Windy Waffle

by | Apr 20, 2012

Today sees the launch of the UK’s National Oppostion to Windfarms (NOW). The launch of a group of citizens, working autonomously and without support from political parties or big business is usually the sort of thing Guardian ‘journalists’ like to celebrate. But Leo Hickman — the newspapers ‘ethical’ specialist — instead serves up a bit of a hatchet job.

The Guardian has seen emails exchanged between Nawag members sent over the past few months discussing the planning for Now. One exchange was about a suitable anthem for the group. Jerusalem and Blowin’ in the Wind featured as favourites, but one member suggests alternative lyrics for the Dad’s Army theme tune, Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Hitler? including a reference to the recently installed energy secretary Ed Davey: “Who do you think you are kidding Mr Davey/If you think this country’s done/We are the Now Group/We will stop your little game/No more wind turbines/That blight our hills and planes.”

Hickman, who likes to lecture others about ‘ethics’ — especially ‘journalistic ethics’, and the ‘ethics’ of leaking emails from UEA — doesn’t seem to mind intruding on email discussions between individuals who campaign in their spare time, from their own pockets, and in their own front rooms and village halls. And what did he discover? Oh! The unmitigated evil! What a scoop! Clearly a plot by criminal masterminds!

Er… No… A discussion about which song best represents them. No trivia is too petty for the Guardian. We saw your emails, ner nerr ner nerrr nerr.

Moving upmarket a bit, Businessgreen — which claims to be a ‘web site offering companies the latest news and best-practice advice on how to become more environmentally responsible, while still growing the all-important bottom line‘ but which is more concerned with whining about subsidy cuts than offering news and advice — reports verbatim on Renewable UK’s response to the creation of the new group. Renewable UK, of course, are the re-branded British Wind Energy Association, which is to say they represent the interests of the wind industry. Is there any reason to think that Big Wind are any nicer than Big Oil?

The wind energy industry has today hit back at the launch of a national anti-wind farm group with the release of a major new survey showing that over two-thirds of people are broadly in favour of wind farms. The survey of more than 1,000 people, carried out by Ipsos MORI on behalf of trade group RenewableUK, found 67 per cent of respondents are in favour of using wind power in the UK, with 28 per cent “strongly in favour”.

Ipsos-Mori have not published the results of their survey yet. I rang them, to see if I could get a look at the report, since the Guardian had also covered it, and Renewable UK had put out a press release announcing the findings of the survey. Nobody could take my call, so I left my number. I later got a call back from a press officer who believed I was calling from an anti-wind farm campaign. It’s true that I think wind turbines are silly… Very silly. And it’s also true that I’ve written and spoken about wind energy being a symptom of incoherent and weird politics — I’m speaking at the Cheltenham Science Festival about wind energy — but I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a ‘wind farm campaigner’. This is just about the only post on this blog that I can think of which is about wind energy — amongst nearly 500 posts.

I wanted to know, however, what it means to be ‘in favour of using wind power’. Wind power might be very good at some things — pumping water, or providing energy in remote locations, beyond the reach of the grid. I don’t even object to wind on aesthetic grounds — What concerns me are policies, politics and economics, and their influence over choices of technique. And so I wanted to know to what extent people are ‘in favour of wind power’ — would they be in favour if it meant a doubling of electricity bills? Very few people are interested in how electricity is produced — they are interested in things like climate change, because they think all the polar bears will die; or they are interested because their electricity bills have risen. Those issues lead to concern about how electricity is produced. We will have to wait to see what Ipsos Mori discovered. Meanwhile, I’m not taking Rewnable UK’s claims at face value, and I don’t think it means anything to say that N% of people are ‘in favour of wind power’. Indeed, the person from Ipsos-Mori was able to confirm that the survey didn’t go to any depth about the strength of support for wind energy policies. So it means no more to say that people are ‘in favour of wind energy’ than it means to say that people are in favour of anything: strength of commitment is not measured by asking ‘do you like X’?

So much for the survey. I find it curious that such a powerful organisation as Renewable UK should be worried about a group of civilians that they organise opinion polls to be published to coincide with the launch of the campaign, and recruit their pals in the media to pen hatchet jobs and puff pieces. The Businessgreen article continues…

However, in a detailed rebuttal RenewableUK accuses the group of using partial and non peer-reviewed research to back up its claims, while noting that a host of wildlife and conservation groups, such as Friends of the Earth and the RSPB, support well located wind farms.

The trade group categorically rejects charges wind power is too costly and has little economic benefit, arguing that the sector direcly employs over 10,000 people while independent studies have shown onshore wind farms are now “slightly more expensive than conventional plant with an expectation of increasing competitiveness”.

These statistics caught my eye. 10,000 people working in the wind sector? It seems an extremely high number for such little output. Indeed, according to Renewable UK, who publish data on wind energy installations throughout the UK, there are 339 on and offshore wind farms in the UK, with a total capacity of 6587 megawatts. If we assume that their combined load factor (the ratio of the capacity to the output) of 0.25, the net capacity of the entire UK fleet is 1647MW. And so if there really are 10,000 employees in the wind energy sector, each employee produces a capacity of just 165 kilowatts — enough for about 16 electric showers. This calls for a comparison with conventional electricity production.

According to it’s 2008 annual report and accounts [PDF],

Drax is a power generation business operating principally in the commodity markets of power, coal, biomass and carbon. We purchase coal, biomass and carbon allowances from both UK and international suppliers. We currently generate around 7%of theUK’s electricity and trade power in the electricitywholesalemarket of Great Britain.

Using statistics from Renewable UK and the Drax Group’s report, I created this table…

Green cells are known, yellow cells are calculated from the others, and pinkish cells are assumptions.

The results are stark. The Drax group produces 7% of the UK’s energy, but has just 712 employees. Thus, it takes just 100 people to produce 1% of the UK’s electricity. The 10,000 personnel seemingly working for the entire wind power sector are roughly the same in number as would be necessary to operate the entire UK’s generating capacity, were it all like Drax’s.

The entire wind energy sector has 14 times as many employees, but only produces just over a third as much as the Drax group. If we’re only counting jobs, it may well be true that the wind sector is a big employer. But on that basis, we might as well simply just pay people to say that they work, but give them meaningless tasks to fulfil: set one group digging holes, and another to fill them in again. If we assume that energy sector workers are paid the same, within and outside the wind sector, each megawatt hour produced by the wind sector costs £49.65 in salary, but the Drax group produces the same energy for just £1.44.

The figures begin to look different when we add the cost of fuel for the Drax group’s operations. 2008 was a year of high energy prices, which is the reason for choosing it as the measure. But still, wind energy comes out as significantly more expensive. And that is before we add the costs of subsidies.

Renewable Obligations Certificates to the value of (approx.) £694 million were given to wind farm operators in the year 2010-11. Adding that figure to the total means that each MWH of wind energy now costs £97.77 — three times the cost of the energy produced by the Drax group.

Of course, this is not a fully equipped, like-for-like comparison, but is not presented as one. There will be some jobs in the wind sector which are in the manufacture of widgets, gizmos, and so on. But then, why are they included in Renewable UK’s analysis of jobs in the renewable sector? And the fact that Renewable UK offers this analysis to make the case for continued government support, across the EU and the world, should not be forgotten. It is now possible to get a rough idea of how the wind sector is able to have such a huge workforce, and why energy operators are keen to expand their renewable energy investments.

This is how Renewable UK say the employment in the sector breaks down [PDF]:

Renewable UK depend on continued preferential treatment from government to sustain their members’ interests. The problem for those companies is that there has not been a public debate about energy policy in the UK. Only polling companies ever ask the public what they think, and they only ever ask questions which elicit meaningless answers, rather than demonstrate a no-regrets commitment to any given policy. The strength of public support for green energy has not been tested where it counts: at the ballot box. Few politicians have been brave enough — so far — to ask questions about the direction of UK energy policy. That democratic failure is now beginning to be manifested as material problems experienced by real people, and political friction within the UK, and across the EU.

Renewable UK are terrified that a spontaneous movement of people will deprive them of the uncontested favour that they have enjoyed from the current and previous government. They are worried that the voices of thousands of individuals from across the UK — without substantial resources — will form a single voice, which will inevitably attract the attention of politicians and the media. They are worried about what the continuation of their undignified PR campaigns will look like, when people realise it’s a case of big energy companies versus ordinary people, with genuine grievances. It’s a simple mathematical matter: the more people who find themselves unhappy with energy policies and rising prices, the more people will lend their support. And the more people there are, the harder it will be to mock comments from stolen emails, and to dismiss their concerns as unfounded.


  1. Ceri Reid

    You’ve confused power (Watts) and energy (Joules or kilo Watt hours) when you talk about 165kW being enough for about 16 electric showers. That part of the article makes no sense.

    I agree with the rest of it, though.

    [BEN:- I think you’re wrong on that point, Ceri. A generator with a capacity of 160KW is sufficient to supply 16 x 10KW electric showers for any number of hours. I think you’ve misunderstood the point. I was referring to ‘showers’ as devices, not time under the device.]

  2. geoffchambers

    … in a detailed rebuttal RenewableUK accuses the group of using partial and non peer-reviewed research to back up its claims…

    … an accusation you could throw at any protest group, from the movements to abolish slavery and child labour to CND and the Anti-Apartheid campaign.

    I’ve just realised what it is that gets up my nose about this obsession with peer-reviewed research. As part of the 97% of the population who have never done a postgraduate degree (40 years ago you belonged to the élite if you had a simple degree) I never learned to write footnotes and a bibliography – poor me. Poltics is infested with bright young things writing policy documents for parties and think-tanks which ape the academic papers they learned to write at Uni.
    Alex Cull once referred here to some DECC document about energy which had hundreds of peer-reviewed references, a few going back as far as 1990. If you’re embarked on a course of political madness, it’s a great help if your intellectual horizon goes back no further than the day you learned to do joined-up writing. If you formulate energy policy on the basis that nothing is true if it”s not on Google Scholar, you can ignore the entire history of energy policy. The National Coal Board, the Central Electricity Generating Board, the industrial revolution, municipal socialism and the post-war nationalisation programme go down the memory hole. History starts in the seventies on the twin foundations of Thatcherism and the Club of Rome.

    On your table, I’d guess that the 10,000 people employed in the wind energy sector include the constructors, salesmen, landowners reaping the profits etc. The beauty of wind is that nobody works in it, once the windmills are up. Unless you count the people who work at Drax, providing the backup conventional generation required for when the wind isn’t blowing. In that case, a large proportion of workers in the wind sector are miners.

  3. Mooloo

    I suspect 10,000 people use more power than the wind industry generates just being at and getting to work. Computers, some lights, a bit of heating or cooling, coffee and tea making, transport.

    Office buildings typically use 170 kWh per square metre annually in the US ( and people use at least 5 sq.m. each. Plus any transport to get them there and back etc. That’s without the energy requirements to actually make the windmills or maintain them.

    If so, then it is effectively the digging a hole and filling it in you refer to Ben, as those people generate just enough electricity at work to replace the energy requirements that it takes them to work.

    (I would appreciate someone checking my figures BTW)

    Of course the cited 10,000 workers could just be bogus!

  4. geoffchambers

    Whether of not the 10,000 “workers by wind and wave” are bogus or not, quoting the number of people employed as a plus point is economic madness. By that logic, the pyramids were a spectacular economic success, placing Egypt at the forefront etc etc.

    The reason that the coal industry was closed down by Thatcher was precisely that it employed too many people, who were too well-paid compared to workers in China and South Africa. 200,000 well-organised workers, conscious of their value to society and eliciting public sympathy, was more than Conservatism could stand. Leaving 5 centuries-worth of home-grown energy in the ground was a small price to pay in order to destroy the power of organised labour.

    The government and opposition have both swallowed the Green fantasy of an energy policy based on small local enterprises. We’re governed by a middle-class élite who think we can run a modern economy working from home on our computers. They’re living in a Rupert Annual.

  5. DennisA

    You may find these comments from a document on “Peak Coal”, written in 1865, very apposite:

    “The first great requisite of motive power is, that it shall be wholly at our command, to be exerted when and where and in what degree we desire. The wind, for instance, as a direct motive power, is wholly inapplicable to a system of machine labour, for during a calm season the whole business of the country would be thrown out of gear.

    Before the era of steam-engines; windmills were tried for draining mines; “but though they were powerful machines, they were very irregular, so that in a long tract of calm weather the mines were drowned, and all the workmen thrown idle. From this cause, the contingent expenses of these machines were very great; besides, they were only applicable in open and elevated situations.”

    No possible concentration of windmills, again, would supply the force required in large factories or iron works. An ordinary windmill has the power of about thirty-four men, or at most, seven horses. Many ordinary factories would therefore require ten windmills to drive them; and the great Dowlais Ironworks, employing a total engine power of 7,308 horses, would require no less than 1,000 large windmills!

    Coal contains light and heat bottled up in the earth, as Stephenson said, for tens of thousands of years, and now again brought forth and made to work for human purposes.

    The amount of power contained in coal is almost incredible. In burning a single pound of coal there is force developed equivalent to that of 11,422,000 pounds weight falling one foot, and the actual useful force got from each pound of coal in a good steam-engine is that of 1,000,000 lbs. falling through a foot; that is to say, there is spring enough in coal to raise a million times its own weight a foot high. Or again, suppose a farmer to despatch a horse and cart to bring a ton of coals to work a portable engine, occupying four hours on the way. The power brought in the coal is 2,800 times the power expended in bringing it, and the amount of useful force actually got from it will probably exceed by 100 times or more that of the horse as employed in the cart. In coal we pre-eminently have, as the partner of Watt said, “what all the world wants—POWER.” All things considered, it is not reasonable to suppose or expect that the power of coal will ever be superseded by anything better.”

  6. TLITB

    That really is a mighty impressive poll that proves we are all in favour of signing the whole of the grid over to wind;)

    Although one interpretation is that, of that 67% of of 1009 people, 38% basically went “Meh, yeah whatever”. :)

    I spotted an amazing comment, re-tweeted by Robert Wilson, from Jennifer Webber a PR for RenewableUK:

    We could always argue on the facts as we have evidence, but now we know opinion is on our side as well. The minority must rest.

    Can’t really say more than agree with his comment

    Previous RT shows someone with a very weak understanding of democracy.!/RUKjenniferw/status/193029330820018177

  7. TDK

    The strength of public support for green energy has not been tested where it counts: at the ballot box.

    Actually it doesn’t need this test. I see no reason why a person cannot elected to choose what power that want to consume and from what generating source when they sign up with their power company. The only proviso being that you pay the market rate. That way people can pay extra for the moral virtue of using wind power just as they pay extra for Fair Trade. The objection to the current system is that we have no choice – it has been taken for us.

  8. K.R. Lohse

    Renewable UK boast 6.6 GW of power produced by wind. In the last 6 months according to the UK National Grid Status report at This is a very revealing site and should be more widely known.
    Maximum output has been approx. 3.3 GW. Someone with better statistical nous than me could download the entire data set and work out just how much on average windpower contributes to the NG.
    I have emailed Renewable UK asking for the total GW connected to the NG. A stony silence has been the answer. I shall keep pressing for the information and let you know.

  9. Phillip Bratby

    In “Planning our Electric Future: Technical Update”. December 2011, published by DECC
    you can see that is is claimed that consumer electricity prices will be lower than under current policies
    by 15% by 2030 (para 38) despite 250,000 more people (an estimate, with no justification given, but clearly several times the curent number) being employed in the industry (para 39).
    It’s sheer madness. We should be producing the same amount of electricity with fewer employees, ie increased productivity. Nobody at DECC or the ministers can see this madness for what it is!

  10. Alex Cull

    TonyN of HarmlessSky alerted me to an interview yesterday on BBC Radio 4 “The World This Weekend”, where there was an interview with Professor Sue Ion of the Royal Academy of Engineering, co-author of a new report on how the government could meet it’s CO2 emissions targets and cover the looming energy shortfall. This is what she said:

    The government has targets to reduce our carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. And in order to do that, you have to decarbonise your electricity sector. Interestingly, the government’s targets have really been – and this wasn’t just this government, it’s previous administrations as well, have had similar aspirations – have really been set, absent any consideration of the engineering challenge required to deliver them. We actually looked at what we considered would be feasible, what you could actually build. So that meant 38 London Arrays of offshore wind, a thousand miles of Pelamis wave machine, over 10,000 land-based wind turbines, 25 million solar panels. We assumed that you’d have to have a Severn Barrage. Marine turbines, which are actually quite promising technology, but we’ve only got a few test units and you’d need over 2,000 of those. And then when you do the sums, you still need 40 nuclear new power stations or 40 large fossil plants with carbon capture. So the sums, kind of, don’t add up when you do a reality check.

    There’s more, and I’ll see if I can get a transcript together.

  11. Vinny Burgoo

    Alex, it might not be worth the effort of doing a transcript. Sue Ion has used similar estimates elsewhere. They are based on her 2010 report _Generating the Future: UK energy systems fit for 2050_. The variant you quote above would require a 30% reduction in demand. She says that without that reduction we would have to double the number of nuclear and/or CCS-equipped fossil-fuel plants. (She’s a consultant for Westinghouse, one of the big nuclear players, but I don’t think charges of bias would stick. All four scenarios in the report maximized renewable generation.)

  12. Alex Cull

    @ Vinny, thanks, I’ve just had a quick look at the 2010 report – “Turning the theoretical emissions reduction targets into reality will require more than political will: it will require nothing short of the biggest peacetime programme of change ever seen in the UK”. That’s beginning to seem about as likely now as a 30% reduction in demand, which would possibly need something like a resurgence of the Black Death to come about.

    She also said yesterday: “Well, if you just leave it to the markets, then the default position is probably we’ll see at least a sustaining of the level of gas to create electricity, or possibly an increase. Because by far and away the easiest investment to make is the one in gas, because the capital outlay for the stations is relatively low. The bigger risk is shortage of gas on the international marketplace and hence the lights going out.”

    Which would be a worry, I suppose, if shale gas didn’t exist.


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  14. Veronique

    Yeeeaahhh. It let go with a shriek and fell back
    into the masses disappearing from sight “Freeeeeeeedddoooooooooom” Jeff yelled out lustily
    Micah raised an eyebrow and glanced over him, “That’s all I could come up with” he grinned sheepishly.
    Watch the movies’there is always strength in numbers.


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