Is Owen Paterson correct about the scale of wind farms?

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Our estranged former Environment Minister Owen Paterson is at it again, issuing a much trumpeted speech calling for the Climate Change Act to be scrapped. Most of this speech is errant nonsense, as you would expect.  And it would be tiring of me to go through it point by point. So I’ll keep things to the point and discuss a couple of the speech’s half notable claims.

Dubious claims about Combined Heat and Power

Strangely there are things in it than he and some green leaning people would agree with. One is on the need to build combined heat and power plants. Right now we waste huge amounts of heat from power plants. Instead we should re-direct that heat into district heating systems. The numbers speak for themselves. A coal power plant is typically less than 40% efficient. A CHP plant can be 90% efficient. This is an efficiency improvement we should capitalize on.

Convinced? I hope not. For what you have just read is a simple sales trick. CHP stands for Combined Heat and Power, not Power.  Curiously the efficiency of heat generation is not part of the CHP sales pitch. So, let’s strip it down. From a legal point of view you can no longer build a coal power plant in Britain. This leaves us with a 50 or 60% efficient gas power plant as our legal minimum as far as CO2 emissions are concerned.  How efficient is heating? Well, certainly not as low as 50 or 60%. Gas furnaces that pass basic efficiency rules are at least 90 or so percent efficient. So, all in all a gas power plant plus a gas furnace is not really any less efficient than a CHP plant.

On the other hand, you can generate electricity from a wind farm or nuclear power plant. Combine that with a gas furnace and you have much lower CO2 than you get from CHP. Going further, you can install a heat pump in your home, which will outperform a gas furnace. CHP, then, is clearly a snake oil solution to climate change, and should be treated as such. If you want to see the numbers in more depth, read David MacKay’s book.

Paterson’s anti-wind farm case could have been made stronger

Paterson claims the following.

Wind capacity in the EU 27 must rise from 83 GW in 2010 to 984 GW in 2050. It means an increase from 42,000 wind turbines across Europe, to nearly 500,000 wind turbines. This would require a vast acreage of wind turbines that would wall-to-wall carpet Northern Ireland, Wales, Belgium, Holland and Portugal combined.

This is to put it simply something that Paterson (or his ghost writer Matt Ridley) has made up. There are no EU requirements whatsoever to expand wind energy through to 2050. In fact, contrary to what many believe the EU’s 2020 renewable energy target is being met more be expanding bio-energy, and not wind farms. This is clear from the graph below, which I produced for this piece earlier in the year.

BiomassvWindSolarThese are simple quantitative facts, and can be found easily by reading official statistics.

The EU, then, has seen more more of a biomass renaissance than a wind and solar revolution. You may not read about this in the Guardian or the Telegraph, but it is the plain truth.

But Paterson is perhaps correct in key respects. Large parts of Europe have now foolishly ruled out nuclear energy. In fact, it is highly unlikely that the EU will be getting any more energy from nuclear power plants in 2050 than it does today. This is simply because countries such as Germany have ruled it out, and those actions add up. Carbon capture and storage is also on a slow track, and not looking like expanding quickly at all. Though this might change. Solar is also unlikely to get beyond marginal in cloudy high latitude Europe, despite the wishful thinking of the environmental movement. So, EU climate targets in reality look more and more like de-fact wind power targets, whether we realise it or not.

How much land would the EU need to cover in wind farms? Let’s start with final energy consumption.  Accordingly Eurostat the EU’s gross consumption of energy was 1.7 billion tonnes of oil equivalent in 2012. This is approximately 2.3 (TW) terawatts, if we think about it in terms of average power.  2.3 trillion watts is a big number and hard to get your head around. But how much land would be need to supply, say, 1 TW (just under half of current EU consumption) from wind farms?

The power density of wind farms in Europe is not likely to be above 2 watts per square metre on average, and might even be lower.  This means that providing 1 TW from wind farms will require something like 500,000 square kilometres to be covered in wind turbines. The UK is 230,000 square kilometres. So, two UK’s worth of land covered in wind farms. Not exactly “small is beautiful” stuff.


How does this compare with Paterson’s made up scenario?

The combined area of Northern Ireland, Wales, Belgium, Holland and Portugal is almost exactly 200,000 square kilometres.

This is less than half of the area I calculated above.

So, here is a piece of advice to Owen Paterson (or Matt Ridley). Next time you want to make a badly informed attack on wind farms, drop me a line, and I will strengthen it.

This of course is an argument based on mere aesthetics, and aesthetics that on closer inspection are more green than blue. And as Jonathan Meades observed, the correct response to Small Is Beautiful is Big Is Sublime.

Bunkers Brutalism and Bloodymindedness Concrete Poetry – One from MeadesShrine on Vimeo.

I will leave the remainder of Mr. Paterson’s speech for other unfortunate souls.


9 thoughts on “Is Owen Paterson correct about the scale of wind farms?

    Jani-Petri Martikainen said:
    October 19, 2014 at 5:03 pm

    You are correct that no EU requirements exist. On the other hand there are roadmaps where numbers of that type (1000GW or so of wind) are thrown around. Here especially the Scenario 4 that is filled with renewables falls into that category, I think. (For the record, while I haven’t followed this Patterson guy, he does seem to be a moron.)


      Robert Wilson said:
      October 19, 2014 at 5:09 pm

      This is true, but roadmaps aren’t policy. Anti-nuclear greens sometimes attack the UK government for publishing roadmaps which include over 100 GW of nuclear. And often these roadmaps include scenarios simply to keep NGOs and industry lobbyists happy. I rarely take them seriously.


        Jani-Petri Martikainen said:
        October 19, 2014 at 5:12 pm

        Yep, I agree. Generally I find it hard to see the point in this scenario industry.


        Robert Wilson said:
        October 19, 2014 at 5:15 pm

        2 for the policymakers, 1 for the NGOs and 2 for the industry lobbyists.
        Everyone’s happy, and everyone can think we can decarbonise their way.


    Roddy Campbell (@Roddy_Campbell) said:
    October 19, 2014 at 6:30 pm

    Interesting that on your de facto line of reasoning Paterson was underestimating by 50%. I had not expected that.


      Robert Wilson said:
      October 19, 2014 at 7:08 pm

      I can go further and cited David Keith’s work on the saturating power density of wind farms and double the area required. It only shows how shoddily researched Matt Ridley’s anti-renewables arguments are. He can’t even get his reasonable arguments straight.


    Roddy Campbell (@Roddy_Campbell) said:
    October 19, 2014 at 6:32 pm

    You say gas plants are 50% or 60% efficient. Where does the 40% to 50% loss go? In escaping heat?


    Robert Sansom said:
    October 20, 2014 at 9:48 am

    It’s not really correct to say that heat is wasted from a thermal power station. The heat is very low temperature and not much good for anything other than heating green houses. It’s more correct to say that exergy is wasted. A CHP plant is much more efficient from an exergy perspective. To illustrate this a CHP plant which produces 6 units of electricity and 3 units of heat could also use the 6 units of electricity to produce 18 units of heat from heat pumps, thereby producing 21 units of heat compared to 9 units from a gas boiler. See [57] Lowe,R. (2011). “Combined heat and power considered as a virtual steam cycle heat pump.” EnergyPolicy (2011), doi:10.1016/j.enpol.2011.05.007.


    ppp251 said:
    October 30, 2014 at 12:52 am

    Put offshore turbines in North sea and Atlantic ocean, greater power density there.


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