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Reality Check: How many wind turbines?

Douglas Fraser | 16:56 UK time, Monday, 2 May 2011

To some it's cloud cuckoo land. To others, it's a big business opportunity.

The SNP target of achieving 100% of Scotland's electricity needs from renewable sources by 2020 has been met with disbelief from its principle opponents. It's also been warmly welcomed by many in the energy industry.

Two words of warning: Labour is targeting 80% of electricity from renewable energy by 2020, and it hasn't said the point between 80 and 100% at which a realistic target becomes unrealistic, and why.

Also, it's wise to treat endorsements with some scepticism.

The renewable energy industry is delighted when politicians set ambitious targets. It knows promises later have to be backed up with the regulatory, planning and pricing regimes that ensure they're kept.

Electric vehicles

So how realistic is it to aim for 100% of electricity from renewable sources?

Well, one of the more influential reports into Scotland's renewable potential came from an environment consultancy called Garrad Hassan.

This was commissioned by Scottish Renewables trade body and published last autumn.

Others have produced much less favourable reports on wind power, commissioned by those who are less favourable.

But Garrad Hassan seems to be the one that's making the running with pro-renewable politicians.

It set out different scenarios for Scotland's energy mix, including some assumptions it believes to be quite conservative.

Two of them don't seem at all conservative, in that they think the shift of home heating to electricity and to electric-powered vehicles won't make a significant increase in demand.

Their scenarios boil down to two variables making four outcomes.

One variable is the extent of renewable power generation, and the other is the extent of demand reduction.

Giving a fair wind to investment in new renewable capacity, and adding in a significant cut in energy use, the reckoning is that 123% of Scotland's energy needs could be renewably sourced, with the excess being exported.

If you're a bit less ambitious about reduction of demand for power, Garrad Hassan says its higher level of investment could deliver 106% of Scotland's needs by 2020.

With limited cuts in energy demand and a lower development of renewable capacity, it's reckoned 81% could be achieved.

Spoiled views

And what would that mean in onshore turbines?

This is where the later stages of the Scottish Parliament election campaign have hit turbulence from those who don't like their views spoiled.

SNP leader Alex Salmond was asked how many turbines will be needed during the BBC leaders' debate in Perth.

His answer: the onshore target would be 7 gigawatts, or 7,00 megawatts, which happens to be a mere 500 megawatts behind Garrad Hassan's assumptions.

Scottish demand sits at around 6GW, but onshore wind only produces around a third of its capacity, depending how hard the wind blows, so lots more capacity would be needed.

The consultants also say their 106% figure could be reached by allying that onshore wind expansion with 13% more hydro, up to 1,700MW, offshore wind would have to grow from very little to 5,000MW by 2020.

Biomass and energy from waste would have a capacity of a further 680MW, and reach a far higher share of that capacity.

Tidal and wave power, yet to be commercially proven, are given modest ambitions of around 300MW each by 2020.

If you're not sure how that translates into onshore turbines, then consider this: According to Scottish Renewables' figures dated 18 April, there were 1,367 turbines in 117 onshore wind projects in Scotland, with a capacity of 2.4MW.

Another gigawatt, or a thousand megawatts, of capacity should be delivered from the 450 turbines under construction.

The planning process currently has 2,200 more turbines being considered, with a further 1,600 possible turbine sites being scoped for possible planning applications in future.

Total potential capacity if all that were to be developed - around 13 gigawatts, or more than double Scotland's needs.

But they don't all get approval. Garrad Hassan reckons it can assume that 26% applications do so.

For the clearest picture, it's best to go back to the installed capacity. That way, we're looking at nearly tripling the number of onshore wind turbines to reach that 100% target.

Rising power bills

Of course, none of this explains where the investment capital is to come from.

There's a telling assertion in one of the weekend newspapers that the UK government's £2bn per year tax raid on oil and gas production in British waters - the third such sudden increase in 10 years - is putting a chill on renewable investment as well.

Investment in renewable energy is based on the market signals and cross-subsidies from other forms of generation that the UK government and its regulator put in place.

Martin Falkner, energy banker at consultancy Gleacher Shacklock, told the Sunday Times: "The risk for companies is that this scale of investment will lead to rising profits just as consumers are experiencing large increases in their utility bills.

"While low-carbon investments may represent a good return for the consumer in the long run, will a future government honour the rules put in place today? The recent rise (in oil and gas tax) is a reminder that expected returns can prove illusory".

So targets can be reached - but only if there's a willingness to build a lot more turbines, on a lot more hillsides, and a willingness to fund them.


  • Comment number 1.

    Where indeed is the money to come from? I don't know what the life of a wind turbine will be, but I strongly suspect that by the time the target production figure is reached, the earlier ones built will already be obsolete and thus the final ongoing costs will be doubling. Likewise I do not know who the main consumer of electricity is, but the domestic consumer I have no doubt will in the main be unable to meet the cost of power produced from renewable sources unless there is a dramatic rise in their incomes over the next few years. This I fear is unlikely considering the size of the debt the last government left the taxpayer to pay off, something which could take twenty to thirty years of good housekeeping to achieve. What sadly is overlooked in this pie in the sky search for green energy is the plight of the domestic consumer, who at the end of the day should be what government is serving. At the moment government appears to be obsessed with serving the green lobby and to hell with the taxpayer. Priority must be changed from the clean and green , to cheap and affordable for those who have to foot the bill, even if this means telling the EU to stick it's emission targets where the squirrel stuck it's nuts. Scotland is sitting on a mountain of coal, it is relatively cheap to import, and is more productive than anything the renewable industry can ever come up with. Likewise nuclear power is efficient and in the long run will be cheaper than wind or water powered devices which at best are expensive and unreliable.

  • Comment number 2.

    I think you need to check your figures, do you mean total capacity of 2.4GW, here?
    "18 April, there were 1,367 turbines in 117 onshore wind projects in Scotland, with a capacity of 2.4MW"

  • Comment number 3.

    Having coined the phrase "Cloud cuckoo land" on BBC Good Morning Scotland last week, I should explain that while Scotland has a great opportunity to create many excellent jobs from the energy sector in the coming decades, we will not achieve 100% of our electricity from renewables by 2020 because there are too many obstacles, technical, financial,planning, infrastructure/distribution etc etc to be overcome in such a relatively short timescale to achieve such a target.
    Scotland requires a balanced, sustainable, affordable secure energy supply and we should be making full use of all currently available energy technologies including wind (onshore and offshore)clean coal, biomass, hydro and nuclear.
    A dependable baseload will be vital if we are to ensure that we have a secure supply going forward.
    With our substantial coal reserves, it would be daft to leave it in the ground and with our experience of nuclear it ould be equally daft to refuse to make use of it.
    Meantime, we have a number of excellent universities and first class companies working hard on taking forward our renewables technology.
    Let's give them the support they need and deserve to ensure they succeed and in so doing help to boost our Scottish economy.

  • Comment number 4.

    I think the time is overdue to focus our attention on the real discussion point here. I say that because I think four things are already clear:
    (1) the growing need to significantly increase the extent to which our power is generated from renewable sources;
    (2) the need to do so over time, via a balanced mix of generation sources and maintain our energy security;
    (3) that Scotland has a wealth of renewable energy resource;
    (4) we have chosen to focus the majority of our efforts around wind generation.

    We can argue if these are based on right or wrong decisions, the way in which these are being acting upon, the prioritisations or the timescales; but I don’t think we can argue the validity.

    However, when we take all of these into account, the extent to which we will need to manage intermittency in our energy supply is clear.

    Generally, there are only 2 options being discussed, i.e. ensure sufficient predictable generation (nuclear, hydrocarbon, etc.) and/or provide sufficient network infrastructure to import/export power as needed (and hope that it’s economically viable to do so!)

    In terms of the latter, the timescales talked about for the European SUPERGRID are between 2030 and 2050 (assuming European economies allow, which is a big assumption). In terms of the former, it has to be questioned if we can do this effectively without producing even more emissions than we would without considering renewables at all – and I think that is the real point.

    However, there is a very critical ingredient that is mentioned for time to time (e.g. but never really focused on i.e. "we need greater electrical energy storage facilities"! Scotland will not be the last country to recognise how critical this is to the viability of renewables and, as such, it represents a fantastic opportunity to develop world-leading expertise in this area.

    We have already missed the opportunity around most of the renewable generation devices we are deploying (although, with Aquamarine and Pelamis leading the way, I am still hopeful around wave power) – let’s not miss the opportunity around energy storage.

  • Comment number 5.

    No nuclear power is required in Scotland . (I reckon if westMonster try to force nuclear on Scotland it WILL drive many towards voting for independence.) Not when we can develop the forth for coal gasification, and carbon capture for coal burning. Wind farms Douglas, (on shore anyway) are a 25 year stop gap until off shore wind and tidal, the real big bonanza is fully operational. All this article is Douglas is a typical veiled attack on the SNP.

    P.S. 5000 years ago a tsunami struck the east Coast of Scotland after a under sea mudslide off the coast of Norway. That could happen again at any time. So never be complacent about such things.

  • Comment number 6.

    As an Englishman I vote to give Scotland independence immediately. Before all these daft schemes come to fruition.

  • Comment number 7.

    Douglas should read this because it's written by someone that actually knows what he's talking about.

  • Comment number 8.

    Ok to all those who can’t count, a quick history lesson first, less than a month ago a number of wind farms in Scotland had to shut down because the grid was overloaded with too much generation and reduced consumption.
    At this point in time 3/5/2011 at 16:35 Scotland is supplying the South with 1291 Mw
    Which are more than the two atomic plants can produce never mind producing?

  • Comment number 9.

    8. Great to know we're supplying all that power to the " south '. Why ? When the power companies are ripping off the punters up here , they should be making it cheaper for us, not flogging it to the highest bidder. I suppose it's because none of it actually ever belonged to Scotland.

  • Comment number 10.

    Talking about energy storage: "UK scientists invent artificial petrol"

    Pretty soon our problems will be over re' energy .. well maybe


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