Christopher Pincher is MP for Tamworth. Follow Chris on Twitter.
Britain should not build on-shore wind turbines because they are “elegant”. There are no points to be won for that. We should build them only if they are efficient and contribute significantly to our energy needs, our security requirements and our carbon reduction targets. Unfortunately, on-shore wind is not efficient, it does not offer security of supply and there are better ways to meet our green energy obligations.
Currently on-shore turbine companies enjoy a £400million subsidy soaking up nearly half the total support offered to renewable energy providers. Photo voltaic, biomass, waste incineration and microgeneration subsidies were cut at the end of last year yet the cash available to on-shore wind reduces only gradually by 10%. The result is sure to be a continued wind rush to erect 4,500 new turbines, up to 100 metres high, despite their adverse impact on energy bills and on the landscape and the communities that must accommodate them.
Subsidies can be better justified if they help develop and establish British-based technology and knowledge that can be exported to foreign markets for domestic benefit. However on-shore turbine construction is driven by German, Danish and Norwegian firms cashing in on hundreds of millions in generous incentives British bill payers stump up to them. Lord Lawson put his finger on it when he said “it is extremely expensive and extremely damaging both for the British economy and for British consumers – to have so many foreign companies creaming off the subsidy.” The subsidy offered to the marine renewable industry, where Britain has leading edge technology, is much more sensible as it promotes our own industry both at home and abroad. Tidal current has its draw backs but at least it is predictable. Trying to predict the wind is like trying to guess the next Grand National winner. All too often they fall at the first fence.
There are also hidden costs to wind turbines, especially when they are proposed in unspoilt countryside. Ask an estate agent and they will tell you that a wind turbine application to the local planning committee can easily affect the value of homes in the immediate vicinity. Vendors are forced to reduce their prices to attract buyers, reducing the stamp duty accruing to the Treasury in the process, not to mention the buying power of the vendor who pockets less for their property.
But fundamentally, the problem with on-shore wind is that it cannot be relied upon to deliver the energy we need, when we need it. Back-up generation, particularly from gas fired stations, always needs to be on hand when the wind stops blowing and the turbines stop turning. That duplication is costly, but hardly ever factored into the calculations of the cost of on-shore wind.
And they take up so much space. On-shore wind churns out a meagre 2 Watts per square metre compared with 1000 Watts per square metre from a nuclear power station. So to get the same sort of generating capacity as just one nuclear power station, we will need to erect 500 wind turbines as well as the infrastructure – pipes, cables, etc., to channel the energy into generating stations. For Britain to generate approximately the same nuclear output as France we would need to cover just 0.02% of our landmass with power stations. Yet to achieve a similar capacity from wind turbines we would need to cover an area larger than London and Wales. That puts things into perspective.
The government is right to pursue innovative and renewable technologies to reduce our carbon footprint. Marine renewables, as well as the opportunities offered by shale gas and carbon capture and storage from coal, should be encouraged and supported. However, if we want clean, cheap, efficient energy, if we want to keep businesses supplied, the trains running and the lights switched on, we must focus on developing our fleet of new nuclear and gas fired stations and the infrastructure to underpin them. We must send a clear signal to investors that these are the big providers of our future needs. And, on the demand side of the energy equation, we must accelerate the goals of the Green Deal getting homes fully insulated and smart metered to make them less heat-hungry. Concentrating on on-shore wind simply because it is the most “mature” technology fails to provide us with a secure energy supply which benefits British companies and which is supported by the public. We must shift our focus and be prepared to cut its subsidy.