A harsh wind for economic recovery

Today’s UK Budget won’t create millions of green jobs in Britain’s windpower industry, because we barely have one.

Rob Johnston

Topics Science & Tech

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With big players like Shell getting cold feet and the London Array, potentially the world’s biggest offshore windfarm, facing funding troubles, there is much concern that Britain’s windpower industry is in crisis. This is quite a shock, since Britain barely has a windpower industry.

That hasn’t stopped the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), the think-tank once known as Tony Blair’s brain (when that was considered a good thing), from promoting wind power as a bold new job-creation alternative to digging holes and filling them in again. But the claims for green jobs and green energy are as imaginary as Don Quixote’s windmills.

On 14 April the IPPR published Green Jobs: Prospects for Creating Jobs from Offshore Wind in the UK (1) to coincide with a wind-lobby warning that the industry needs ‘at least £2billion in tax breaks, increased subsidies or “green bonds”’ and that if this help is not forthcoming ‘power companies have warned that £12billion of new wind farms, enough to power more than 1.3million homes, will be scrapped’ (2).

The report makes no attempt to justify wind ‘power’ in terms of its energy-generating capacity. As I have pointed out before on spiked, as a way of generating usable electricity, wind turbines are about as useful as a banker in an ethics factory (see Energy: the answer is not blowing in the wind). The IPPR’s report was paid for by Greenpeace and although its findings ‘do not necessarily represent the views of our funding partners’, it contains all the oxymorons, non sequiturs and flagrant omissions that exactly represent Greenpeace ‘research’.

The IPPR estimates the potential number of new jobs in offshore wind at between 23,000 and 70,000 by 2020, but identifies serious problems in ensuring that these heavily-subsidised jobs are not simply snapped up by workers from other EU countries:

  • There are, already, wind turbine (and component) manufacturers in Denmark, Germany and Spain. It will be extremely difficult to encourage them to move operations here or to start new British companies from scratch. Only one small factory manufactures components (turbine blades) in Britain – Vestas on the Isle of Wight. Research, development and design jobs occur at the manufacturers; unless we build turbines here, we will get few jobs here;
  • British port capacity is, simply, inadequate (neither deep enough nor strong enough) for wind turbine installation and operation vessels. Currently, all offshore UK wind farms are constructed from continental ports;
  • Land-based infrastructure is also inadequate to the task. We would need huge new investment in roads and rail from factories (whereabouts unknown) to ports (unidentified and unbuilt). This, along with the absence of port capacity, currently rules out simple assembly of components in Britain;
  • The UK does not have (and could not train) enough skilled engineers to install and operate the proposed wind expansion by 2020.

Denmark, Germany and Spain developed their domestic turbine manufacturers years ago – with special subsidies and laws that required locally made components. Now, the EU has rules that make it very difficult to discriminate against other European workers and companies.

The IPPR’s answer to the EU conundrum comes from a source even more New Labour than itself – Peter, Lord Mandelson. Mandelson coined the term ‘industrial activism’ as shorthand for attempts to bypass EU competition regulations (3). Sadly, both Mandelson and the IPPR fall short on exactly how ‘industrial activism’ can be achieved.

No matter how many thousands of wind turbines – each one as large as a jumbo jet – are plonked atop millions of tons of concrete in the North Sea and Thames estuary, even the IPPR/Greenpeace report admits that the principal economic obstacle to offshore wind farms is that their intermittent electricity generation is incompatible with the national grid. To use even a small proportion of windfarm electricity means rebuilding the national grid and installing ‘smart meters’ in every home.

Appliances that operate 24 hours a day (that is, fridges, freezers and, er… that’s it) will be fitted with microchips and interactive software which turn them on when electricity demand is low and off when demand is high. The software will be controlled by the electricity supplier. Theoretically, this makes better use of off-peak electricity. But with a vastly increased reliance on wind ‘power’ it will actually mean that the country’s cooling appliances will be used as an energy sink in an attempt to regulate erratic current to the national grid. Your fridge will be turned off on hot, calm days but buzzing away at maximum during the cold and blustery winter.

A report for the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) estimates the total costs of smart-metering every household at over £27billion (4). A single smart meter may cost £240 more than a ‘dumb’ meter – just to save £11 a year on administration (5). They also hand suppliers (and, ipso facto, government, councils and law enforcement) the ability to turn off customers’ electricity remotely, limit the amount of electricity any home can use, even turn off specific appliances.

The IPPR concludes that without overcoming all these hurdles, ‘the offshore wind market is not likely to materialise on the timescale necessary’ (6). With a dramatic improvement in the technology, in particular dealing with the problem of the wind’s enormous variability, wind power might one day be a useful addition to the energy mix in this country. At present, it is an expensive and unreliable method of producing energy that could not be considered without enormous subsidies. Such subsidies cannot be justified by the creation of great numbers of green jobs in the UK – there’s no sign of that happening. When considering his options today, Alastair Darling would do well to avoid blowing money on wind.

Rob Johnston is a freelance writer on the environment, health and science, and blogs at Bad Ecology.

Previously on spiked

Tim Black attacked government plans to make opposition to windfarms unacceptable. Rob Johnston said that the answer to our energy problems is not blowing in the wind. Joe Kaplinsky and James Woudhuysen argued that the UK government’s consultation on nuclear power focused on changing our behaviour. Joe Kaplinsky demanded that the government put a positive case for nuclear power. Or read more at spiked issue Energy.

(1) IPPR, Green Jobs: Prospects for creating jobs from offshore wind in the UK

(2) Budget will make or break renewable energy, The Times (London), 12 April 2009

(3) Lord Mandelson, Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform, speech to The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, London, 17 December 2008

(4) Appraisal of Costs & Benefits of Smart Meter Roll Out Options, Table 10-1, Mott MacDonald. Report for BERR April 2007

(5) Ibid page xiv

(6) IPPR, Green Jobs: Prospects for creating jobs from offshore wind in the UK

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Topics Science & Tech


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