STUDY SHOWS UK’S ELECTRICITY PRICES TO REACH £1 PER UNIT BY 2050*
The UK’s future direction, as determined by our Johnson’s Johnson, is that we are to become the Saudi Arabia of wind. Such a statement perhaps ought to have generated more ridicule than it did.
This is the first in an occasional series that will explore what will happen when we are happy Net Zero drones with our lives powered by the breezes that blow around these islands.
“So here’s the thing, the off-shore wind industry is now virtually subsidy free.”
The BBC’s Justin Rowlatt, 23rd June 2021^
Are offshore wind farms now “virtually subsidy free?”
As I have mentioned in a previous article, the definition of “subsidy free” is rather elastic, particularly when it refers to fossil fuels. Is there a planet on which wind farms are now “virtually subsidy free”? Well, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. Evidence for the claim comes from bids made by operators of future wind farms (auction round 3) to supply electricity at prices that, if true, would certainly qualify as subsidy free (£40 ish per MWh, at 2012 prices).
However, if I promise to supply you some oranges from my planned vast new orange grove at terrific prices, that is not the same as saying that orange farms are presently unsubsidised. It’s saying that Jit has promised that he can grow oranges at some uncertain future date and sell them to us cheaply. Not the same thing at all, as I’m sure we can agree. And what happens if, when that future date rolls around, you happen to be desperately short of oranges, and their market price is sky high? What if my contract to supply oranges cheaply has little penalty if I break it and revert to selling at market prices? Will you regret giving my orange grove planning permission?
I have seen graphs showing that the cost of electricity in different countries is correlated with some function of wind penetration: the more wind power your country has, the more your leccy costs at the plug. Naturally being an inquisitive sort of chap I did not want to take such graphs at face value. I wanted to make my own graph. The dataset that inspired this was Eurostat’s data for domestic electricity rates**, which covers not just EU members but other European countries too, both wannabe and (harrumph) lapsed members. The leccy prices are from the second half of 2020, except for the UK’s, which is from the first half. As for the wind power, wiki has a table of countries^^ showing the energy from wind that each generated – although the data is 5 years old. We only need one more piece of data to make our graph: the population of each country. Why do we need population? Well, that is easy enough. A large country is far more resilient to the problems of a certain level of wind penetration than is a small country. So I wanted to plot leccy prices against wind energy generated per capita. It’s the difference between relative wind penetration and absolute. (I don’t know why Open Office has reported such a high precision, please forgive it.)
Well, on the face of it, the relationship is quite clear. But we must do that Feynmannian thing of bending over backwards to point out the potential problems with this simple story. First, you’ll note that the distribution of X values is heavily biased towards low values. I could have transformed this to logs (there are some 0s so it would have to be something like X’ = log (X+1)). Anyway I didn’t do that. The second thing is that there are other potential reasons for the positive slope apart from “wind is expensive.” One that occurs to me immediately is this: wealthy countries might be burdened with climate guilt; they already had sky-high leccy rates when they added their wind capacity, which didn’t increase prices. Well, it’s a theory.
Anyway: the vanilla analysis shows that for every MWh per person of wind power you add, the price of a kWh at the plug goes up by 9 Euro cents. The standing charge, as you might call it, is a flat 12 cents. Now let’s just take that slope as read and extrapolate wildly. According to Wiki:
UK wind power generation 2016 = 56,904 GWh, our population is about 66,500,000, so we generated 0.856 MWh wind/person.
What about those exciting plans for Net Zero? What scale of blowiness do the Wise Minds foretell for the UK in, kof, kof, 29 years?
Taking the first of the National Grid’s Future Energy Scenarios 2021 (“Consumer Transformation”)***, we find:
UK wind power generation in 2050 = 645,000 GWh, roughly 11 times more than now (2016 figures, note). That gives us 9.7 MWh wind/person (assumes same population), which, if you extrapolate miles past the end of the graph (never do that, but still), gets you an estimated leccy cost of 1.01 Euros per kWh. Yes,
1.01 Euros per kWh
Next we can estimate how much capacity we’re going to have installed, in jiggawatts. (FES probably reports this, but I’m basing my estimate here on their energy supply prediction, and will find out what they predict as the installed capacity providing that energy when I have read further down – their report is nearly 300 pages.)
The figures for 2050 assume a 40% capacity factor for offshore wind and 30% for onshore wind, as well as an unrealistic 100% availability (i.e. the power installed predicted above would be c.25% too small if availability was only 80%). The capacity factors can be argued over, as well as whether there might be a fall in productivity of individual turbines over time. There’s also the obvious issue that some energy might end up being thrown away.
There are plenty of other interesting things to discover about our future blowy utopia. How much space will the wind farms need? How much of the time will they produce too much electricity, and how much of the time will they produce too little? What will be the likely effect on our feathered friends? To whom are we hosing money? Will the grid laugh at us and go down the pub for a pint? Questions for another day.
For now I leave you with the interesting tidbit that the big-ish green polygon near the centre of the featured image is Norfolk Boreas, which is slated to be rated at 1.8 GW. It will have a footprint of 725 km2, and according to reports it will consist of a mere 90 turbines, each rated at 20 MW (such a machine does not yet exist, but hopefully will by the time Boreas is built). We’ll need about 80 wind farms the size of Norfolk Boreas for our windious future. Onshore farms are an amusement for another day.
Now here’s a quick quiz: which will be taller, The Shard, or Norfolk Boreas’s turbines? Answers on a postcard, and no peeking at the internet.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
*This is the study referred to. I know, it’s not really a study, any more than a seal is a mermaid. And the “study” actually finds that leccy prices might reach 1 Euro per kWh, not £1. I feel it is my duty to exaggerate, lest the message becomes diluted, or I provide fodder for fantasists, etc. But it might not be an actual exaggeration. I have a model here somewhere that says that we will have exchange rate parity with the Euro by 2030. So perhaps I’m diminishing the result. (I don’t have such a model. I made that part up.)
**Electricity price data: https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/databrowser/view/nrg_pc_204/default/table?lang=en
^^Wind energy produced by country: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_electricity_production_from_renewable_sources