that all changes in supply and demand must be accommodated by fossil fuel power plants, even though in many parts of the world hydroelectric plants provide the needed reserves without any emissions penalty at all. Le Pairu2019s rough and obsolete estimates for the emissions/efficiency penalty for operating a fossil fuel power plant at less than full load or cycling the plant are also considerably higher than real-world data indicates, as many fossil fuel plants can decrease their output by 1/3 or more without experiencing more than a trivial decline in efficiency. This is particularly true of modern fossil plants that are designed to operate very flexibly with minimal reductions in efficiency.nnFinally, Le Pair ignores the findings of other studies that the emissions savings of wind energy are even larger than expected because wind energy tends to disproportionately displace dirtier and less flexible coal plants relative to less dirty and more flexible natural gas plants. nnAs a result of these flaws, le Pairu2019s estimates greatly overstate the challenge of integrating wind energy and any emissions penalty associated with integrating wind. The theoretical power system he envisions is completely different from how the actual power system operates. Consequently, his results and conclusions that lead him to attack wind are a pure fiction that bears no relationship to what happens on the real power system. As a result, it is not surprising that his conclusions are contradicted by a large body of government and independent grid operator data and peer-reviewed studies, referenced in the links at the beginning, showing that wind energy does result in the expected savings of fossil fuel use andnemissions.u00a0nnAs an added case study to illustrate the real-world emissions and fossil fuel use savings of wind energy,nletu2019s look at Spainu2019s success with wind energy.The data for Spain shows a remarkable success story of wind and solar energy drastically cutting Spainu2019s fossil fuel use and emissions. Between 2005 and 2009, Spainu2019s CO2 emissionsnfrom coal and natural gas consumption fell from 150.5 million metric tons to 117.1 million metric tons, a decline of 22% over just four years. Electricity production from wind steadily grew from 20.1 billion kwh in 2005 to 34.8nbillion kwh in 2009. Hydroelectric output also increased as a result of 2005 being a poor water year, going from 17.7 billion kwh in 2005 to 26.0 billion kwh in 2009. Total electricity generation in Spain was flat over this time period, with 272.1 billion kwh produced in 2005 and 275.1 billion kwh produced in 2009. So wind grew from providing 7.4% of the countryu2019s electricity in 2005 to 12.6% in 2009, while hydroelectric increased from 6.5% to 9.5%. Solar also helped out by growing from almost zero output in 2005 to 5.8 billion kwh in 2009. Spain became a net exporter of electricity over that time period, going from exporting 1.3 billion kwh in 2005 to 8.1 billion kwh in 2009, so one canu2019t argue that an increased reliance on imports allowed Spain to keep its emissions low. If one wants to remove the impact variability in hydroelectric output maynhave on the results, one can use 2006 as the base year, since 2006 and 2009 had nearly identical hydroelectric output. With 2006 as the base year, wind output increased from 22.1 billion kwh to 34.8 billion kwh, growing from 7.9% ofnelectricity generation to 12.6% of electricity generation. CO2 emissions fell from 144.6 million metric tons in 2006 to 117.1 million metric tons in 2009, a decline of 19%. All of the data is available here:n Emissions:nnLe Pair claims that it takes 1.5 years for a wind turbine to produce enough energy to offset the energy that wasnused to build and install the turbine. The only cited basis for this claim is a very rough back-of-the-envelope estimate from a private email sent to le Pair by an acquaintance. Even worse, that estimate only roughly guesses at thenenergy needed for the steel and concrete, the two largest energy consuming components of a wind turbine, and then roughly doubles that number to account for other energy uses with no effort to precisely quantify those factors. LenPair also assumes a 25% capacity factor for the wind turbine, even though typical wind turbines in the U.S. produce about 1/3 more energy than that. Correcting that discrepancy alone brings the energy payback time back to about one year.nnIn contrast to the rough and unsubstantiated estimates in le Pairu2019s work, a number of peer-reviewed studies have thoroughly accounted for the energy inputs and outputs for wind turbines and all have found the energy payback period to be around 6 months. Here are a couple of the comprehensive peer-reviewed analyses, each finding an energy payback period of under one year, that le Pair should have referenced instead of relying on an unsubstantiated back-of-the-envelope calculation:n Pair also entirely ignores the fact that a significant amount of energy and carbon emissions are involved in constructing and operating all types of conventional power plants and providing them with fuel . Coal, gas, nuclear, and hydroelectric plants are all built out of massive quantities of energy-intensive materials like concrete and steel. In addition, significant amounts of energy are involved in mining and transporting coal, natural gas, and nuclear fuel.u00a0 nu00a0nOf course, the most important factor is that after the brief energy payback period a wind turbine will continue providing zero emissions energy for decades, while a fossil plant will continue to consume fossil fuels and belch pollution for decades. Again, all peer-reviewed analyses have concluded that the lifecycle emissions of wind plants are at most a small fraction of those from conventional plants.nnLe Pair also makes the entirely unsubstantiated claim that wind plants have considerable onsite energy use. In fact, the onsite energy use of wind plants is minimal, considerably less than the onsite parasitic losses associated with pumping water at conventional steam plants, operating pollution control equipment at fossil plants, drying and crushing fuel at coal plants, etc. nnDespite the facts, the desperate misinformation campaign to muddy the waters about the benefits of wind energyncontinues. So far in this case it appears that the facts have prevailed, as the obscure, unsubstantiated, and deeply flawed website posting of a single Dutch anti-wind activist has been treated with the skepticism it deserves when directly contradicted by a large body of government and independent grid operator data and peer-reviewed studies showing that wind energy does result in the expected savings of fossil fuel use and emissions.nnMichael GogginnAmerican Wind Energy AssociationnnMichael Goggin

  • Reply January 13, 2012


    Hi Michael Goggin and readers of Earth Techling. Long time no see!u00a0 Michael, keep preaching to the choirs who will buy it.u00a0 The misinformation campaign, though, is AWEA’s – by way of you and others whose livelihoods depend on promoting your so called “modern technology.”u00a0 The burden of proof wind reduces CO2 emissions cost effectively is on your industry, and readers who believe human-caused atmospheric CO2 is an issue should demand proper independent study of the complex wind energy efficacy matter.u00a0 nnOne thing is for sure:u00a0 the cost of wind energy alone is meaningless, since it is not a substitute for conventional nuclear, fossil or hydro powered plants.u00a0 Those plants must be there – with or without the wind infrastructure – to perform flexibly, dependably, and in response to instantaneous levels and changes in demand when the weather doesn’t – which is almost always.u00a0 Because this is true, theu00a0 unit cost of wind energy can only be fairly compared to the cost of the fuel it saves – not to the levelized cost of energy from conventional sources.u00a0u00a0 All of the capital and fixed operating costs of the fossil/nuclear/hydro fleets remain regardless of how many thousands of these unwieldy air current mining machines are erected across the globe.nnThe US DOE/EIA has levelized cost of energy figures broken down by capital, fixed and variable expenses for each generating technology.u00a0 Based on this information, it appears CCGT units are one seventh the cost per unit of CO2 emissions avoided compared to adding wind to coal.u00a0 Of course lowering the cost of CO2 emission mitigation maximizes the amount of CO2 that can be mitigated.u00a0 I am assuming that is the goal of this readership…

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