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REF Writes to Fergus Ewing MSP

REF has today (26 April 2013) written to Mr Fergus Ewing, MSP, Minister for Energy, Enterprise and Tourism in the Scottish Government.

The immediate cause is the following Question and Answer exchange between Mr Ewing and Mr Murdo Fraser, MSP concerning the study by Professor Hughes of wind turbine performance degradation and economic lifetime:

Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party):
To ask the Scottish Government, further to the answer to question S4W-13239 by Fergus Ewing on 19 March 2013, what evidence it has to support the assertion that (a) the research carried out was fundamentally flawed and (b) modern turbines are more efficient. (S4W-13869)

Fergus Ewing:
In our view, the fundamental flaw in the report is its contention that a 15 year old wind turbine can be described as “mature”. A turbine that has been operating for 15 years must clearly have been developed and installed at a time when the technology was still very much immature. There is a wealth of information on the subject of wind turbine efficiency, available not only from the industry itself but also from credible independent commentators such as Bloomberg New Energy Finance (NEF). Analysis by Bloomberg NEF provides evidence that global capacity factors for onshore wind turbines have increased by 13 percentage points from a value of 21% in 1984 to 34% in 2011. Efficiency improvements such as better wind to power conversion especially at low wind speeds, better fluid dynamic modelling to inform device placement and more reliable machines have all contributed to the increased output from modern and thus genuinely mature devices.

This is, in our view, a very weak response, as explained in our letter to Mr Ewing:

Mr Fergus Ewing, MSP,
Minister for Energy, Enterprise and Tourism
By email: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it &
This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
26 April 2013

Dear Mr Ewing:

Scottish Government Answer to a Parliamentary Question from Mr Murdo Fraser MSP

I have just seen your most recent response to a question (S4W-13869) tabled by Mr Fraser relating to the study by Professor Hughes on the degradation of the load factors of wind turbines over time (published by Renewable Energy Foundation in December 2012).

You will not be surprised to hear that we take a close interest in what is said about work that we have released, and we are always happy to receive comments and constructive criticism. I was aware that, in responding to an earlier inquiry from Mr Fraser (S4W-13239), the Scottish Government had previously referred to Professor Hughes' study as “flawed”, so I was hoping that the Answer to Mr Fraser's follow­up question might clarify this assertion.

However, the response drafted by your civil servants does not appear to advance our understanding of the issue. It misrepresents what Professor Hughes said and relies upon global averages that are neither consistent nor relevant to the experience of wind power in the UK. To be specific:

(a) Professor Hughes studied the performance of all wind farms operating from 2002 to 2012, not just fifteen year old turbines. The bulk of his sample consisted of wind turbines installed after 2004. A significant degradation in performance can be observed even for turbines installed within the last five years.

(b) The study by Bloomberg NEF which you cite does not take account of any of the factors – location, wind availability, average age, operating regimes, etc – that must be considered in any careful analysis of the performance of wind turbines. We are simply perplexed that your staff should consider the Bloomberg study relevant to the issues raised by Professor Hughes.

In summary, your answer does not, in fact, produce any specific contrary evidence. Consequently, we conclude that, at present, it is reasonable to evaluate policy on the basis that Professor Hughes' findings provide the best description of what has happened in the past and is still happening.

Current subsidies to wind power are in effect a very large gamble funded by electricity customers. Professor Hughes' work provides strong empirically grounded analysis suggesting that the bet will not pay off. It appears from your answer that the Scottish Government is relying on the unsupported and implicit assumption that historical evidence, as produced by Professor Hughes, can be ignored because things will certainly be radically different in the future.

That is clearly a dangerous assumption, and we suggest that the Scottish Government would do better to engage with the data, employing the same analytical rigour that Professor Hughes has brought to the subject.

We would be very pleased to discuss matters with you or your officials. I have no doubt that Professor Hughes would be happy to be involved as well. This is, after all, a matter of public interest.

Yours sincerely,

John Constable


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DECC Response on Off-Shore Wind Costs

On the 4th of February, REF wrote to the Secretary of State for Energy & Climate Change, The Rt Hon Ed Davey, MP, defending our calculation of the future costs of the offshore wind program, which DECC had called "pure speculation". We also criticised the Department's assumption that costs would come down in the future, and suggested that if anyone was speculating it was DECC. We received a response yesterday, with additional underlining in Mr Davey's own hand.

In his response, the Secretary of State shows that he trusts the wind industry when they promise to cut costs in the future. That seems to us an extremely hazardous position to take. Bluntly, a subsidy-seeking industrial sector might say anything to get their foot in the door, and their undertakings should be treated with caution, particularly when the consumer burdens entailed are so vast.

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Can Renewables be Economically Competitive?

If we have learned anything over the last ten years of arbitrary targets and policy mandated income support to renewables, it is that the sector has failed to reduce its costs significantly, and, far from learning to stand on its own feet, is content to be a long-term subsidy dependent. This won't be acceptable to the consumer in the medium let alone the longer term, and it fails to provide an economically compelling low carbon example to the developing world.

Clearly, something has to change, and will change. If renewables are to have a role in that new dispensation they will have to improve dramatically. But how? What are the major problems that have to be solved before they are fundamentally economic and can make their way in the world without special and unsustainable commercial favours?

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Are Green Times Just Around the Corner?

The following talk was given at a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Rebalancing the Economy, at the House of Commons at 10.00 on the 13th of February 2013. The session topic was The Cost of Energy. Other speakers were Tamaryn Napp (Imperial College London), Professor Alan Riley (City University Law School), and Jeremy Nicholson (Director, Energy Intensive Users Group).

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Costs of Offshore Wind Farms

On the 3rd of February the Sunday Telegraph published an article about the costs of Round 3 offshore wind, and used cost estimates generated by REF: "Foreign Firms' '£100bn wind farm subsidies'" 

The Department of Energy & Climate Change was quoted as saying that our figures were "based on pure speculation". This is untrue, and we have written to the Rt Hon Ed Davey, Secretary of State at the department to point this out. Here is our letter.

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PAC Report on Offshore Wind Transmission Costs

The Public Accounts Committee has today published its report on the costs of grid connections for offshore wind: Public Accounts Committee - Twentieth Report Department of Energy and Climate Change: Offshore electricity transmission-a new model for infrastructure.

The central finding of the report is that:

"The terms of the transmission licences awarded so far appear heavily skewed towards attracting investors rather than securing a good deal for consumers." (Summary)

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Reforming Green Energy Policies

George Monbiot has just published (31.12.12) a retrospective column describing 2012 as as a landmark year in which the world's politicians turned their backs on environmental policies ("2012: the year we did our best to abandon the natural world"):

The discussion ranges broadly, but for present purposes we will focus on climate change and energy policy where he observes that:

The climate meeting in Doha at the end of the year produced a [...] combination of inanity and contradiction. Governments have now begun to concede, without evincing any great concern, that they will miss their target of no more than 2C of global warming this century. Instead we're on track for between four and six degrees. To prevent climate breakdown, coal burning should be in steep decline. Far from it: the International Energy Agency reports that global use of the most carbon-dense fossil fuel is climbing by about 200m tonnes a year. This helps to explain why global emissions are rising so fast.

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Energy Policy in an Independent Scotland

In a speech to a Scotsman conference today in Edinburgh, Energy Policy in an Independent Scotland, The Rt Hon Ed Davey, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, has issued a clear warning that in the event of Scottish independence the costs of the current subsidy programs to renewables would be be met by Scottish consumers, without cross-subsidy from England Wales.

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Separation Distances between Wind Farms and Dwellings

The Sunday Times has reported that an increasing number of local authorities are setting or considering minimum acceptable separation distances between dwellings and wind turbines in their Local Development Plans. These are reported to include Milton Keynes, Stratford on Avon, Cherwell, Staffordshire, South Cambridgeshire, Rutland, Northumberland, South Kesteven, Lincolshire County Council, and Wiltshire Council.

Typical of these is Wiltshire Council, which is consulting on a buffer zone around dwellings that increases with proposed turbine height. REF responded to that consultation following a request by a local resident, and taking noise impacts into account, concluded that the separation distances proposed represent a reasonable compromise between protecting the amenity of Wiltshire residents while enabling development of appropriately-scaled renewable energy projects.

Given that local planners are expected to enhance or, at least, preserve the amenity enjoyed by local residents it makes sense to ensure the impacts of wind farms are not excessive.

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How Much More Onshore Wind Power will be Consented and Built in the United Kingdom?

Following remarks made by the Minister of State for Energy, John Hayes, MP, there is some confusion about the future for onshore wind power in the United Kingdom. Speaking on Channel 4 news Mr Hayes remarked:

"With respect of what is built, with what is consented and with a small proportion of what is in the planning system, we will have reached our ambition in respect of the renewables’ target – end of story.

The prime minister in the House of Commons said that when we’ve reached our targets then he invited all parties to think about where we went next. I endorse his view entirely.

In respect of the targets that we have for renewables when we take into account, what’s built, what’s consented, what’s in planning system now – it will certainly have [been] achieved, it will be job done."

Quoted in Christopher Hope, ‘Job done on windfarms, says Hayes’, Daily Telegraph (13.11.12).

It is straightforward to put these remarks into concrete terms. We know that the government’s own central scenario for onshore wind has been for “up to around” 13 GWs of capacity (DECC, Renewable Energy Roadmap 2011). However, in recent months DECC has started to say “up to 13 GWs” a reflection of a growing concern that larger capacities of onshore wind not possible due to growing public resistance to the turbines themselves and also to the substantial grid infrastructure needed to support them. Thus, we infer that when Mr Hayes refers to “our targets” he is thinking of 13 GWs.

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