Category Archives: Efficiency

The Anti-Wind Lobby: Classic NIMBYism

In the renewables industry we have a perjorative, NIMBY which stands for Not In My Back Yard. It conjures the image of small minded, irrational opponents of renewables based solely on narrow, local objections.

A week or so ago, it was widely reported that 106 MPs (almost entirely tories) have written a letter criticising subsidies for wind power. I have reproduced this letter below (italics) with my own comments added.

“The Rt. Hon David Cameron MP
The Prime Minister
10 Downing Street

30th January 2012

As Members of Parliament from across the political spectrum, we have grown more and more concerned about the Government’s policy of support for on-shore wind energy production.

In these financially straightened times, we think it is unwise to make consumers pay, through taxpayer subsidy, for inefficient and intermittent energy production that typifies on-shore wind turbines.

1. These are financially straightened times. Well observed. Consumers pay, not through taxpayer subsidy but through levies on energy tariffs. According to Ofgem’s breakdown of household bills, this currently amounts to 10% of electricity and 4% of gas bills (for all environmental subsidies of which wind energy is only a part).

2. Wind energy is inefficient and intermittent. Really, this old tosh hasn’t died yet?!
These MPs obviously haven’t been reading their POST Notes as #315 states that, over winter, wind has a load factor (defined as percentage of time at maximum capacity) of 70%. Over summer this is lower with figures for favourable onshore locations given as 25-30%. Geographical diversity will help to smooth out the variability of the UK wind supply. RenewableUK, the trade body for the wind industry claims that wind turbines are typically generating for between 70 and 85% of the time. The issue is that for much of this time they are not generating at full power so over a year they produce about 30% of what they would produce if they were operating at their maximum output all the time.
With large quantities of wind power we do need more electricity plant for when the wind output is lower but this does not mean we have large amounts of idling plant waiting for the wind to die down.
Electricity is bought and sold close enough to the time of generation that we have a pretty good idea of how much wind will be available. What this does to the economics of electricity generation is interesting because once the wind turbines are up, any generation is virtually free. We don’t need to provide fuel. What large amounts of wind generation do is reduce how much of the time we need gas power stations to run. This hurts their economics so electricity from gas becomes a bit more expensive per unit but electricity from wind costs virtually nothing once the turbines are up.

3. Efficiency is a concept that hardly matters when your fuel source is free and harmless. But for the record, wind energy is on the same order of electrical efficiency as a conventional gas power station.

In the on-going review of renewable energy subsidies, we ask the Government to dramatically cut the subsidy for on-shore wind and spread the savings made between other types of reliable renewable energy production and energy efficiency measures.

Damian Carrington made a really good point about this one better than I ever could. Wind is the cheapest form of renewable power generation in the UK. If we want X amount of renewable energy (and we do), getting it from anywhere else will cost more money.
What he didn’t say which deserves a mention is that wind energy is getting cheaper. The right level of subsidy is the lowest one that makes industry install the level of wind power that we want and that level is probably lower now than it was when we last decided how much subsidy each form of renewable power gets. A report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance last November projected that onshore wind energy will be fully competitive with gas power by 2016. There will still need to be a subsidy at this point because everything being equal, energy companies want to build gas power stations. They are a technology they know and understand and they slot neatly into the electricity system as they think of it.

We also are worried that the new National Planning Policy Framework, in its current form, diminishes the chances of local people defeating unwanted on-shore wind farm proposals through the planning system. Thus we attach some subtle amendments to the existing wording that we believe will help rebalance the system.

Isn’t this the point of the national planning policy framework? To ensure that when a project is of strategic national interest (so major energy, transport etc projects) then it is less likely to be derailed by local issues. But rebalance away, good luck.

Finally, recent planning appeals have approved wind farm developments with the inspectors citing renewable energy targets as being more important than planning considerations. Taken to its logical conclusion, this means that it is impossible to defeat applications through the planning system. We would urge you to ensure that planning inspectors know that the views of local people and long established planning requirements should always be taken into account.

Perhaps, renewable energy targets are more important than planning considerations?
On a more conciliatory note, here’s a great promo from Ecotricity which shows what we stand to lose and to gain from switching more of our electricity supply over to renewable sources.

It’s not entirely correct as for each gigawatt of power station (say four cooling towers), you would need at least 50 wind turbines to replace them and this is the part which these MPs are really complaining about. It is the part they should be complaining about. It really is a difficult issue to discuss whether large proportions of the upland areas of our country should be covered with wind turbines and we need to consider the effect on the landscape. What annoys me is that they seem to think that this isn’t enough and that they need to offer a flawed economic argument against wind turbines.

Yours sincerely,



Update (27 Feb): Adair Turner says much the same as my last paragraph in the Guardian. Aesthetic concerns – Yes, Made-up bollocks about effectiveness – No.


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End Use Efficiency is a good idea because…

Occasionally, I hear someone talking about how it makes more sense to make power stations more efficient rather than making incremental improvements to efficiency at the point of use.

Obviously I’m in favour of efficiency improvements anywhere (except maybe in the NHS where they are “efficiency improvements”). I’m going to use what’s called an Energy Flow Diagram (I prefer the other name, Sankey Diagram, it has more character). This one is from the British Government and shows where our energy came from and where it was used in 2010.

UK Energy in 2010

On the diagram, you start on the left with all your energy inputs, 314.7 Million Tonnes of Oil Equivalent of (top to bottom) Gas, Coal, directly produced electricity (mostly Nuclear with a little Hydropower and Wind), Biofuels, Petroleum (oil).
Anything that turns and scoots off the bottom of the diagram is either being exported or represents the energy lost in converting energy into another form. The Green ones at the start are oil exports, the big Light Purple one is power station losses and the Skinny Multicoloured one like an old school data ribbon is losses incurred moving energy around our gas and electricity networks.

Now, moving left to right, you follow the fuel (and electricity) through the system until on the right you reach the 159.1 Million Tonnes of Oil Equivalent of users.
There are two big yellow blocks in the middle. We can pretty much ignore the first one, oil refineries but it’s worth mentioning because this is where the diagram really gets started once we close the system to imports and exports. Our total national demand for energy inputs is 227.5 Million Tonnes of Oil Equivalent.

WARNING: This next bit (the second yellow block, power stations) is me going all information overload and explaining a bit of the diagram I wasn’t going to write about. It explains what it means in interesting but unnecessary detail. If you want to skip it I’ll let you know when it’s over.

The second big yellow block is power stations, people are right to care about this bit. Looking at this diagram they produce 31.3 Mtoe of electricity and waste 46.of Mtoe of the energy that was in the fuel for an average efficiency of about 40%. This seems pretty rubbish but it’s not all that bad. At the moment you can’t get much past 60% efficiency for a gas fired power station. More efficient basically means burning hotter and if we want to go any hotter than we already do, we’ll have to invent some pretty magnificent materials. Coal power stations are less efficient. To start with if someone gives you the choice of coal or gas to burn, take the gas every time. Coal is a solid. If you want to burn it efficiently you have to smash it to smithereens first (think flour, only you wouldn’t want to eat that cake). That process takes energy and even then, coal just won’t burn like gas does so your power station is running colder (remember that’s the same as less efficiently). There are a bunch of improvements you can make to the sort of 1960s and ’70s coal power stations we have in Britain and, if you use them all (expensive) then you might get a bit more than 50% efficiency.


So here we are at the right of the diagram. As you can see, there are three big end points in the diagram. The first is industry, the second is transport and the third is domestic.
The really cool thing is you can look at the colours of the arrows to see what fuels end up where.
The first thing you will have noticed is that we pretty much don’t use oil except for transport and we pretty much use nothing else for transport (it’s not easy to get the energy sources for walking and cycling onto this chart but it hardly matters, they’re tiny in energy terms).
The second thing I hope you’ll notice is that we use way more gas than electricity. At work it might be about 50:50 but at home it’s more like 80:20.

So there are two points I’ve been taking a while to make. The second has a caveat. Sorry.

1. For every 1% saving in energy consumption at the end of this diagram this amplifies as you go back across the diagram so saving that one percent over here means we save 1.43% of the fuels we need to feed in on the left of the diagram, an extra 0.43%! If we make power stations 1 percentage point more efficient we’d get another 0.78 Million Tonnes of Oil Equivalent out of the fuels we put in, 0.34% of the energy we needed at the start.

2. Our homes are leaky as a rusty bucket. George Monbiot once said they have a thermal performance only marginally better than tents. Sad but true. If we want to reduce our energy usage we need to be looking at heat about four times as hard as we look at electricity. Perhaps, given that it’s relatively difficult to make some of those savings from electricity (replacement of cyclical goods or wholesale lifestyle changes) we should try even harder on the heat side where the answer is simple and it’s keeping the heat in our buildings.

I said there would be a caveat on the second one and here it is: Gas is about three times less carbon intensive (and about the same or even more for money) than our electricity so from an environmental point of view any of these electricity vs. gas numbers can be divided by three. Household greenhouse gas emissions from energy are 57% gas, 43% from electricity and only a quarter of industrial emissions.

What am I doing? Well, I live in a rented flat so I do what I can which is mostly being energy conscious; turning off lights, closing doors to the warmer rooms and replacing old bulbs (there will be a blog about LEDs, my friend solar power’s distant cousin in future). I have learned how to use what passes for heating controls in my house, they’re not the worst but they could be better. But what I need to do that I’ve been lining up is to buy an egg-timer so I don’t spend too long in the shower. It’s probably the easiest change I could make, I’ll get to work earlier and I’ll be cutting down on both gas and water usage so it’s an all round win.

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