Fairies at the bottom of the garden

e4engineering’s Editor Dave Wilson is hauled over the coals and accused of writing ‘kneejerk pebbledash’ after his anti-nuclear pro-wind editorial this week. Whoops!

‘There may be fairies at the bottom of the garden. There is no evidence for it, but you can’t prove that there aren’t any, so shouldn’t we be agnostic with respect to fairies?’ – Richard Dawkins.

I don’t know about you, but I’m getting a bit miffed with the pro-nuclear lot droning on about the need to build more nuclear power plants in the UK to provide us with all the energy that we will need by the year 2020. Why build more of these plants when the real answer to our energy anxieties lies in the wind?

Wind power doesn’t pollute. And unlike nuclear power, there are no nasty by-products that need to be dumped in the sea. (Shouldn’t that be disposed of in an environmentally safe way? – Ed.)

Let’s look at the facts. According to the European Wind Energy Association, the total available wind resource on the earth that is technically ‘recoverable’ is estimated to be 53,000 Terawatt hours (TWh)/year. That’s over twice as large as the projection for the world’s entire electricity demand in 2020. But the cynics just don’t seem to get it.

The UK Government’s own chief scientific adviser, Professor David King, was recently quoted in ‘The Engineer’ magazine as saying that if the UK is to reduce its CO2 emissions it will ‘need to rely on nuclear power to do so’. And David White, an energy consultant who has written a report on the future of UK energy generation for the Institution of Chemical Engineers, even went so far as to say that ‘wind power is unreliable’ and ‘is not available for substantial parts of the year.’ Wind? Unreliable? Was Chernobyl ‘reliable’? Go ask the Russians.

Is it any wonder that I believe these ‘experts’ anymore than I believe in Iraqi WMDs or fairies at the bottom of my garden?

Other folks in Europe don’t think that wind is so bad. Germany had over 12000MW of this ‘unreliable’ technology up and running at the end of last year, while the poor old UK could only manage 552MW. Even the Netherlands was generating 688MW of ‘unreliable’ power for heaven’s sake! And that’s a country that’s so small, you could carpet it. To make matters worse, the state of Texas, home of that ‘environmentally unfriendly’ man George W. Bush, produces more than 1,095MW of ‘unreliable’ wind power – enough to power more than 300,000 Texas homes.

So let’s not kid ourselves that wind isn’t a real alternative to nuclear power. The only real reason anyone would criticize wind power generation as an environmentally sound alternative to nuclear power is that it’s twice as cost effective to build a nuke than it is to build a wind turbine farm at the moment.

But can we afford to ignore the effect that nuclear waste has on the environment? I don’t think we can anymore. The poor old environment can’t take second place to commercial considerations any longer.

Several e4engineering readers have replied to this editorial and their comments are posted here:

Sir:

I enjoyed your rabble rousing take on wind via Nuclear power. I attended a seminar on renewable energy last year in Scotland. Scottish Power has simulated how a large number of wind turbines could replace the existing nuclear plants at Torness and Hunterston as well as the coal fired power stations at Longannet by 2020. If the wind blows, then the system should work. However, if the wind does not blow we would be 1000MW short in Scotland. I’m sure any users of this energy grid would call this situation ‘unreliable’.

The current nuclear and coal fired power stations provide an important base load to stabilise the grid. We will need to find a solution that will provide the same level of stability to the grid.

Wind power does have some environmental impact. They do have to make the wind turbine components from something – they don’t just materialise from thin air. Site location is another problem, having 100’s of wind farms in Scotland might seem a good idea, except the power will be needed most in south east England, how do you transmit the power around without incurring huge transmission losses. You also have to build a greater capacity. Longannet produces 660MW of power; how much wind capacity do you need to replace this? 1000MW – 1500MW, due to the unreliability and continuity of supply. The are lots of possible outcomes before 2020, wind, wave, hydrogen, solar, geothermal, biomass, waste gasification and nuclear. Nuclear, I think, has a role to play. But it does not look as if the UK will build any nuclear power plants due to NAFTA pricing and the environmental lobby.

P.S. What is the environmental impact of having the world covered in wind turbines? Lots of interesting points. Keep on pressing the rabble rousing button.

Stephen Young

Sir:

I was disappointed with your latest editorial on wind power. Earth, (particularly US & Russia), is already blessed with 50 years worth of nuclear waste (mainly military). What would you like done with this?

If we wanted to recover the energy (53000TWh/yr = 6TW capacity) quoted in your article, the current physical limit of 2MW for a wind turbine would require 3x10e6 wind generators.

For the UK alone, the capacity required today is about 40,000MW. Does this article propose the solution is to build 20,000 windmills (in the UK today) without facilities for baseload? (Perhaps import from the French nuclear when needed?)

The article reads like a well known broadsheet – selected statistics applied like kneejerk pebbledash with little technical or practical application. Perhaps it is just as intended, to be controversial.

P.J.Hayter.

Sir:

Do not jeopardise your reputation by journalese statements such as ‘wind power is unreliable and is not available for substantial parts of the year.’ Wind? Unreliable? Was Chernobyl ‘reliable’? Go ask the Russians.

Whether Chernobyl was unreliable of not does not alter the fact that wind can disappear for days and you cannot store electrical energy very easily. We need a balanced programme of generators and a pricing structure that allows for that diversity.

The examples of other countries are fine, but they are still small percentages of their whole demand. By the way, you missed out France!

Our Government is playing a dangerous game with energy, our gas for power is transported across the whole of Europe with us the end of the line. The Foreign Office says they will overcome an interruption of supply ‘by diplomacy’. We are killing off 25% of a base load.

Environmentalists will be the death of us all!

Norman Harris

Sir:

I share your concern at the unproven need for proliferation of nuclear power plants, but would question your enthusiasm for wind power. Have you visited Cornwall and noticed what intrusive blots on the landscape are caused by the wind farms? They may be efficient and attractive from an engineering viewpoint, but they look absolutely hideous in gorgeous scenery. Surely it is inevitable that wind farms will end up in places of natural beauty, since that is where the wind is! Moreover, I find the windmilling of the blades very distracting when the generator is located close to where I am driving.

The answer must be to use much LESS energy.

Regards

Barry Charles