National Grid report challenges wind energy critics


June 25, 2013

Sheringham Shoal Offshore Wind Farm, UK (Photo: Harald Pettersen/Statoil)

Sheringham Shoal Offshore Wind Farm, UK (Photo: Harald Pettersen/Statoil)

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Squirreled away beneath a recent Telegraph report on the subtleties of badger-culling in the UK was this intriguing morsel of wind energy news, which would seem to challenge the idea that intermittent energy sources such as wind play havoc with grid management. For the 23,700 gigawatt-hours of electrical energy generated by wind in the UK between April 2011 and September 2012, only 22 GWh of electrical energy from fossil fuels "was needed to fill the gaps when the wind didn't blow," it reports. Gizmag contacted the UK National Grid to find out the details.

The Telegraph's figures come from National Grid Head of Energy Strategy and Policy, Richard Smith, speaking at the Hay Festival between May 23 and Jun 2. Gizmag has learned that he was drawing from a National Grid document sent to the Scottish Parliament in response to its own report of Nov 23 2012, entitled Report on the achievability of the Scottish Government's renewable energy targets.

Table 1 of the National Grid's document states that, according to its figures, wind farms generated 23,707 GWh of electricity over the 18 months in question.

Meanwhile, Table 2 of the report shows the energy provided by the National Grid's Short Term Operating Reserve, and how much of that was due to wind energy output being lower than forecast. Of the 246 GWh provided by the Reserve for the same period, 22 GWh are thought to be due to the wind not blowing as forecast.

In other words, for every 1,000 GWh of wind energy generated in that 18-month period, less than 1 GWh was required to meet shortfalls due to the wind not blowing as expected. "As expected" may be the crucial words missing from the Telegraph's summary. What about the energy required when the wind isn't blowing, when you know it isn't going to blow, you may well ask? But, similar to the classic falling tree scenario, is a GWh of energy truly "lost" if you weren't expecting to generate it in the first place? At the very least, the National Grid's figures would seem to challenge the notion that wind energy throws the grid into significant disarray.

Further, because of the carbon implications of these figures, the data simultaneously challenge another knock-on concern about wind energy – one raised in paragraph 121 of the Scottish Parliament's report. It specifically calls on the National Grid and the UK Government to clarify "whether 'reducing the carbon intensity' of the grid takes account of electricity which is generated from thermal [i.e. fossil fuel] plant but, due to despatch decisions, does not make it as far as the grid, whether this is expected to be a continuing issue and, if so, for how long."

In other words, the Scottish Parliament's specific question is whether wind energy can actually waste energy. If, say, Walney 1 suddenly spins into action, is this reducing the efficiency of fossil fuel power stations because they've produced energy which is suddenly surplus to requirements? Could such inefficiencies wholly or partly wipe out carbon emission reductions made by having wind turbines in the first place?

Though the reductions in carbon emissions due to wind energy generation (and increases due to the wind not blowing as forecast) are only estimated in the National Grid report, the figures are striking, if not unexpected given what we've already learned. Over the 18-month period, the 23,707 GWh of wind energy generated resulted in an estimated reduction in CO2 emissions of 10.9 million tonnes. Meanwhile the "intermittency impact" of the wind not blowing as expected was an additional 8,800 tonnes of CO2. "The report concludes that this effect causes only a small effect on the carbon intensity of thermal plant generation which is less than 1 percent of the benefit of carbon reductions from wind farms," it says, somewhat conservatively. The National Grid's own figures suggest that the effect on carbon emissions of wind intermittency is actually less than a tenth of a percent of the overall benefit of wind power.

The reports in question are available on the Scottish Parliament website: Report on the achievability of the Scottish Government's renewable energy targets (PDF); National Grid evidence (PDF).

Via The Telegraph

About the Author
James Holloway James lives in East London where he punctuates endless tea drinking with freelance writing and meteorological angst. Unlocking Every Extend Extra Extreme’s “Master of Extreme” achievement was the fourth proudest moment of his life. All articles by James Holloway

The only worthwhile metric of whether or not wind power is worth it is if the cost of energy to the consumer is reducing, without the application of government subsidies.

Hasham Abbas

One myth dispelled (intermittency trouble), one left to go: namely that renewable energy needs subsidies. The only reason this is presently the case is because of the far larger subsidies to the fossil fuel and nuclear sector. Not only direct subsidies, tax breaks, and subsidized insurance, but a slew of protections for these industries that effectively shield them from paying pollution damages in civil lawsuits, or flat out exempt them from environmental requirements that everyone else is subject to. Not to mention the trillions of $$ that the general public is obliged to pay in military expenditures to keep the oil flowing...

Make no mistake: if the playing field were level, there would be zero coal and nuclear, and much less natural gas and oil in the energy business, including transportation. The development of renewable energy sources has been held back decades by the massive subsidies to fossil and nuclear.


"The only worthwhile metric of whether or not wind power is worth it is if the cost of energy to the consumer is reducing, without the application of government subsidies."

This is rubbish. If it was a tenth of the price to produce our electricity by burning children would that make it the right choice?

Phil Clemow

So they are admitting that wing has generated in 18 months nearly the DAILY demand for electrical energy.

For those interested in all the generated electricity in the UK go to where it is shown in diagrammatic form.

@physics314. Would you please give citations for your claims of subsidies to the fossil fuel and nuclear power generators.


@Hasham: I'm all for using that metric. And doing the math correctly.

That would mean, every type of energy source should be evaluated including every bit of subsidies and especially every last penny of externalities, to be best of our knowledge.

If people who really know their stuff do this (economists for example), renewables don't just come out on top. They VASTLY come out on top.

Right now we only enjoy cheap and easy energy because we do not give a dang about what happens in 300 or 400 years. For example, we burn in our cars the very stuff that can be used to make solar cells (polymer type, needs another decade of R&D) ...and for what: to transport our lazy selves.

That particular example gets me every time I think about it: We burn oil for a one-time benefit that causes a rat's tail of bad side effects. Then, it's gone, for ever. We keep harping on how great an economy we are running based on that. And once it's gone, we'll surely still be pointing out how expensive it is to make solar cells. Which it will be, because we burned all of a potential raw material for that. What a smart "intelligent" species we are...


Last I looked solar cells are silicon based and oil is largely carbon based. Two different raw materials.

But here is a real question. The UK pulled 23,7000 gigawatts of energy out of the wind - did that alter the climate? - the butterfly flaps its wings in China and there is a hurricane in the Atlantic effect.

The CO2 argument is crap. The recent highest peak was 400ppm and 525Million years ago it was 7,000ppm (long before man) and the planet was a lot greener.



I'm not sure if you are really uninformed or deliberately feigning ignorance. In any case, below are a couple of search terms that should lead you to plenty of the evidence of fossil and nuclear subsidies. I will assume that you have, in fact, heard of the Iraq wars, and some of the large oil spills (Exxon, BP...) which have cost the beneficiaries and offenders next to nothing.

Price–Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act Halliburton loophole American Electric Power Company v. Connecticut

Other subsidies include the persistent exclusion of coal ash from hazardous waste designation. To say nothing of the glossing over the environmental destruction of mountaintop removal mining and coal ash spills.

An excellent article documenting the net-negative effect on GDP of fossil fuel use (and that's excluding the effects of climate change!): Muller et al., American Economic Review (2011) 1649


The trick to this report is the word "forecast", as in energy from the coal-fired reserves "due to wind output being lower than forecast." All this metric says is that the National Grid people are pretty good forecasters of when and how hard the wind is blowing. It says absolutely nothing, not a word, about power generated by coal/oil/gas/nuclear when the wind isn't blowing.

Shame on those not noticing that dirty trick that completely covers up a serious intermittency problem that is and always will be endemic to wind power. Approximately 80% of Denmark's installed capacity consists of wind generators, and when those don't turn hard enough to generate electricity for days or weeks at a time (which happens, I used that very data in a school presentation a couple years ago), Denmark has to import electricity from dirty German coal-fired plants. And Denmark is one of the prime places on the planet for wind power resources. Imagine trying to build enough turbines to serve, say, the northeastern U.S. without relying on solar (think about the weather over there), coal, oil/gas, nuclear, or anything else. See this map from the EIA for why that's not a feasible alternative:

Unless there is a drastic, revolutionary, and as-of-yet unforeseeable change in wind turbine design or we figure out how to make the wind blow consistently without further energy input, wind power can not be a source of base load power. Ever. It has its uses but it just can't replace coal or nuclear as a base load source.

And just because it needs to be said, solar is even worse. There is much more promise for future technology developments to get over the hump but it still has an intermittency problem for most places and where there isn't that problem we would have to destroy thousands of square miles of desert habitat to make it even remotely viable.

Thinking long-term, we as a species need to continue to work energy usage - improve efficiency and all that - and figure out how to make helium-3 fusion work, because all the coal, oil, uranium, thorium, and natural gas in the world won't last more than another couple hundred years and there simply isn't enough wind or solar power available to handle the energy needs of a growing, industrializing population.

Justin Chamberlin

I personally think AGW is bunk, that CO2 is a GH gas, just not a very powerful one, that the Earth has been in a warming trend since the last ice age and it has almost nothing to do with CO2.

With that said, I think we should get away from burning coal, it's just such a dirty way of producing power. I also agree with the other poster in that we should do away with subsidies to fossil fuel production (as well as "clean" energy) and that what we spend on the military that is directly related to fossil fuel should be equated and tacked onto the fuel cost (same with clean).

I think electric cars are the future but the government is abismal at picking winners and should leave that to the private sector. I also think nuclear (fission and fusion) should be research and added to the list of "clean" energy that is domestically produced.

This is not a right/left/green/etc issue, just an issue of sustainability, economics, and access.

Rann Xeroxx

"The CO2 argument is crap. The recent highest peak was 400ppm and 525Million years ago it was 7,000ppm (long before man) and the planet was a lot greener." Don't suppose you know what the sea level was at the same time Dekarate?

Craig Jennings

@Dekarate - Balderdash. Your PPM argument is a straw man argument, yes there was a time when the carbon levels were much higher than they are now, that's not the issue, the issue is the speed at which we went from 350 PPM to 400PPM, roughly a hundred years. No time has our planet done that without massive extinctions and unsustainable changes. Think about it like this, you can be in a building 400 feet off the ground and you can go down to the ground either gradually by the stairs (global warming without influence) or quickly by jumping (accelerated global warming). Which would you choose?


In the US we produce 149.766 terawatt-hours of electricity from wind. The people opposed to wind power saying it costs more, is due to the technology not being used correctly. Instead of having massive underwater cable infrastructures for electric power, the wind mills could use electrolysis to convert sea water to hydrogen and oxygen and simply put a small infrastructure to pipe the gas to the mainland where it can be used in generators directly or piped as natural gas by mixing it with know the stuff we are trying to get rid of (solving another problem).


I believe what is required is an international power grid. This could have the effect of "storing" excess energy when renewable conditions are favorable. In reality, base load requirements could be reduced because if there is a higher requirement at any given time, there would be that capacity in another region/timezone which would be in a different part of the 24Hr peak/trough cycle. Given that the thermal inertia in any baseload generation takes hours to swing electrical output, we stand to have efficiencies in optimising them across borders. There would of course be line losses over long distances but these losses would be more than offset in an intelligent, international grid. As more renewables come online their intermittent generation disadvantages would effectively be compensated. In order for this to happen we would require a tariff system and political will. As many people have rightly indicated, oil reserves will only become fewer and more expensive. There will be greater demands on alternative forms of energy to make up the shortfall. Electric propulsion will become widely adopted in place of the internal combustion engine. It is not a matter of if, only when. This will place massive strains on power generation and the distribution grids. If western societies have a modicum of future thinking among the elite, they will take action to transfer us into the future electic society we need to become. The oil age is retiring. The electric age is dawning.


So what this report says, is that for every 23.7 GWh of Wind energy produced, 22 GWh were needed to replace what was not generated when the wind didn't blow. Almost 1 for 1. Amazing! So the intermittency problem is "solved".

Andrew Fawcett

so it drifts to sea level change or rates of change for ppm.

In case you missed your history classes in school, the Earth has been in perpetual change since its formation and your nuts if you think you can control it. Does that mean you abdicate the reasonable use of resources, NO. But trying to hold the various 'measurements of some arbitrary characteristic fixed' to some other date's measurement is a fool's game.

international grids the losses plus capital costs are simply too large. In underwater environment - AC line length is limited to about 19miles, DC is 370 miles. Assuming a ten-fold technology increase in transmission ability but still at today's costs would yield a 408DC cable run that costs about $9Billion to install. And that is just a single circuit line.


As one poster said, if a wind farm used the power generated on site to run an electrolysis plant to produce Hydrogen and Oxygen from the surrounding sea water then the gases could be easily shipped ashore. That would neatly overcome any fluctuation in supply experienced by running electricity directly into the grid when winds were low. The stored gas could be used to run generators onshore which would be able to be run continuously if a large enough buffer store was kept to overcome low gas production periods. In that way no disruption in main supply would be experienced as the gas generators would be essentially part of the main grid supply and could be relied upon as much as any other source. As the other poster says, that would also overcome the huge expence of power cables from the offshore farms to the grid. I wonder why this has not been considered before.


@Justin Chamberlin:

"... to destroy thousands of square miles of desert habitat..."

So, you're insinuating that if all the scorpions in the area were wiped out, humanity would be definitely lost?


Turning electricity and water into hydrogen using platinum catalyst requires 1.8 KW of electricity for every 1.0 KW of hydrogen produced. Then the hydrogen has to be pumped and leaks continually. .........................................................................................................................

Using the windmills (wind turbines) to compress air (without electrically driven compressors) using the the heat generated in Stirling cycle engines or other heat engines to drive other compressors and the generators to power the windmills electrical systems. Then when using the compressed air use the cold generated by expansion directly as refrigeration or with waste heat from other industrial operations (Including thermal-electric power-plants) to generate additional electricity again using Stirling cycle engines to capture more of the available energy.

The compressed air could also be used to power low cost zero local emission vehicles.


Both Hasham Abbas and physics314 make good points. To physics314's list, I would add the disruption, under compensation, and abuse of eminent domain for pipelines etc. This cost is born by a few select victims (not politically important!). However, injustice for the few is harbinger of trouble for all.

Do Hasham Abbas and physics314 really disagree? Empirically, it's hard to tell. Let's end all the subsidies (and the wars), then we'll find out.


BeWalt's point is ill made. The only people who "give a dang about what happens in 300 or 400 years" are people who think they know (even approximately) what the technology will be like at that time. I submit that those people are fools.

In 1613, steam power was a distant dream of only a handful of the most savvy. Electricity was a parlor trick. Do you fault those ancients for wasting copper on kettles or whale oil in their lamps? And the pace of change has only quickened.

Baring a total economic collapse, the people of 2413 will have moved on from our present day, petty worries.


@Andrew Fawcett: Wikipedia "Order of Magnitude". Please.

@piper Tom: Nobody knows the technology 400 years from now (nor has anyone claimed to do so). The thing I claim to know is that oil will run out. Feel free to start an argument about that.

Innovation deniers always work the same way: "look how much stronger even a single horse is than this [1887] motor carriage"..."things heavier than air will never fly"..."the human genome will never be sequenced".

Another thing I claim to know is that burning a resource is the dumbest way to make a use of it. When you inherit your grandma's savings, do you burn the bills to heat your house?

Yet, that is just what we do with oil. The same oil that can be used to make almost anything: Medicine, kitchen gadgets, floor coverings, clothes, building materials. And that last one is really interesting: Building materials, like insulation. Insulating the house for decades instead of warming it for a week.

You talk about moving on, but my point is that "moving on" will be much harder once we have burned through all that wonderful raw material that might help us to move on.

And yes, ancients can be faulted for idiocy: Talk to people from one of the deforested places in the Mediterranean. Or people living near exhausted mine sites. People living where the top soil was flushed away because of stupid human action. Absolutely, yes: We should try to learn from our ancestor's stupidities.


In 2003 the French government estimated nuclear-generated electricity at €28.40/MWh. This was used to justify the building of Flamanville-3, the latest reactor. In December 2012 the 'Cour des Comptes' (French government spending watch-dog) estimated the actual cost at between €70-90, depending on the method used. EDF (the sole commercial operator in the UK ignoring little-old Magnox) has used a figure of € 110-166/MWh in its request for aid from the UK Government for 2 reactors at Hinkley Point. See a trend here? Remember, this does not include clean-up costs (€60-115billion for current waste UK waste to-date) which come as a separate bill to the UK taxpayer so actual costs per MwH are higher. Nuclear is dying around the world and the underlying reason is economic: its simply no longer competitive in a post Fukishima world where all costs and risks are accounted for.

Brendan Dunphy

Going from 400ppm to 7,000ppm will take over 13,000 years. That assumes the rise in CO2 is constant. Exponential will be less time, asymptotic a lot longer. Perhaps some grand Rube Goldberg contraption will save us all. But it is not suprising that the variation in output of the UK wind farms appears insignificant. That is because windfarms are rightly placed where the wind blows almost constantly (i.e Sweetwater Texas). And given the small percentage that wind power is of the aggregate power generated, a small variation of a small percentage would not be expected to wreak havoc with the grid.

Bruce H. Anderson

Renewable engergy is always going to be cheaper when all the costs are considered. Coal is destroying people's health and in Germany the industry was getting a 600 billion euro subsidy each year which was part of the reason their government moved to support solar with feed in tariffs. Power utility experts are also finding that solar farms with their intelligent inverters can be set to delay switching off feeds into the grid and this can give the regular power stations more time to react to loss of power and this in turn can prevent a catastrophic failure and black outs.

In the USA the oil industry gets billions of dollars in direct subsidies, more in tax credits, more in non-enforcement of pollution laws, and then there is the trillion dollar a year occupations of Aghanistan and Iraq.


@Justin Chamberlin Your information seems to be out of date. Denmark primarily exchanges hydropower with Norway. The surplus Wind power is used to top up the Hydro dams.


obviously the "unexpected" portion required burning fossil fuel, but so did the "expected" shortfalls.

and it would have been nice to put that 24,000 GWh into perspective (it's less than 4%, annualized) - so no matter how you slice it, wind generation is not as big a factor as advocates would like to pretend. but if it were, say 10 times as much, not only would britain be bankrupted, but the fossil-fuel plants wouldn't be able to carry the intermittent slack.

Yevgenyi Gorbachev

@Hasham Abbas: Seems reasonable only the same should be calculated for other types of energy production.

It gets really complex really quick so let's focus on coal as an example. For instance the infrastructure used to transport coal - is that payed for directly over peoples energy bill or is some of that infrastructure payed through public funding which is then payed through taxes. And how about the many people suffering from bad health or even dying from the pollution created when burning coal - those lifes are less productive and far more costly to society than had they not been ill due to pollution. Are those costs factored into the cost of creating energy by burning coal?


Hi James

There is possibly at least one discrepancy is someone's maths / logic / propaganda.

The report claims 'only' 22GWh " .....are thought to be due to the wind not blowing as forecast.", and claims Estimated Additional CO2 emissions at 8,800 tonnes.

This averages at 400 tonnes per GWh generated.

However, the article boasts that for the entire 23,707 GWh generated, total CO2 savings were 10,900,000 tonnes.

This averages at 459.8 tonnes per GWh

Joe Public

nice work

Brian Wark

Carbon dioxide ppm has increase at this rate before such as after iceage. Its easy for it to happen so when the natural inflows and outflows are so enormous- way bigger than human production. CO2 can come out of oceans in enormous quantities.

The report fails to challenge critics- its has to show that for the worst real scenarios (there are three when demand was most more than "renewable" or "wind" electricity, when the rate of that fall was the greatest and when it rose too high too quickly (you can have too much electricity)) that actually occurred at a particular time period (period only depending only actual electricity storage capacity). The first scenario is how much dependable electricity capacity is needed to supply to demand. The second is can that dependable electricity be supplied quick enough to meet demand easily- will they become more CO2 production because they become more inefficient responding to this pressure. The third is you need shutdown dependable or wind and there are costs to doing so.

Big aggregates don't count when you talking about unreliable energy.


It is absurd that anybody would consider subsidizing solar as a rational response to coal being subsidized. Discontinuing the coal subsidy would be the proper response.


So we have some decent stats showing wind power fails about 1% of the time, and the conclusion everyone seems to draw from this is that it's therefore not viable as a source of energy at all. It seems to me that this is about the same ballpark as the driving:maintenance ratio of your average car, yet nobody seems to be saying that renders cars a pointless and unreliable mode of transport.

@cloa513: "Carbon dioxide ppm has increase at this rate before such as after iceage."

No, not even close, at least not during the last 5 or 6 ice ages in the last 650,000 years: "Today’s rate of increase is more than 100 times faster than the increase that occurred when the last ice age ended.":’s-Mauna-Loa-Observatory-reaches-new-milestone-Tops-400-ppm.aspx

What @LordInsidious said is right, though curiously the difference between running down stairs versus falling is actually a smaller difference in rate, which does put it in perspective.



I was just pointing out the hypocrisy of enviro-nuts who claim solar is THE future electricity generation technology but the actual efforts involved in doing that would do to deserts what farming has done to the rainforest.


I couldn't remember the total amount of wind power in Denmark off the top of my head (that presentation I did was almost five years ago). Actually taking the time to look it up reveals 30% is wind, 48% is coal, with the rest combined between oil, natural gas, some solar, biomass, and imported electricity from Germany and Norway.

Justin Chamberlin

re; Synchro

What about C02 levels. While C02 is very efficient at absorbing the energy that it can absorb only 5% of the solar radiation. In fact C02 is so good at absorbing that energy that over 90% of all the solar radiation that C02 can absorb is absorbed by the first 200 ppm.


How much energy is required to: Produce the turbines? Install that turbines? Create a point of energy distribution?

Will this be offset by the energy generated from them?

Yes. Over approximately 40 years.

What is the life-span of these turbines before they need to be replaced?

Less than 40 years.

Now go back to the drawing board and do the maths.

Aaron Barclay



These are mostly interesting comments. Even those which are hostile and insulting to others do not ruin the lively discussion taking place.

I don't see how investing in wind energy could actually harm people or planetary resources. Also, even if on-site hydrogen production turns out not to be an efficient way to store energy from wind, eventually we are likely to find a good means to do so. So our wind farms will not go to waste.

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