Myths and mischief-making in renewable energy reporting

I couldn’t have claimed to be Ireland’s greatest fan of wind energy. Not because I don’t think it’s a good idea – it is – but rather, my concern is whether it will ever be deployed on a scale sufficient for this country to break its dependence on (imported) fossil energy, while supplying a grid that, at peak, could require up to 7,000mw of energy. Also, what happens when the wind drops entirely?

These are all valid questions, so I was pleased on Sunday last to happen upon an extended feature on wind energy on RTE Radio’s flagship ‘This Week’ programme. It was truly an ear-opening broadcast. The reporter opened by pointing out that there is already 1,700mw (well, it’s actually 1,900mw) of wind power on the system, and that under binding EU emissions mandates, Ireland is committed to getting its renewables up to 40% within the next eight years.

Ken Matthews, CEO of the Irish Wind Energy Association (IWEA) told reporter, Anne Marie Green that around 2,000 people are already employed in our wind energy sector, a figure he suggested could rise to 10,800 if Ireland stays on target for its 2020 renewables commitment. The wind energy already on the grid is already saving Ireland some 21% on its annual bill for imported gas that we no longer need to buy, Minister Pat Rabbitte told Green later in the report.

So, a good news story at last for Ireland – clean, zero carbon energy, produced locally, creating employment, cutting imports and offering Ireland the prospect of independence from the ever more volatile international energy marketplace. Oh, and with the prospect of Ireland becoming, for the first time in its history, an energy exporter (to the UK, via the East-West 500mw interconnector). In these tough economic times, RTE has, it seemed, identified one story that ought to have everyone cheering. Right? Well, not exactly.

Matthews told Green that “a typical 100mw wind farm would have around 20 people employed on an ongoing basis”. Cut to the reporter: “Well that’s not quite true”. Quoting Angus McCrone, described as Bloomberg’s New Energy finance editor, he said that operating wind farms would “only employ 0.1 persons per megawatt, so, with the 4gw programme for Ireland, that’s only 400 people for the entire program”. Back to Green: “So that’s half the number of sustainable jobs the IWEA claimed could be created…while there are considerable numbers of jobs in construction, there’s no guarantee they’ll go to Irish workers”, she intoned darkly.

To support her view, we get the voices of (nameless) members of the community in Moyross, Co. Galway who, says Green, “don’t buy the promise of jobs for the local community”. One local spelled out the shocking truth: “The day we went over there (to the wind farm site) there was a Cork company in there with the crane hire, it’s outside machines, no local people working here, there’s actually a couple of people from Scotland and London in here. No locals”.

Green’s piece was about to , with the introduction of her Star Witness, one Prof Gordon Hughes, economist with the University of Edinburgh, and introduced by RTE as “an advisor on energy policy to the World Bank”. Readers of tabloids like the Daily Express and Daily Mail will know all about Prof Hughes, who has a part-time post in Edinburgh, and otherwise busies himself writing politically loaded anti-environmental ‘reports’ for the London-based Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF). This is a right wing climate denial think tank fronted by Tory grandee Nigel Lawson that refuses to identify the shadowy sponsors of its voluminous output of pseudo-science aimed at providing the lay press with technical-sounding (but false) ‘alternate’ explanations for climate change. Oddly, neither RTE nor Prof Hughes thought to identify his huge undeclared interest in this matter.

Hughes can be a little creative with his numbers. “Among the more absurd assertions put forward in this [Hughes’s] paper is the contention that wind energy is 10 times more expensive than gas, but his comparison is flawed. He fails to include the cost of gas itself and only includes the cost of building a gas-fired power station and the infrastructure to go with it.” That was the response of Maria McCaffrey of the RenewableUK to one of Hughes’s recent reports.

Hughes is a favourite go-to boffin for the UK tabloids, whose billionaire owners especially enjoy rubbishing environmental and renewable initiatives at every turn. Hughes’ calculation that the average energy bill for a British family would rise by £300 due to the need to subsidise wind power. This turns out to have been one sixth of the estimate by the UK Government’s own Committee on Climate Change.

Digging a little deeper into this expert upon whose opinion RTE placed so much weight on Sunday, I found an eye-opening interview with Hughes, under the alarming heading ‘We can adapt!’. Here’s a nugget on ecosystem destruction: “First of all, replacement of ecosystem services turns out to be not very costly. Secondly, if you want to gauge, for example, the cost of relying upon sea walls instead of mangroves, it is difficult to estimate how much people might pay to protect ecosystems rather than build artificial substitutes. So that is something we haven’t done.” So, flatten the ecosystem, and ‘replace’ its services – viola!

As only an economist can do with a straight face, Hughes talks up all the positive aspects of the coming climate collapse: “Take Brazil… the Southeastern region around Sao Paolo is booming and may benefit from climate change”.

There is no escaping the fact that, even among proponents of renewable energy, there are serious, valid questions to be asked about upscaling large amounts of wind energy onto our national grid. But rather than relying, as RTE chose to do, on an economist who’s in denial about climate change for expert views, I looked instead to a recently published peer-reviewed report by the independent UK think tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).

Their report, entitled Beyond the Bluster examined evidence from Ireland, Spain and Portugal as well as within the UK. The conclusions are surprisingly strong:

“This report shows unequivocally that wind power can significantly reduce carbon emissions, is reliable, poses no threat to energy security, and is technically capable of providing a significant proportion of the UK’s electricity supply with minimal impact on the existing operation of the grid. Claims to the contrary are not supported by the evidence.”

Nowhere over the course of an extended piece did the RTE reporter at any time appear to be aware of the fact that a critical reason for switching our energy systems to renewables is the urgent need to move towards zero-emissions energy. Green referred to turbines as having a “big impact on the landscape”, but Rabbitte tartly replied that “the landscape will be damaged if we don’t address the environmental issues”. That is, quite frankly, putting it mildly. A reporter who does a story on renewable energy while avoiding all mention of emissions is like a sports reporter covering a match but neglecting to mention the score.

While being utterly unaware (or unconcerned) about the two most important reasons why governments are pushing renewables – energy security and emissions reduction – the reporter was instead deeply concerned that, apart from construction, not that many of what she referred to as “sustainable jobs” arise from completed wind farms. This is broadly true. On the other hand, Denmark, which is both a major turbine manufacturer and user of wind power, has some 25,000 people directly employed in wind energy, many of them highly skilled graduate level jobs.

But even if a wind turbine farm produces relatively few jobs, so what? What’s important is the energy being produced. In fact, if only 400-500 people are required to operate and maintain a massive national wind system producing 4gw of power onto the grid, and another, similar sized number of wind farms producing huge amounts of clean power to sell to the UK, what matters is the efficiency, not the numbers employed. For example, a single driver operates an 8-carriage DART. By RTE’s logic (and perhaps reflecting their own historic staffing levels) it would be better to have 10 staff milling around the base of each wind turbine if “job creation” rather than service delivery is your sole measure.

But the truly grim spectre invoked by this RTE report is of the blight of ghost estates of wind turbines, just sitting there… ahem, spinning away, making zero carbon electricity by the bucket load… and earning the easiest of easy money. Or, as Green put it, “it just sounds like the property industry (bubble) all over again…short term working in construction, people digging roads…”. Well no, it sounds like the precise opposite, in fact. Rabbitte dismissed these bizarre, surreal arguments with his own bizarre, surreal response: “people in literature and the arts ought to be concerned about Utopia, but that’s not an argument for not creating jobs”.

Green then went on to bemoan the ‘subsidised’ price of wind energy. “I’m not an economist, but that’s what it seems to me…what is the cost to the state of continuing to subsidise wind farms?”

Cutting to the chase, Rabbitte replied: “The logic of that argument is that you are suggesting we ought to leave ourselves at the mercy of the UK (energy market) in order to meet our energy supply needs, and that would be recklessly dangerous…the UK has a (growing) need for energy and that’s why the prospect of developing an export sector is an win-win for Ireland and the UK”. There is also, he reminded her, the not inconsequential matter of the fact that we are legally mandated by the EU to reach tough renewables targets. Failing to meet them means paying over millions of euros in fines. This inconvenient fact also seems to have entirely escaped any editorial oversight within RTE.

Finally, and for the benefit of any visiting reporters who may be interested in doing a serious pieces on wind energy, here’s a few quick myths you can safely regard as officially debunked by the IPPR report (with thanks to BusinessGreen.com):

Myth 1: Wind energy subsidies push up energy bills

Fact: Renewable energy subsidies do add to energy bills, but “from 2004 to 2010, government support for renewables (in the UK) added £30 to the average energy bill while rises in the wholesale cost of gas added £290″.

Myth 2: Back-up power plants mean wind energy does not deliver net reductions in carbon emissions

Fact: In 2011, wind turbines in the UK provided 15.5 terawatt hours to the grid. Due to its lower marginal cost this power would have displaced fossil fuel power from the grid, meaning that wind energy saved a minimum of 5.5 million tonnes of CO2 if gas was displaced and a maximum of over 12 m tonnes if coal was displaced. “Following this logic we can say that, using government figures about electricity generated in the UK from wind and the carbon intensity of the very best available gas technologies, the CO2 savings from wind energy were at least 5.5 million tonnes in 2011. This is around 2.5 per cent of the emissions the UK is legally obliged to save annually from 2008 to 2012, as required by the Climate Change Act 2008.”

Myth 3: The powering up and down of fossil fuel plants to cope with wind energy intermittency undermines their efficiency and leads to a net increase in emissions

Fact: Empirical studies from US states with a high proportion of wind energy have shown “unequivocally” that wind energy supplies have “significantly” reduced the average carbon intensity of fossil fuel power plants on the same grid. In the Mid West average wind energy carbon savings reached 831kg/MWh, while in Texas they hit 474Kg/MWh.

Myth 4: The “intermittent” nature of wind power makes it impossible to manage

Fact: Wind power is not “intermittent” in that it does not suddenly and unexpectedly turn on and off in the way that fossil fuel and nuclear plants do. Instead it is “variable”, meaning that increasingly accurate weather forecasting makes it possible to predict changes in output ahead of time. This makes wind energy significantly easier to manage as you bring it on to the grid.

Myth 5: Variable wind energy outputs will disrupt the grid and lead to blackouts

Fact: The grid can cope and is coping with variable energy inputs from wind farms across the country. “Statistical analyses of lengthy records of wind farm output data indicate that the most extreme variations are of the order of 20 per cent of total wind generation capacity in half an hour (GL Garrad Hassan 2011).The highest rates of change are similar to the rates of change of electricity demand already experienced by system operators. For example, between 6am and 8am on weekday mornings as people get up, make breakfast and head to work. Therefore short-term changes in the rate of wind power output are easily accommodated in the existing system.”

Myth 6: If we increase our reliance on wind energy a still day will lead to power shortages

Fact: National Grid has stated that “should no changes be made to the way that the electricity system functions, 30GW of wind power can be accommodated on the existing grid”. Current plans for wind energy capacity in 2020 stand at 28GW. Beyond 2020 long, cold, calm spells could present a challenge, but there are several international precedents that demonstrate how grids can manage high levels of reliance on wind energy. For example, both the Iberian Peninsula and Ireland currently manage significantly higher proportional levels of wind energy than the UK and cope easily with calm periods. In addition, engineers are confident smart grid technologies and interconnectors with mainland Europe can provide a cost-effective long-term solution to the problem presented by calm periods. “The risks associated with ‘long, cold, calm spells’ have been overstated”.

Oh, and you probably heard the old yarn that the CO2 involved in manufacturing, transporting and erecting a wind turbine is more than it will save in its entire lifetime. Again, not exactly. A typical turbine will cover those costs in around 6 months of its projected 20-year life span. Not to mention the zillions of defenceless birds and bats slaughtered as they are cut to ribbons by the vicious turbines…and the dreadful, ear-shattering noise these carbuncles on our landscape emit. Et cetera, et cetera etc.

Anyone seriously concerned about energy subsidies in Ireland might start with asking how it can be sane to spend two thirds of Ireland’s PSO (Public Service Obligation) subsidies keeping noxious, inefficient, environmentally insane and legally highly problematic peat-burning plants open? Well, yes, it’s a bit of auld job creation down Brian Cowen’s neck of the country, so that’s alright then?

ThinkOrSwim is a blog focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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  • Brittle

    I heard bits and pieces of that interview too and was surprised at its hectoring tone, but hadn’t gone back to listen to it since, so thanks for the detailed critique. Our media is extremely powerful, and that power must be tempered with accountability, and that’s what’s going on in this review piece. I do hope it’s brought to the attention of the powers that be in RTE and encourages them to look a little more critically at the ‘angles’ some reporters are approaching stories from. This is not about suppressing press freedom – much of what RTE does is top class – but ensuring that the station isn’t let down by some of its weaker output, which reflects badly on the broadcaster as a whole.

  • mal

    Are you a Scientist or a journalist Mr Gibbons? Maybe even a scaremonger. Chicken licken and all that.

  • http://twitter.com/think_or_swim John Gibbons

    Speaking of chickens, ‘mal’, I see you’re afaid to identify yourself, hiding behind anonymous identity to take your pot shots. Won’t dignify with a proper response.

  • Patrick L O’Brien

    I am afraid John Gibbons is spouting nonsence regarding his comments on renewable energy
    A few facts about the ineffectiveness of wind power:

    Firstly — the windiest places are more often far away from where electricity is needed most, so the costs of building transmission lines is high. So far many wind projects have been able to patch into existing grid interconnections. However those opportunities are shrinking, and material expansion of wind would require big power line investments.

    Secondly, the wind doesn’t blow all the time, so power utilities have found that in order to balance out the variable load from wind they have to invest in keeping fossil-fuel-burning plants on standby. When those plants are not running at full capacity they are not as efficient. Most calculations of the cost of wind power do not take into account the costs per kWh of keeping fossil plants on standby or running at reduced loads. But they should, because it is a real cost of adding clean, green, wind power to the grid.

    Thirdly, Wind energy is only able to replace traditional power stations to a limited extent. Their dependence on the prevailing wind conditions means that wind power has a limited load factor even when technically available. As a result, traditional power plants with capacities equal to 90% of the installed wind power capacity must be permanently online [and burning fuel] in order to guarantee power supply at all time, e.g. 900MW fossil online to make 1000MW wind feasible.

  • johngibbons

    Patrick, nothing gives me more pleasure than having my ‘nonsence’ put to rights by someone who can’t spell the word. Anyhow,having written off wind energy (fair enough) what are your alternate suggestions for near-zero carbon energy deployment on a massive scale – or do you suggest we keep burning hydrocarbons like there’s no tomorrow? Looking forward to your Firstly, Secondly and Thirdly!

  • Patrick L O’Brien

    your sad John if all you can do is pick up on a typo
    The alternatives – nuclear power and fracking that is the way forward
    Dont bother replying unless you have something intelligent to say

  • johngibbons

    Oh dear, another typo. “Your” versus “you’re”. All this typing-without-thinking is hardly the mark of a serious contributor. But to your substantive point: nuclear, yes, without a doubt it’s a serious ultra-low carbon option. Fracking, on other other hand, is just another way of releasing and burning yet more hydrocarbons. While gas may be somewhat less destructive per KWhr of energy produced, it’s still a prodigious producer of GHGs, so it can never be part of the solution. Also, unburned methane leaking as a result of fracking activities (leaving aside groundwater contamination, subterranean earthquakes, etc) wipes out any marginal case in favour of fracked gas. Hope that’s intelligent enough to meet your high standards!