When will the sun go down on Scottish wind turbines?

When will the sun go down on Scottish wind turbines?

by Jack Ponton
article from Friday 26, May, 2017

ALEX SALMOND seems to have had an obsession with renewable energy. He set the SNP's 'target' of producing the equivalent of 100% of Scotland's electricity from renewable sources without explaining or justifying the figure. Despite, or perhaps because of, his background in banking he seemed convinced that we as a nation would make money from replacing conventional generation with wind in particular. 

He coined the phrase 'the Saudi Arabia of renewables' without apparently understanding the fundamental difference between oil and renewables: oil companies pay royalties to governments, whereas consumers and governments pay subsidies to renewables operators. Renewable energy provides no benefit for the people of Scotland, only profits for the, largely overseas based, developers and a few landowners.

Despite these billions paid in subsidies and levies, support for renewables has remained practically the sole fixed SNP policy besides leaving the UK. At the All Energy conference held in Aberdeen this month Ms Sturgeon was still singing from Mr Salmond's hymn sheet. It is worth analysing her claims. She said:

"Our low carbon and renewable sector now accounts for almost 60,000 jobs across our country and has a turnover of £10.5 billion." 

To be fully understood these numbers require careful interpretation. There is no question that the deployment of more than 3000 wind turbines, not to mention thousands of rooftop solar panels, has created employment in Scotland. The large majority of these jobs are, however, associated with planning, construction and installation. Once these stages are complete there are very many fewer jobs associated with operation and maintenance. There has been a large turnover of companies that have sold installations and then gone out of business. There have been jobs, but not secure long-term jobs.

The term 'turnover' is an odd one to use in connection with an industry that has a limited long term future; even their most enthusiastic supporters cannot believe that construction of new wind farms can continue forever. Sustainable turnover corresponds roughly with sales. In 2016 renewable electricity generation in Scotland was 47.5TWh. The wholesale value of this was about £1.9 billion. The figure of £10.5bn Ms Sturgeon quotes presumably represents annual expenditure by the renewables industry.

This is in fact one-off capital expenditure, mostly for imported components, and like the claimed jobs, is not sustainable.

"In fact, our current and consented onshore capacity is enough to power the needs of Scottish households twice over." 

Total operational and consented renewable capacity is now 'in fact' sufficient to meet Mr Salmond's arbitrary target of '100% renewable electricity', i.e. all domestic,  commercial and industrial needs, with a significant margin.

Perhaps it is time to say that enough is enough?

The reference specifically to 'onshore capacity' at that point was telling. A large amount of offshore capacity has been proposed, but developers have pulled out after, presumably, evaluation of the costs and risks. Consented developments have faced legal challenge from the RSPB. Despite the recent High Court overturning of a previous judgement, the outcome of ongoing legal proceedings is still uncertain. Interestingly the relevant capacity seems to have been quietly dropped from the last Scottish Government quarterly figures. 

The SNP at one time proposed that Scotland's wind power should be concentrated offshore. Has it now given up on this and is it happy to see our countryside trashed by onshore turbines, much of whose output will be sent to England?

"Scotland to become the first area in the UK to host a subsidy-free onshore wind farm." 

Indeed. I look forward to this event (provided I don't have to live near it). As well as the explicit subsidies, Renewable Obligation Certificates and Feed in Tariffs that the UK government is happily committed to phase out, wind receives implicit subsidies in the form of expanded grid infrastructure and back-up generation capacity that sits idle much of the time due to wind's preferential grid access. The costs of these fall on consumers and by some estimates exceed the direct subsidies.

"Scotland accounts for 25% of Europe’s total offshore wind resource." 

And presently almost zero per cent of operational offshore capacity. The only development, Robin Rigg, is in the shallow Solway Firth, as far south as one can go in Scottish waters. It is unclear why anyone would choose, in the absence of large subsidies, to put turbines in Scotland's challenging offshore environment when the southern North Sea, off the coast of England, provides more benign conditions and is closer to consumers.

"And over the past couple of years, Wave Energy Scotland has committed almost £25 million for a series of ground-breaking wave technology projects."

Meaning taxpayers have put £25 million towards further experiments in a technology which, in nearly 40 years of development, has failed to achieve commercialisation.

"For example, the experience of our oil and gas industry in working offshore is clearly of real relevance to our offshore wind sector."

So why have all UK offshore developments been by German and Scandinavian companies? 

"That’s why we are seeking to be at the forefront of innovation when it comes to low or zero carbon fuels – like hydrogen. In fact, Europe’s largest fleet of hydrogen fuel cell buses is currently in operation on the roads of Aberdeen."

The hydrogen is produced, however, by steam reforming of natural gas, an expensive and energy wasteful procedure which, unless and until

large scale carbon capture becomes possible, releases more CO2 than would running the buses on compressed natural gas, a well established and economical procedure. 

"Our offshore oil and gas fields are potentially the largest carbon storage resource in Europe." 

It is unclear whether large scale carbon capture and storage will ever be

practical and economical. Offshore oil and gas fields might well provide

the 'storage' element. However this is not the problem. Efficient capture, particularly from distributed sources, remains the principal difficulty.

"Local energy systems, as we know, can help to provide secure, sustainable and affordable energy."

How do we 'know' this? All such developments have been heavily subsidised, without which they would not be 'affordable'. None of them would be 'secure' without grid backup. It is unclear what 'sustainable' actually means, but it would be interesting to discuss the concept with the purchasers of solar, wind and biomass systems whose suppliers have gone out of business leaving the owners with worthless guarantees and unmaintainable equipment.

"They include a scheme in Stirling that uses the biogas from waste water to produce heat and power;" 

Biogas was originally conceived as a way of using biological waste, as in this scheme. The amount of waste available is, however, insufficient to provide significant quantities of gas and so most of the (subsidised) schemes use crops specifically grown on good agricultural land. Even if all the arable land in Scotland were used to grow such crops it would provide enough gas to supply only 120,000 of our 2.4 million households.

"We’re determined to build a modern, secure energy system" 

Modern? In the 18th century we were dependent on windmills, waterwheels and burning wood for our energy. Secure? With 'renewables' our energy becomes dependent of the weather and the seasons, just as in the 18th century.

In short, Ms Sturgeon, as usual, talked in platitudes which her audience, mainly drawn from the renewables industry, would be pleased to hear, but which do not stand up to scrutiny.

Jack Ponton is an Emeritus Professor of Engineering, a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Institution of Chemical Engineers.

 

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