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Energy: Wind Turbines

Volume 728: debated on Tuesday 14 June 2011


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what proportion of wind turbines in the United Kingdom currently operational or being built are expected to produce electricity at any one time.

My Lords, at any one time, most wind turbines in the UK will be producing electricity. There are a number of reasons why a wind turbine might not be generating electricity at a specific time. This, of course, includes maintenance and repairs to the turbines. The generation of electricity from wind farms varies according to the speed of the wind. Average wind speed varies by location and from day to day—and, for that matter, from year to year. The proportion of maximum output that UK wind farms have generated on average is known as the load factor. In 2009, the load factor for onshore wind was 26.9 per cent, and 33.7 per cent for offshore wind. Provisional figures indicate that for 2010 the load factor for onshore wind was just over 20 per cent, and for offshore wind it was around 30 per cent, due to lower wind speeds.

My Lords, is my noble friend confident that building wind farms is a good way of spending taxpayers’ money, not only because wind farms’ costs and subsidies are proving to be so enormous, but because claims for their efficiency have proved to be wildly exaggerated? Given that turbine operators now have to be paid £2.6 million a month to turn turbines off, because often their product is neither needed nor useable, how many more millions of pounds has he set aside to pay this bill in the future?

I must say that it is jolly good fun being in government, particularly with the support of your own Benches. I think I also heard some cry from the other Benches. The noble Baroness asks an extremely valuable question. I suppose the answer is incumbent upon most noble Lords in this room. For 25 years, we have had no investment in the infrastructure of the energy system in this country. We are going to have to grab energy from every source we can, and that is what this Government are committed to doing. And it will cost. If you have been doing nothing for 25 years and not invested in infrastructure, of course it is going to cost. We regret that, but it is a fact of life.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the Government are not going to meet their green targets unless they can enrol the support of the public sector? Is he aware that his department under the previous Administration set up a working party to see how this could be done? Will he reinvestigate that? In particular, will he encourage the Forestry Commission to use its land outside the national parks and other beautiful areas for wind power, and especially for micro hydropower?

That was an extremely good observation and of course, as I said earlier, we need all hands to the pump. We certainly need the support of the public sector.

Your Lordships are a little bit slow today, if I may say so, but you’ll warm up. It can be very hard to deal with questions seriously, and I apologise to the noble Lord. It is fundamental that we use the public sector and we need the noble Lord’s support, given his great expertise in the forestry sector. We need every bit of support we can get to generate enough electricity to sustain twice the demand for it in 2050 than there is now.

To what extent will offshore wind farms have the facility to harness the tidal currents beneath them?

The noble Lord makes a very good observation, and we have identified a number of marine parks that will capture not only the wind supply but the tide, which is a fundamental use of our own resources in this country, and our considerable wave power. These designated marine parks will be utilising all types of sources for electricity supply.

My Lords, far be it for me to help the Minister out of the hole that he is digging for himself, but does he agree—and he obviously does—that wind farms are an essential part of our future energy policy, and that those who deny that, sometimes on aesthetic grounds, are like those who argue that farming should be left the way that nature intended, which would mean that there would be no farming at all?

My Lords, there is not much I can say to that, except that I did not really think I was digging a hole for myself. However, the noble Lord is completely right in everything he says.

My Lords, we now have some 5 gigawatts of wind capacity in the United Kingdom. Can my noble friend reassure us that with this benign and elegant form of power generation we will be able to meet our 15 per cent target on renewables by 2020? Are the Government still confident that we can meet that target?

I am confident that we can meet our target. It is a very interesting point: the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, comes from Cornwall, as we all know, where they have embraced onshore wind turbines. Of course in other parts of the country they are not going to embrace them. Scotland has embraced wind power very substantially but in other parts of the country it has not been embraced. It is very important that the local communities decide whether they want to embrace this form of electricity, and if they do we will of course achieve our target and we will be able to supply electricity for years to come.

My Lords, the noble Lord the Minister has drawn attention to the intermittency of wind power. Will he tell the House what arrangements are in place to ensure that emergency supplies of conventional power are available to ensure that when wind is intermittent the lights stay on?

That is a very valuable point. The reality is that we have back-up supply but we must not forget—as the noble Baroness knows, because she was in the energy world herself—that a lot of the back-up supplies that she is referring to work only intermittently. Nuclear is operating on a 60 per cent load factor; gas is on roughly the same figure. We need all forms of supply to sustain twice the electricity demand that we will have by 2050.