The UK's wind energy deployment is somewhat sad at present, but all that is about to change.
RenewableUK recently published a study on wind energy deployment rates across the EU. To summarise, whilst experts agree that the British Isles have the best wind resource in Europe, the average number of wind turbines per unit of land mass in the UK is far behind our European neighbours.
Denmark leads with 11 large turbines per 100km2, Germany has six, while Spain has three and Ireland two. Even the Netherlands, a country with a significantly larger population density has close to six. On the other hand, the UK has just one large wind turbine per 100km2, despite the fact that on average the electricity yield is 50 per cent better than in continental Europe, for a turbine unit of the same size.
The findings of this study, published by some of the major national dailies such as the Times, the Guardian and the Telegraph, have started to slowly percolate through the layers of misinformation about wind energy.
First, it is undeniable that wind energy can provide a significant amount of electricity to the grid. Ireland's wind turbines now provide around 13 per cent of the country's electricity on an annual basis, while in Spain they provide 16 per cent. In Denmark, that share is approaching a full quarter. To put things into context, UK's fleet of nuclear power stations provides around 15 per cent of the country's electricity.
Even within UK this pattern is being reinforced by the example of Scotland, which in the third quarter of 2010 reached a historical milestone of sourcing close to a third of its electricity from renewables, and half of that from wind. Correspondingly, the number of wind turbines in Scotland is close to two per 100km2.
But we mustn't lose sight of the fact that the intensive energy-using south of the UK is lagging in terms of renewable energy deployment. England, for instance, has 0.5 turbines per 100km2. Fortunately, over the next decade the pipeline of onshore wind farms in construction and the offshore wind build out programme, currently the most advanced in the world, should rectify this.
So it is as simple as this: the more wind turbines we deploy, the bigger the percentage of electricity we will be getting from wind on an annual basis. However, we can draw a number of further conclusions from this fundamental fact.
When the wind is blowing, we can use wind to offset fossil fuel usage. The often quoted argument against wind energy, namely that its variability annuls any of its carbon or energy saving benefits, simply doesn't stack up.
The latest statistics from Ireland, a tremendously interesting example of an island grid with limited interconnection to other electricity markets, show a real carbon saving benefit once the share of wind electricity as part of total consumption went over 10 per cent.
This real carbon saving benefit leads to the conclusion that the higher cost of electricity from wind (compared to existing thermal generators such as coal or gas) will offset future fossil fuel rises. The Department of Energy and Climate Change 2010 statement on the future cost of green policies forecasts that by 2020, the net cost to the consumer of green energy measures on an annual energy bill will be just 1 per cent or £13 compared to bill with no measures.
The reason for this is simple: the current trend of coal and gas price rises, which have doubled or trebled in the last decade is set to continue. Once wind delivers around 30 per cent of UK's electricity (up from around 5 per cent now), this will offset the fossil fuel price volatility, and effectively start to deliver savings to consumers.
On the contrary, let's assume that we don't roll out the environmental and climate-change measures now planned, and we join in the world-wide dash for fossil fuels. In the short term, by 2020, this strategy could save us a marginal amount of money.
But what then? It is now 2020 and we have no renewable capacity to offset future fossil fuel rises, we have done little to offset emissions and, finally, we have not created the matching 'green collar' economy driving GDP growth. In those circumstances, a situation could emerge where as a country we pay more for energy, while being less able to afford it.
Within the next ten years we can develop our energy wind energy resources in line with our European neighbours. Higher wind turbine deployment rates on the continent have brought an acceptance of wind energy and obvious economic benefits. We should make sure that the UK's energy economy is at the forefront of this trend. *