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Blown out of the water

It was going to be the future.  Using advanced technology to capture the power of the sun – either directly from the photons in sunlight or indirectly via the temperature and pressure gradients created by the Sun’s warming of the Earth.  We were soon to see a world of energy too cheap to meter, which would, in turn, usher in a fourth industrial revolution.  We would, they promised, own nothing and be happy in this fully automated luxury communistic utopia.  And even when it didn’t quite live up to its billing, proponents could fall back on the three-part mantra for covering up tech failure:

  • It is only a prototype
  • It will improve
  • It is inevitable.

Britain’s part in the post-fossil fuel future was clear enough.  Located in the Northeast Atlantic at the point where the Gulfstream and the Jetstream cross, the British Isles get more than their fair share of wind (and the rainy days that accompany it).  And so, successive British governments since the 1990s have set out to make Britain a world-leader in generating electricity from wind.

To sell the vision of a “green” energy system to a rightly sceptical British public, the green energy corporations – which are often just re-branded ordinary energy corporations – their activist allies, and their puppet politicians made two promises: cheap energy and a jobs revolution.

Manufacturing the – as it turned out, non-renewable – renewable energy-harvesting technologies – would provide new, high-skilled and high-paying jobs.  So too would the massive effort required to deploy and manage the new infrastructure.  And, as happens with all energy technologies, there were bound to be spin-off jobs across the wider economy.

At the same time, all the evidence showed that the cost of renewable energy was falling… and would continue to do so in a renewable energy version of Moore’s Law.  According to Nathalie Thomas at the Financial Times, the cost savings were down to the size of the wind turbines being deployed off Britain’s coastline:

“Renewable energy companies said on Monday that bigger turbines, each several times more powerful than their predecessors from older wind farms, are responsible for a dramatic drop in their costs…  Off the coast of Liverpool, the wind turbines that began turning in May as part of Dong Energy’s Burbo Bank Extension scheme each stand 195m tall and are capable of generating 8MW of electricity.  Just one of these turbines generates more electricity than the whole of the world’s first offshore wind farm, Vindeby in Denmark, which was decommissioned earlier this year after 25 years of operation.”

By 2019, Jillian Ambrose at the Guardian was promising us that:

“The UK’s next wave of offshore windfarms will generate clean electricity at no extra cost to consumers after record low-subsidy deals fell below the market price for the first time.

“New offshore wind projects will power millions of British homes under ‘zero-subsidy’ support contracts within the next four years, following a record-breaking government subsidy auction.

“On Friday, the results of the auction showed offshore wind costs had tumbled by a third to about £40 per megawatt hour, which is less than the price of electricity in the wholesale energy market.”

In the years before the world went insane, the price of electricity had settled at around £40 per megawatt hour.  And in 2019, the price seemed to be falling further.  Although lockdown distorted the trend, falling prices appeared to confirm the narrative of ever cheaper renewable energy:

That’s not how it turned out though.  Four years on from Jillian Ambrose’s promise of subsidy-free contracts for the next generation of windfarms, the auctions have fallen flat.  As Michael Race at Pravda reports:

“No new offshore wind project contracts have been bought by developers at a key government auction, dealing a blow to the UK’s renewable power strategy…  Industry insiders told the BBC that the £44 per megawatt hour price floor set for the latest auction failed to take account of higher costs.”

What happened?  Did those ever bigger and more efficient turbines suddenly become less efficient?  Or might it be that the efficiency of the turbines was only a secondary factor in setting the price of electricity?

What happened in the spring of 2020, was that governments around the planet embarked on an economically destructive series of shut-downs which played havoc with fossil fuel markets – at one point the price of oil futures went negative, leading to big falls in profits and an investment flight.  So that, when economies opened up again in the autumn of 2021, there was insufficient supply to meet demand.  In a market economy, that meant higher – indeed, eye-wateringly higher – prices.  And crucially, these fed into the price of electricity:

Nor have the self-destructive sanctions on Russian coal, oil, and gas helped, with prices last winter well above the previous average, and even the cheaper summer months seeing a price far above what the economy can afford.

If, however, the renewable energy propaganda had been correct, not only should this not matter, but it ought to have led to something of a bonanza as far cheaper renewable electricity undercut fossil fuels.  That is, in this moment of high fossil fuel prices, the promised ever-cheaper renewable electricity generators ought to have been raking in millions of pounds on the difference between the promised lower than £35 per megawatt hour cost and the government’s £44 per megawatt hour guaranteed price.

Instead, companies which might otherwise have bid to build the new offshore windfarms, have been reduced to whining about the cost of steel and the growing wage bill.  But these are not the only inputs which have risen in price in the past few years.  As the price of fossil fuels have risen to highs not seen since the crash of 2008, so everything made from, made with, and/or transported using fossil fuels has risen accordingly.  This, in turn, has highlighted renewable energy’s dirty secret… that it is intimately dependent upon fossil fuels at every stage.

Nor does the problem with rising prices end with the energy input.  Prior to the ill-advised sanctions salad, Germany had been Europe’s manufacturing core for the wind power industry.  But wind turbine manufacturing was one of the first casualties of Germany’s self-imposed de-industrialisation.  Among other things, this destroys the already inflated claims of new jobs in the wind power industry, as the turbines for future windfarms will have to be built in China… if super-efficient Germany can no longer sustain a wind turbine industry, Britain has zero chance of building its own.

Fortunately, the jobs claimed for wind energy have been greatly exaggerated.  The 480,000 jobs by 2030 claimed by Simon Jack at Pravda are temporary – and the figure is based on the projected volume of work, not the numbers who would actually be employed.  That is, the same construction crews would migrate from project to project, rather than each project employing its own unique crew.  When it comes to actually operating a windfarm, the number of employees is remarkably small.  The Gwynt-yr-mor windfarm off the North Wales coast – once the biggest in the world – employs just 13 people, although some 700 temporary jobs were created in construction.  As for the theoretical new factory jobs manufacturing turbines, the German Nordex factory in Rostock, which closed in February last year employed some 600 workers, so at best, future British factories – assuming they could compete – would employ no more than a couple of thousand people.

The fact is that as the energy cost of energy rises – as it has in Europe since 2021 – things that used to be cheap become expensive while things that used to be expensive become unaffordable.  This may manifest as – among other things – the price of steel rising too high, or hard-pressed workers asking for higher pay (which has not kept pace with inflation).  It turns out that even Germany could only compete with China so long as it had access to cheap Russian fossil fuels to underpin its economy.  In the age of expensive fossil fuels, far from being the way forward, wind turbines – along with non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies (NRREHTs) in general are rendered as unaffordable as everything else.  And while we may still be supporting employment in Xinjiang, the promised European fourth industrial revolution is already disappearing in the rear-view mirror.

At least the people who promoted the virtues of nuclear electricity generation in the 1960s have an excuse for failing to deliver the promised electricity too cheap to meter – the US government insisting that reactors were configured to produce fuel for weapons rather than cheap electricity for domestic consumption.  The advocates of wind energy have no excuse.  Not only have governments not stood in their way, but they have bent over backward to subsidise as much wind power as the energy corporations were prepared to build.  And unlike the supposed subsidies on fossil fuels, wind energy subsidies have been a direct cash injection designed to make investment as attractive as possible… if an affordable and profitable wind industry couldn’t be built in this environment, it never will be.

As you made it to the end…

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