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Book Review: The Wind Farm Scam by John Etherington

by Mel Starrs on March 22, 2011

in Book Review

“What on earth are you doing reading that?”

Reaction to me reading this book has been vocal and at one stage had me wishing I had a Kindle so I could read it on the sly.

I read it in the shadow of unfurling nuclear situation in Japan, whilst in the UK we have recently published the Carbon Plan, implementing new RHI but with massive slashes to FiT. Interesting times.

As a primer for the basic engineering behind wind electricity generation, it’s actually very good. The maths is sound, although it’s clear that Etherington has an axe to grind (the name kind of gives it away).

The basic premise of the book can be summarised by this excerpt from pg 127:
“…wind turbines do virtually nothing for the supposed objective of stabilising or reducing atmospheric CO2. They are money factories which industrialise the landscape for no other significant purpose.”

This is what interested me most about the book. Current UK renewables policy is couched in terms of meeting targets* rather than reducing carbon, which sparked my (suspicious) curiosity. How much carbon will our 20% renewables by 2020 actually save us? This book went some way to answering that question, though I’m still on a quest to know more (revisiting MacKay and Monbiot on the way).

Lots of the issues he brings up as deal breakers looked like really interesting engineering challenges to me and my perhaps naive optimism of technology overrode his attempt to persuade me to reject wind on grounds of noise or load capacity. Indeed in Chapter 11 he questions the role of carbon in climate change. As a proponent of broader sustainability (rather than a carbon zealot) my stock response is this cartoon:

091207usatoday global warming.91

The two chapters in the book I was most interested in were the money behind the technology and the actual carbon abatement. I ought to declare that I previously worked at Inbuilt, who were owned by RES (Renewable Energy Systems), a Newharthill company (who also own the contractors Sir Robert McAlpine). (indeed RES get name checked a few times throughput the book). So I probably know a little more of the wind industry than average Joe Public.

The money chapter gives good explanation of ROC’s and CCL, much of which I knew already, but he explains the mechanism clearly.

On page 162, the proportion of UK power in 2008 is quoted as gas 34%, coal 43%, nuclear 15% and wind <2%. A neat iPhone app from which the image above is taken shows that 3 years on, the proportions of nuclear to coal are significantly changed (this is a snapshot in time early on a Sunday morning rather than an average over a day though) with wind now on almost 4%.

Etherington states (pg 157) actual savings of carbon due to wind by 2010 as 9.2 million tonnes per year, which he then quotes as a percentage of global emissions (0.0003%) which he then maintains is not worth doing. This defeatist attitude is something I disagree with and his switch between UK and global midway through the figures slightly disingenuous.

On pg 154:

“A Freedom of Information enquiry revealed the astounding fact that the Welsh Assembly Government had never calculated the CO2 mitigation to be expected from the generating capacities proposed in it’s own planning advice note TAN 8”

I don’t actually find this astounding. The equivalent in England, PPS22 cites stimulation of the renewables market as a driver. This has always been a mechanism to pump prime the industry.

Wind farms and land ownership bring up some interesting points. Is earning money from allowing wind turbines to be erected on your land a problem. There will be those to whom the issue of land ownership alone is a problem – this quickly becomes an ideological battlefield.

A fascinating paragraph on pg147 which I wish was expanded (I’m tracking down the study mentioned):
“A recent Spanish study suggest that use of subsidy to drive adoption of renewable electricity generation is expensive and diverts investment from more useful parts of the economy. Wind power costs Spain a huge €1.1 million per job in subsidy and setting minimum prices for renewably generated electricity far above Market prices, wastes capital that could be allocated to other sectors. This has resulted in 2.2 jobs being destroyed for every “green job” created.”

Wow. Creative destruction or menace? Tricky.

Where Etherington falls down is a couple of times where he confuses climate with weather:
Pg 103 “…whilst the myth grows that windmills will somehow change the weather”.

In conclusion, it’s a surprisingly well written book, mostly devoid of the scare mongering I half-expected. The Wind Farm Scam is well researched and annotated, I don’t agree with everything he writes, but at least I can go check the sources (my recent reading diet of Goldacre, Singh and to some extent Monbiot has made me obsessed with verifiable data – no bad thing.). It was worth me reading, and now I have perhaps you don’t have to? I’m sure I’ve mentioned before my friend’s socialist father who religiously read the FT everyday so he “knew what they were up to”. It’s good to read outside the box sometimes.

In the meantime my quest to find out what the actual carbon savings of renewables is continues (at this rate my membership of the sustainable community will shortly be revoked). I’m particularly interested in comparing the cost effectiveness of renewables versus fabric efficiency and building physics measures (the Passivhauserati have started down this path already).

Indeed with the current proposed slashing of FiT, I wonder how much of policy is based on hard numbers (the old chestnut of electrical heating always has me slightly cyclical) of carbon reduction versus other drivers, such as market stimulation or good old PR (no offence to PR professionals of whom I know many – if I mean something else here, let me know the correct non-offensive term here).

*Rory has a good review of the Carbon Plan hereand comments on the lack of taking into account carbon created external to UK but consumed in UK. Rory still thinks CSH may survive – I’m still of a mind that ZCH policy trumps CSH and that will remain (another post in the offing for that).

  • Rory_bergin

    Thanks for the link, Mel, I like the story about the socialist who read the FT, it was Machiavelli who said, “keep youjr friends close, and your enemies closer”

  • Andrew

    I found this review of Etherington’s book very helpful: