HC 517 The Economics of Wind Power

Memorandum submitted by Prof. P Bullough (WIND 69)

The economics of wind power

Executive summary

Wind power in the UK cannot currently be subjected to an accurate cost-benefit analysis because the level of emissions savings is unknown. Estimates of emissions savings from government are not scientifically rigorous. Operational data from the UK electricity sector should be made publicly available for rigorous empirical analysis. In the absence of this, studies from other countries suggest that emissions savings from wind energy are very much lower than commonly supposed.


1. Cost benefit analyses depend on accurate scientific determination of carbon emissions savings from wind power in the UK.

While the carbon emission at source from wind power is zero, the net carbon emission through integration of wind into an electricity network is not zero. I refer the reader to reference [1] for a detailed explanation of this. In order to determine the cost-benefit ratio of wind energy we need to know the carbon cost per unit of electricity consumed. These data are not publicly available in the UK.

2. Government figures for emissions savings are theoretical only.

These figures are generally based on the assumption that one unit of wind-generated electricity displaces one unit that would otherwise be generated from the fossil fuel/nuclear mix with a pro rata savings in carbon emissions. The reality is not so simple in a complex network with many variables on the demand and supply side; these can be hard to predict [1]. Oswald et al. [6] concluded that increased use of wind in the UK would likely cause utilities to invest in lower-efficiency gas-fired generators that would be switched on and off frequently, cutting their energy efficiency and increasing their emissions. It was concluded that "neither these extra costs nor the increased carbon production are being taken into account in the government figures for wind power."

3. The reduction in carbon emissions through wind energy deployed in the UK must be measured empirically, not just guessed

Since it cannot be assumed that one unit of wind completely replaces one unit of fossil fuel, the only way to know how much carbon is being saved is to measure it. However, publicly available estimates of the emissions savings from wind in the UK appear to be little more than a guess; these do not in my view meet rigorous scientific standards. In correspondence in 2010 with DECC I requested data for the measured emissions savings from wind energy in the UK. I was told that these data were not centrally held by government; this is an extraordinary admission and it means that we simply do not know if current energy policy in the UK is delivering any emissions reductions at all.

4. International attempts at empirical determinations of carbon emissions reductions raise severe doubts about the cost effectiveness of wind

Measurement of the effect of wind on emissions from entire networks is not straightforward. However, a number of international studies have attempted to address this issue [e.g. 2, 3]. In two cases, detailed operational data have been available and analysed: the Bentek report on wind in Colorado and Texas [4] and Udo's analysis of the Irish network, EirGrid [5]. The conclusion of the Bentek report [4] is that wind does not save fuel and does not reduce emissions in Colorado and Texas. While the UK situation is not the same as that in Colorado and Texas, this report should nevertheless be of the utmost concern. Wind conditions in the UK are likely to be similar to those in Eire. Udo's review of the Irish system concluded that despite a massive investment in wind energy only a 5% saving in fuel had been achieved [5]. Moreover,  le Pair et al. [1] note that a number of factors were not taken into account in this analysis and so the emissions savings may be even less than estimated.

5. Countries with very high wind penetration do not have markedly lower carbon emissions

In a report from 2007 [7] it was noted that carbon dioxide emissions in the electricity sector (tonnes per capita) were low for nuclear intensive systems such as France (0.6) and Sweden (0.8) whereas countries with a very high wind power capacity had very high emissions, notably Denmark (4.3) and Germany (3.7). At the very least these data suggest that a high penetration of wind does not necessarily lead to a dramatic decrease in carbon emissions. Again this should raise concerns about the cost effectiveness of wind energy in the UK.

6. Conclusions

For a scientifically valid assessment of the cost-benefit ratio of wind energy in the UK context it is essential that the emissions savings from wind be measured empirically using the highest standards of scientific rigour. Unless this is done, the cost effectiveness of the UK wind energy programme will remain unquantifiable.

7. References

[1] C. le Pair, F. Udo and K. de Groot, ‘Wind turbines as yet unsuitable as electricity providers’, (2012) Europhysics News 43:22-25. http://dx.doi.org/10.1051/epn/2012204

[2] K. Hawkins, ‘Wind integration’, MasterResource Nov. 2009


[3] W. Boone, ‘OVERBLOWN: Windpower on the Firing Line’, MasterResource Sept 2010, http://www.masterresource.org/2010/09/windpower-overblown-part-1/

[4] ‘How less became more: Wind, Power and unintended consequences in the Colorado Energy Market’, 2010 http://www.bentekenergy.com/WindCoalandGasStudy.aspx

[5] F. Udo: http://www.clepair.net/IerlandUdo.html

[6] J. Oswald, M. Raine, H. Ashraf-Ball ‘Will British weather provide reliable electricity?’ Energy Policy (2008) 36:3212– 3225.

[7] Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, ‘Nuclear Power in the UK: is it necessary? is it viable?’, October 2007 Oxford Energy Comment.


My interest in wind energy is purely as a private concerned individual, albeit a scientifically literate one. I have a background in the physical sciences, qualified up to Ph.D. level. I have no professional interest in wind energy and the views expressed herein do not represent those of any institution or professional body with which I may be associated.

June 2012

Prepared 10th July 2012