Matt Ridley can’t even get his anti-wind farm myths correct

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A simple piece of advice is that if you are going to bust myths at least get basic facts correct. Matt Ridley however appears incapable of doing this.

Here he is in this week’s Times busting some myths about renewable energy:

Onshore wind: one of the cheapest renewables but still twice as costly as gas or coal, it kills eagles and bats, harms tourism, divides communities and takes up lots of space. The money goes from the poor to the rich, and the carbon dioxide saving is tiny, because of the low density of wind and the need to back it up with diesel generators. These too now need subsidy because they cannot run at full capacity.

We could of course spend all day pondering the curious propensity of right-wing opponents of renewable energy complaining about how it harms the poor. Where is this concern for the poor the rest of the time exactly? And I suspect that, given Ridley’s investments in coal mines, that harm to wildlife caused by energy infrastructure is not something that troubles his mind on a regular basis. (The coal mining, I should point out, occurs on the estate Ridley inherited. And again, I could point out that Ridley has hypocritically used the “wind farms benefit rich land owners” card. Evidently, rich land owners benefiting are a problem only so long as the rich land owner does not go by the name of Viscount Ridley.)

But what is most absurd for a supposed piece of myth busting is the following sentence “the carbon dioxide saving is tiny, because of the low density of wind and the need to back it up with diesel generators. These too now need subsidy because they cannot run at full capacity.” Here, Ridley peddles the stupid myth about wind farms not reducing emissions because of back up, and then adds a new myth on top of it – that the low density of wind farms means they do little to reduce emissions.

What’s more embarrassing is that Ridley does not even bother getting the myth correct. It is not back up by diesel generators that supposedly means wind farms do little to reduce emissions. Instead it is back up by open cycle gas turbines. This myth, of course, will not die. Yet, on the face of it the argument is absurd. Supposedly each gigawatt of wind capacity must be backed up by one gigawatt of open cycle gas turbine capacity. This at least is what most versions of the myth assume. So, there should be around 10 gigawatts of open cycle gas turbine capacity in Britain. I invite anyone to have a look through the British government’s list of power plants and to find me anywhere close to 10 gigawatts of open cycle gas turbines.

The other supposed reason wind farms do little to reduce emissions appears to be something Ridley has made out of whole cloth. I pay attention to these debates and I have never heard anyone argue that the “low density of wind” means that wind farms do little to reduce emissions. Yes, wind farms are low density. And this is a very serious problem that I have written about many times. As people from Vaclav Smil to David MacKay have argued the space requirements of wind farms will almost certainly place real limits of the expansion of wind power. This however has absolutely nothing to do with whether wind turbines reduce emissions. Ridley is clearly mixing up his arguments against wind farms, in the same way he mixed up diesel generators and gas power plants.

This however is what we get in energy debates. Faux engineering arguments against energy technologies, whether they are wind turbines or nuclear power plants. We would all be much better off if we simply stated our real reasons for opposing things.

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5 thoughts on “Matt Ridley can’t even get his anti-wind farm myths correct

    Paul Matthews said:
    July 30, 2014 at 9:31 am

    “Where is this concern for the poor the rest of the time exactly?”

    Well, you could take a look at his website, where he says
    “I have donated roughly half of the advance royalty received for my book The Rational Optimist to two charities (here and here) that are helping those in need, especially in Africa, to trade, farm and innovate.”

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      Colin Lawson (@Colin_Lawson) said:
      July 30, 2014 at 12:52 pm

      So Matt Ridley, like most of us, makes modest gifts to charity (limiting his donation to ‘advanced’ Royalties seems penny pinching to me – given Ridley’s inherited and unearned wealth). However this does not undermine the point that Matt Ridley’s continuing campaign to defend grotesque levels of inequality and the interests of the 1% in general, has nothing discernible to do with helping the poor. Helping the poor is just part of the obfuscation and sophistry that is Ridley’s trade mark.

      http://www.reasonandreality.org/?s=Matt+Ridley

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    Alan N said:
    July 30, 2014 at 5:23 pm

    Robert, Isn’t it Combined Cycle Gas Turbines that do most of the backup for wind? As I understood it, I thought Open Cycle was kept in reserve for when rapid response was needed, eg when there is an unplanned shutdown of a nuclear plant.

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      Owen said:
      July 30, 2014 at 6:51 pm

      Depends on the forecasting abilities. If they’ve under-forecast wind, then mid merit plant like ocgt will come on and stay on behind the wind until they can be certain of the forecast. In Ireland this can last for many hours like 2nd, 8th or 27th July. I dont know what the forecasting abilities are like in UK but I would imagine much the same.

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      Robert Wilson said:
      July 30, 2014 at 8:16 pm

      I was referring to the myth, not what actually happens in reality.

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