Skip to content

The Tories’ Wind Power Delusion–Matt Ridley

December 1, 2022

By Paul Homewood


Matt Ridley in the Spectator:



A very strange parliamentary rebellion has been taking place with Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and dozens of other Tory MPs demanding an end to the ban on onshore wind farms. Wind power is cheap and getting cheaper, they argue. And surely, if we’re engaged in an energy war with Russia, we need all the power we can get?

It’s an argument that is wrong several times over. There is no ban on wind farms – it is actually a bog-standard planning requirement that they be confined to areas designated for that purpose and with community support. Nor do they offer a cheap solution: the costs are high and rising. In fact, relying on the wind for power would guarantee that electricity is expensive for ever, because wind’s unreliability poisons the market, driving up the price of gas-fired power too.

This week the prices offered to anybody – anybody! – who could guarantee to supply power on the chilly, windless evening of 29 November shot up briefly to about £1,100 per megawatt-hour (MWh), more than ten times the normal rate. Demand was forecast to peak at 41.2 gigawatts, supply at 40.7. In the words of Mr Micawber: result, misery. At such a price, enough supply did indeed come out of the woodwork, but not from the wind industry, which can’t just turn on the wind when it wants. Growing reliance on unreliable wind has left Britain paying sky-high prices on still, cold days. Remember when the secretary of state for business used to pose for the cameras while blowing up old coal power stations? They would be handy this winter.

The Ukraine war has driven gas prices higher, but, says Andrew Montford of Net Zero Watch, it would be daft to assume that this is a permanent state of affairs and design a policy on the assumption that wind will be cheaper than gas in the future.

Claims that onshore wind is cheap come thick and fast from politicians in thrall to the most well oiled of crony-capitalist industries, the wind merchants. The claims are not supported by the accounts of onshore wind farms, which indicate a breakeven cost of around £80/MWh for the very cheapest farms. And this, note, is for the efficient wind farms with 200-metre turbines (twice the typical height), located in the windiest sites and spaced at least 1,200 metres apart so they don’t they steal each other’s wind. The cost estimate doesn’t even count the need to carefully manage backup power generation for those times and places where the wind is not blowing hard enough, or blowing too hard. Nor does it count the cost of building and running transmission lines from remote wind farms to places where people actually live.

Wind farm accounts also show that this cost is rising, not falling, presumably due to such grid constraints, the fact that the best sites have gone, and the rising costs of steel, concrete, copper and neodymium making new machines pricier. Yet even £80/MWh is nearly double the cost of gas-fired power at the long-term average price of gas.

But that is if gas is allowed to supply electricity continuously without much interruption. If you keep telling gas power stations to switch off because the wind is blowing, as we do, then they will have to (and do) charge more to cover the inefficiency of heating up and cooling down the gas turbines. The more wind we add, the higher the price of gas-fired power. In this way, wind locks in high electricity prices, hastening the deindustrialisation of Britain, or what’s left of it.

And hey presto, wind farms can charge these same high prices as gas, delaying the start of the ‘contract for difference’ they signed to supply at lower prices. Why? Because this document is a thing of beauty for the wind farm operators: it’s not a contract to supply power at all, but an option to do so whenever the zephyrs of the gods play ball. The government, in its infinite stupidity when Lib Dems were in charge of energy, gave wind farms the right to supply power (with bonus payments if the grid cannot cope on a very windy day) but did not hold them to the price they quoted. At least not without a trivial penalty. Incredible? If only.

The ‘contracts for difference’ that were put in place not only transfer the costs and risks of all the uncertainty to the rest of the system, but are ditched at the first sign of a better deal. Hornsea 2, the world’s largest offshore wind farm, began operation this year. Orsted, the developer, signed a contract for difference in 2017 to sell its power at £57.50/MWh. In the event, it delayed the contract until next year and sold power at between four and ten times that, costing the consumer hundreds of millions of pounds a year. See what I mean about business plans based on spot prices?

The best thing about wind farms, as far as city spivs are concerned, is that they transfer money from poor to rich. The costs are borne by electricity bill payers – and power absorbs twice as much of the monthly budget of a poor person than a rich person. The rewards are trousered by the wealthy: landowners, private equity investors, lobbyists, Chinese mine owners.

Professor Gordon Hughes of Edinburgh University told me how the market could and should be reformed. If anyone wants to be serious about onshore wind, he says, let them sign guaranteed supply contracts to provide power on demand for at least 20 years – with serious penalties if they cannot deliver. So the wind farm would be combined with enough battery or other backup capacity to be as reliable as a gas power plant.

This would force the industry to build, say, a 100-megawatt wind farm, but only guarantee to deliver, say, 40 megawatts to the grid, storing the surplus in batteries for when the wind farm is producing less than 40. The true cost of wind would probably be more than £200 per megawatt hour.

Talking of batteries, wind energy’s fans (no pun intended) were excited on 21 November when Harmony Energy opened Europe’s largest battery farm near Hull. ‘But what happens when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine blah blah bl – oh right, we now have industrial-scale batteries,’ enthused David Shukman, former science editor of the BBC.

Consisting of about 50 container-lorry-sized Tesla megapacks parked on a site the size of a football field, the plant will be capable of storing enough electricity to keep just 1 per cent of Britain’s grid going for, er, four minutes. Electricity just isn’t like carrots or coal – storing it is immensely expensive.

But think how lucrative it will be to do so. When the wind drops on a cold November evening just as Harry Kane and co are kicking off, the grid (on your behalf) will pay well over the odds for stored electricity. This is why the high costs of wind are a bug, not a feature, as far as the industry is concerned. High prices are passed straight on to the consumer. The more problems wind farms cause, the more rewarding wind farms become. The bigger the projects are, the more attractive they are for ministers to cut their ribbons.

Notice these are purely economic arguments. I have not even started on the environmental drawbacks of wind farms. They need huge quantities of concrete and steel, both made with coal; they kill rare birds of prey, especially eagles; they slaughter bats; they obtrude on scenic landscapes; their magnets require rare earth minerals mined in China in hugely polluting ways.

Wind is a very low-density form of energy, so you need a very large number of wind farms to make any significant contribution to UK generation capacity: hundreds of square miles per gigawatt of capacity. A gigawatt of fossil fuel or nuclear power takes up a tiny fraction of the space and even less of the sky. In Scotland, where most onshore wind farms are proposed, this means turning almost all upland areas into what is called by planners a ‘wind farm landscape’. Enjoy the view.

Then there’s the question of how much carbon dioxide is really saved by wind farms. True, when spinning they don’t generate emissions, but in their construction they generate a lot: the mining, manufacture and transport of their concrete bases, steel towers, carbon fibre blades and metal-rich turbines. That means for the first few years of ‘green energy’ a wind farm is merely paying back what it has emitted. Meanwhile its sporadic power is destabilising the grid, destroying the economics of near zero-emission nuclear and requiring backup from less efficient sources such as open-cycle gas turbines, so add in some more years before you break even on carbon dioxide.

These are fiendishly difficult calculations to make, but it’s not impossible that some wind farms, sited in less windy areas, take ten years to save any carbon dioxide at all. How long do they last? Repairs start to get uneconomic at some point, maybe as little as 20 years into the lifetime of the wind farm. The thing has to be dismantled and disposed of. Now do the arithmetic: wind generated about 4 per cent of our total energy in 2020 (people find this number hard to believe, but it’s true: not electricity, note, energy). But only in the second half of its life is a wind farm saving emissions. So all the UK’s wind farms are reducing the nation’s emissions by just 2 per cent, or 0.02 per cent of global emissions.

If you think net zero matters – and even if you don’t – all this is crucial. Why don’t Tory MPs know this kind of stuff? The one thing the wind industry is really, really good at is selling itself. It never mentions intermittency and hides the scale of its contribution to decarbonisation by talking about ‘powering a thousand homes’, a meaningless metric. Somehow the wind farm has become the symbol of environmental virtue as potent as the crucifix. And we are all paying the price.

  1. December 1, 2022 5:40 pm

    “A very strange parliamentary rebellion has been taking place with Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and dozens of other Tory MPs demanding an end to the ban on onshore wind farms. ….

    It’s an argument that is wrong several times over. There is no ban on wind farms ….”

    “Fortunately the other complainant refused to accept this and pressed for a full retraction. He has now received this reply:”

    “Correction 1 August 2018: An earlier version of this article said that the government had introduced a ban on onshore windfarms. This was amended to refer to an “effective” ban and amended again on 26 July to clarify changes in policy since the article was published.
    A complaint about the inaccuracy was upheld by the BBC’s Executive Complaints Unit.”

  2. Jonathan Tucker permalink
    December 1, 2022 6:17 pm

    This just goes to show how the late great Christopher Booker was correct about climate change and zero carbon and ministers and MPs understanding of these issues coupled with woeful understanding of Brexit of which he was a great advocate. Utterly depressing to watch our country being destroyed on a completely false premise.

  3. catweazle666 permalink
    December 1, 2022 6:46 pm

    Here you go, pay particular attention to the chart on page 16.

    Click to access blackrock-energy-and-resources-income-trust-plc-interim-report.pdf

    • December 1, 2022 8:11 pm

      Great link

    • Hugh Sharman permalink
      December 2, 2022 9:01 am

      Thanks! The whole report is fascinating! I wonder what they will make of Finland’s Geological Survey’s publications?

  4. Harry Passfield permalink
    December 1, 2022 7:00 pm

    “…if we’re engaged in an energy war with Russia, we need all the power we can get (including from wind)”
    Better hope that all the power we can get – WHEN IT IS NEEDED – does not happen during a Winter high. I despair of so-called educated people in government who can’t fathom this out: that wind is not a good, secure and reliable source of electricity. My only conclusion is that they all follow the likes of Deben and Davey on the road to riches.

    • Phoenix44 permalink
      December 2, 2022 10:05 am

      If we can’t get gas from Russia we must not under any circumstances see if we can get our own gas from the UK. We must instead sound billions and hope.

  5. December 1, 2022 7:17 pm

    The article should be easy to understand, even by politicians. You wouldn’t think that a lot of them have PPEs, but they can’t even understand simple economics. They must be getting paid a lot of money by the WEF to ignore the evidence presented by Matt Ridley.

  6. Chris Phillips permalink
    December 1, 2022 7:20 pm

    I think BoJo is actually stupid enough, and lazy enough in his thought processes, to actually believe that wind is the total answer to our energy needs. But as for the rest, Gove, Truss and a load of MPs, I can’t believe they are all so stupid……but maybe they are. And as for the Labour lot who would/probably will replace them, including the imbecillic Milliband…….Heaven help us.

  7. catweazle666 permalink
    December 1, 2022 7:58 pm

    So how about this, Chris?

    Wind farms couldn’t pull the skin off a rice pudding, says Boris Johnson

    Wind farms couldn’t pull the skin off a rice pudding, Boris Johnson has said, warning the UK is facing a major energy crisis.
    The London Mayor cast doubt on the effectiveness of wind farms as he argued Britain should be doing more to exploit the potential of shale gas….

    • Harry Passfield permalink
      December 1, 2022 8:32 pm

      I have to wonder which Daily Newspaper will have the nous to put this on their front page. Especially as he followed this up with claiming that GB could be the Saudi-Arabia of wind – most of which must be coming from his mouth/ar*e (delete where applicable). Let’s face it, the man turns with the wind (which could easily apply to Sunak).

  8. eastdevonoldie permalink
    December 1, 2022 9:17 pm

    Thus article, along with so many others, should be compulsory reading for all MPs and Senior Civil Servants.
    The case for a Referendum on Net Zero grows stronger and louder by the day.

  9. December 1, 2022 9:44 pm

    CO2-rich wood pellets are ahead of wind in the leccy gen race at the moment, as the great blocking high from Scandinavia continues. Factor of 10 or more behind gas of course.

  10. December 1, 2022 9:55 pm

    Wind power is cheap and getting cheaper, they argue.

    Then it will support the development with sales and all subsidies should end.

  11. December 1, 2022 10:11 pm

    Coal is still better than Gas, Russia does not control everyone’s Coal in Europe.

    • catweazle666 permalink
      December 2, 2022 4:37 pm

      And it’s very easy and cheap to store, you just pile it up in big heaps.

  12. December 1, 2022 10:32 pm

    hastening the deindustrialisation of Britain, or what’s left of it.

    You can buy anything you will want from China, they still use fossil fuels the mine and process and manufacture using more and more low cost abundant reliable fossil fuels, that is if you have money to buy anything after paying your utility bills.

  13. Phoenix44 permalink
    December 2, 2022 10:03 am

    Whilst there have been some incremental improvements in wind turbines and their manufacture, there are pretty small. The costs of manufacture, transport, erection, maintenance and disposal are therefore still completely dependent on inputs of labour, materials and energy, all of which increase as we get more wind turbines. These higher costs are then baked in to the next round. The idiots who assured of us falling costs ignored this, believing in fantasies of scale or innovation but ignoring the obvious effects of a non-innovative, ineffecient technology on its own inputs.

    • catweazle666 permalink
      December 2, 2022 4:35 pm

      Plus every last milliwatt of “Unreliable” generation has to be backed up by a milliwatt of real generation, not just to match the output in real time but yo supply inertia to stabilise the network, thus amounting to duplicating the generating capacity.
      This is stochastic, so the real generators are having frequently to heat cycle, which causes unnecessary wear and tear, this is never accounted in the cost analysis by the “Unreliable” enthusiasts.

  14. Tim Spence permalink
    December 2, 2022 11:39 am

    I don’t believe it’s delusion, it’s a money trough and they’ve all got their snouts in it.

  15. Gamecock permalink
    December 2, 2022 1:38 pm

    ‘Wind power is cheap and getting cheaper’

    Everything is cheap when you are spending other people’s money.

  16. liardetg permalink
    December 2, 2022 6:51 pm

    As a Spectator subscriber, I hope they do a job on the Net Zero senseless catastrophe next. I’ve written to the editor.

  17. December 2, 2022 10:26 pm

    In the posting, I read:
    So all the UK’s wind farms are reducing the nation’s emissions by just 2 per cent, or 0.02 per cent of global emissions.

    And increasing the world emissions due to the energy use to mine materials, process material, manufacture components, transport components, etc.

  18. Brian Smith permalink
    December 3, 2022 12:16 am

    As world wide energy generation – the eco-nuts can’t hold Africa, Asia and the rest of the developing world back forever – grows, the UK’s contribution will shrink until it becomes statistically impossible to measure.

  19. cj001muller permalink
    December 7, 2022 6:06 pm

    Oh how things change:
    Wind farms couldn’t pull the skin off a rice pudding, Boris Johnson said, warning the UK is facing a major energy crisis.
    The London Mayor cast doubt on the effectiveness of wind farms as he argued Britain should be doing more to exploit the potential of shale gas….

  20. cj001muller permalink
    December 7, 2022 8:23 pm

    Apologies this comment was meant for the Daily Mail.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: