The objections to “windmills” are many – and most contain at least an element of truth, said a recent article in the Telegraph. Yet, current policy is aimed at building many thousands more turbines by 2020.
The newspaper states that one key EU target underpins the drive for more wind farms: a legally binding goal for 15pc of the UK’s total energy consumption to come from renewable sources by 2020. That’s a huge increase from just 3pc when it was set, in 2009.
To achieve it, the Government is aiming for massive growth in renewable electricity, to 30pc of our usage, from just under 10pc now. Most of that rise is due to come from wind, as the most advanced and readily available renewable technology.
The Government wants up to 13 gigawatts (GW) of onshore wind capacity by 2020, up from about 5GW installed today. It also wants as much as 18GW of offshore wind, about 10 times current operational capacity.
Wind power exponents say the technology doesn’t solely serve to meet renewable targets.
RenewableUK director of policy Dr Gordon Edge says: “Wind is good because it’s a domestic resource – you don’t have to import anything. It’s a stable price – even if it costs more than gas, actually gas might spike. It’s like having a fixed rather than a tracker mortgage – you’re willing to pay for peace of mind.”
Such reasons alone, he suggests, might justify perhaps 10pc of electricity coming from wind. But deployment on the scale the Government plans wouldn’t be happening if it weren’t for the renewables targets – because it’s just too expensive.
The electricity price needed to build offshore wind at the moment is about £140 per megawatt hour (Mwh), while onshore is nearer £90 per Mwh. But the current market price for electricity is around £45-£50 per Mwh. The difference is made up through subsidies, paid for through customer energy bills.
Analysis by the Renewable Energy Foundation, which opposes high levels of subsidies, calculates the total subsidy cost for wind power in 2011 was £818m.
Subsidy levels are due to be cut slightly between now and 2017, as the costs of the technologies come down. Even so, with volumes increasing dramatically, the annual wind subsidy bill could rise to about £6bn by 2020, REF calculates.
A lobby of 101 Tory backbenchers has argued for onshore wind subsidies to be cut far more radically, objecting not only to the cost but to its spread across the countryside.
For offshore wind, cost is by far the biggest challenge. The Government has already insisted that offshore wind costs should be brought down to £100 per Mwh by 2020, in order for a full 18GW to be deployed.
The 18GW ambition could be threatened if cost reduction proves even more challenging than thought.