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January 21st 2014 print

Ray Evans and Tom Quirk

Breezes That Will Never Beat The Heat

Green power didn't fare to well during south-eastern Australia's recent heatwave. Indeed, its contribution to soaring demand was negligible -- and obscenely expensive to boot

wind turbineThe wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth. — John 3:8

We know that environmentalism has become the religion of the chattering classes, and that burning coal to generate electricity, rather than using “renewable energy”, is very high on their list of sins. But in the week Jan 13 – 16, when Victoria and South Australia sweltered in heatwave conditions and electricity demand reached record highs (thanks to air-conditioning), the wind farms’ serried ranks of turbines atop their 30-metre towers made very little contribution to meeting this demand.

This is not surprising, given that the weather patterns which give us such high temperatures provide very little wind to go with them.

This obeisance to the Green gods comes at a huge cost, since the investment in these useless artefacts is substantial and the costs associated with building and maintaining them are met by the electricity consumers of south-eastern Australia. The cost burden has been calculated at 14% for the average domestic consumer, but 30% for large users like shopping malls, which must pass on these extra charges to their customers. Eventually the entire cost burden falls on the shoulders of the average Australian family.

The maximum demand for 10.8 Gw in SA and Vic combined came at 4 pm Jan 13; 12.7 Gw on the 14th; and 12.8 Gw on the 15th. Demand during January is normally about 6 Gw. (1 Gw is a trillion watts — one million typical household  radiators turned on at the same time, to use one readily comprehensible measure.)

The rated capacity of the wind farms, two-thirds of which are in SA, is 2.1Gw, which happens when the wind is blowing at the optimum speed, neither too fast or too slow. On Jan 13, wind output was 150Mw (6% of rated capacity); on Jan 14 it was 670Mw (32%); and on Jan 16 it was 170Mw (8%).  The wind turbines are essentially useless since they cannot guarantee power output when it is most needed and their most reliable output takes place at night. Britain’s National Grid operating authority recently floated this suggestion:

“Factories could be paid to operate at night-time to use up spare electricity from wind farms and cut down on the millions of pounds in compensation paid for wind turbines to switch off.

National Grid said it was considering whether some industrial and commercial businesses could be paid to shift power demand to a different time – such as at night, when “demand is lower, but the wind is still blowing” – in order to “make better use of renewables”.

The grid people said this could be ‘cheaper than constraining the generation’ through so-called ‘constraint payments’, which compensate wind-farm owners for switching them off when the National Grid’s electricity transmission cables are unable to cope with the excess power the turbines are producing, such as when it is unusually windy.

Wind-farm operators were paid £7.6m in 2012-13 in constraint payments, but that total has already risen to £27.9m so far for 2013-14, as more wind farms are built.

The main driver of this lunacy in Australia is John Howard’s Renewable Energy Target legislation of 2000. It mandated that by 2020, 20% of electricity supplies had to come from “renewable” sources. Unfortunately our hydro power plants provide only about 6 percent of demand, and while there may be potential hydro power resources in North Queensland — and there are certainly even greater resources in the mountains of PNG — the cost of transporting that green electricity remains prohibitive.

Matthew Warren, CEO of the Energy Supply Association , said “We don’t expect power prices to come down with any substantial changes unless the RET is repealed entirely, because renewables do cost more.”

Warren can hope long and loud for repeal, but unless the green religion is brought to heel, his hopes of lower prices are but dust in the wind.