Christopher Booker's curiously distorted views on wind power | RenewEconomy

Christopher Booker’s curiously distorted views on wind power

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Climate sceptic Christopher Booker has launched his latest attack on wind power, but the picture he presents of the technology is curiously distorted.

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The Carbon Brief

ImageGen2.ashxClimate sceptic columnist Christopher Booker has launched his latest attack on wind power, but the picture he presents of the technology is curiously distorted.

In an article for the Daily Mail he says the UK is suffering “a bout of collective insanity over renewable energy, for which it is hard to think of any historical parallel”.

We’ve gone through Booker’s piece, and noted some things you probably wouldn’t know after reading it.

1) UK windfarms produce more power than Drax

Booker’s dislike of windfarms seems to verge on the evangelical. But in his latest piece he sticks to the numbers in explaining his “crucial objection” to the technology. Unfortunately, the numbers are inaccurate or misleading.

Booker says there are 5,000 large wind turbines in the UK:

“Put all those 5,000 giant turbines together and their combined output still averages less than that of our single largest coal-fired power station.”

We can assume Booker means Drax, the UK’s largest coal-fired power station by far.

Wind turbines don’t operate all the time, but neither does Drax. So if you want to compare their outputs, the only sensible way to do it is to look at total power generated over the course of a year.

According to its own annual report, Drax sold 26.2 terawatt hours of electricity in 2013.Government data shows wind turbines produced 28.4 terawatt hours in 2013 – more than Drax.

Conclusion: There are actually 5,597 large wind turbines in the UK and they produced more power in 2013 than Drax did.

2) Politicians and industry aren’t lying about wind capacity

One of Booker’s favourite themes is to remind us that the wind doesn’t blow all the time. In his latest article he goes further, claiming government and the wind industry are lying about windfarm capacity.

Booker says windfarm capacity figures are an “endlessly repeated lie… the truth is that, thanks to the wind’s unreliability, [wind turbines] will produce on average only between a quarter and a third of their capacity.”

But if people are “lying” to cover this fact up, they’re not doing a particularly good job.

The Department for Energy and Climate Change publishes data showing onshore windfarms produce just over a quarter of their nameplate capacity. The figure for 2013 was 29 per cent. For offshore wind it’s slightly higher, at 39 per cent.

Yes, wind is variable, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth building. Every power source generates less power than it could in theory. In 2013, UK gas plants produced 28 per cent of nameplate capacity – in large part because gas hasn’t been used to its full potential. Nuclear racked up 74 per cent and coal 58 per cent.

Conclusion: Booker is incorrect to claim that politicians and the wind industry lie about capacity. How can this be so, when they publish capacity factors online?

3) Wind is a more efficient means of electricity production than coal

Booker dislikes wind power so much that he resorts to making obviously bizarre statements.

For instance he says:

“Wind is the most inefficient means of producing electricity ever devised, because it blows so variably and unpredictably.”

Yes, wind is variable. (See above.) But how can you measure the efficiency of a power technology?

One way is to compare the amount of energy you get out for the energy you put in.

For example, we could generate power by dropping a heavy weight from a high place – but it wouldn’t get us very far, because we could never get back more energy than was used to raise the weight.

On this measure wind turbines are actually one of the most efficient ways to generate electricity. For each unit of energy invested in building a wind turbine, you get 20 units back over its lifetime. That covers extracting iron ore, casting concrete and so on.

That 20-to-1 ratio is better than for coal-fired electricity, according to a study we looked at last year. Wind also comes out around three times better than gas-fired electricity.

Conclusion: Sticking electrodes in a potato (pictured) would be a less efficient means of generating electricity than building a wind turbine. Compared to potatoes or to coal power, wind does pretty well in efficiency terms. What Booker really means is that wind energy is variable.

4) If you care about climate and health, coal is currently the cheapest form of power because of market failure

Booker says that at the moment coal is the cheapest source of electricity “by far”. He’s right. But if you care about climate change and public health, that’s only because the full costs of coal are not priced into the market.

Last week the International Monetary Fund said energy prices in the UK and across the world are “wrong”, because they do not price in the negative health and climate impacts that come from burning fossil fuels.

The IMF says:

“Coal use is pervasively undercharged, not only for carbon emissions, but also for the health costs of local air pollution.”

Government figures show UK industry can buy a gigajoule of energy in the form of coal for £3. The IMF says it would be economically optimal for that coal to be around £9 per gigajoule more expensive – in other words four times its current price. This would correct for the cost of lives lost to air pollution and warming caused by carbon emissions from burning coal.

As a climate skeptic, Booker obviously doesn’t want policy to seriously engage with climate change. But even if all you care about is the health of the nation coal should be more expensive – around 80 per cent of the additional price on coal recommended by the IMF relates to its health impact.

Unfortunately, an examination of his writing about asbestos suggests Booker doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to understanding health risks either.

Source: The Carbon Brief. Reproduced with permission.

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1 Comment
  1. Luke 6 years ago

    Great discussion of Booker’s failings.

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