The government’s UK Renewable Energy Strategy, published on 15 July along with its UK Low Carbon Transition Plan, makes a number of arguments for wind power.
It stated: “Wind power is currently one of the most developed and cost-effective renewable electricity technologies. The UK has the largest potential wind energy resource in Europe. While offshore wind is more technologically challenging and more expensive than onshore wind, it has a larger potential due to a stronger and more consistent wind resource out to sea, leading to higher power outputs per turbine and more hours spent generating each year.”
The Strategy says that wind power has grown rapidly in the last few years in the UK, with onshore wind generation increasing four-fold between 2002 and 2008. It states that, “the Government is committed to achieving the UK’s 15% renewable energy target by 2020.” Its lead scenario suggests that by 2020 about 30% or more of all electricity could come from renewable sources, compared to around 5% today. It says: “We expect the majority of this growth to come from wind power, through the deployment of more onshore and offshore wind turbines.”
A chart in the Strategy compares renewable electricity technologies between 2008 and projected to 2020. In 2008 only around 6GW of electricity were generated by renewables, with about half (3GW) from onshore wind. However by 2020 the government estimates are 15GW will come from onshore wind, around 12GW from offshore wind, 4GW from small-scale, 3GW from bioenergy and about 1GW from tidal.
The main arguments for wind power in the Strategy include: climate change, energy security, jobs and costs of electricity.
The argument on global warming is the most straightforward. The world economy as a whole has to drastically reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to avert dangerous climate change. The UK and other developed capitalist states will have to reduce emissions more drastically, because of their historic responsibility for current climate change, their current capacity to reduce emissions and in order to allow for the future growth of emissions from other parts of the world.
Generating electricity from wind produces far less CO2 than other sources. Colin Challen MP, writing for the Socialist Environmental Resources Association (SERA) has estimated that over the life cycle of electricity generation (i.e. including the extraction of raw materials, transportation, plant building, energy generation and waste, as well as decommissioning) wind power produces 8 grams of CO2 per KWh of electricity, compared to 430gCO2/kWh for gas and 955gCO2/kWh for coal. Nuclear is estimated at between 34gCO2/kWh and 230gCO2/kWh.
The government says its Strategy will provide important benefits for energy security. It estimates that expanded renewable energy sources — including mainly onshore and offshore wind, will reduce UK use of fossil fuels by around 10% in 2020, and reduce gas imports by around 20-30% against forecast use in 2020.
The Renewable Energy Strategy estimates that a UK expansion of renewable energy, combined with a growing market across Europe and globally, “would increase UK employment in the renewable energy sector by up to 500,000 people by 2020”.
Earlier this year the Department for Business estimated that the UK’s overall low carbon and environmental economy currently employs around 881,000 people, with the potential to create a further 400,000 jobs by 2015. However the researchers who produced the figures, Innovas Solutions Ltd admitted earlier this month that the list of green jobs includes manufacturers of skylights and noise insulation materials on the basis that they use recycled materials.
In terms of future projections, the figures are overblown. The British Wind Energy Association (BWEA) suggested last year that approximately 4,800 people were currently employed in the UK wind industry, which includes wind, wave and tidal energy. Reports by consultants Bain and company and SQW Energy for the BWEA predict that by 2020 there will be at least 23,000 jobs in the sector, and in the best scenario around 57,000 jobs.
Wind power is also significantly cheaper than other renewable sources of electricity. In 2002, the government’s Performance and Innovation Unit estimated the costs of electricity generated by different sources in 2020. The figures were:
Large Combined Heat and Power (CHP) = under 2 pence per kWh
Micro CHP = 2.5 – 3.5p per kWh
PV (solar) = 10-16p per kWh
Onshore wind = 1.5-2.5p per kWh
Offshore wind = 2.0-3.0p per kWh
Wave 3.0-6.0p per kWh
Fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage = 3.0-4.5p per kWh
Nuclear = 3.0-4.0p per kWh
Gas = 2.0-2.3p per kWh
Coal = 3.0-3.5p per kWh
These figures are estimates and are likely to change. However it is clear that wind power is likely to be among the cheapest forms of electricity generation by 2020.
There are of course some negatives associated with wind power – as there are with all forms of power generation. Earlier this year Vestas Blades was fined £10,000 after it failed to prevent workers from being exposed to hazardous substances. Between 2005 and 2007, 13 workers suffered dermatitis after exposure to epoxy resin.
Renewal energy is clearly a huge potential growth area for capital. However it is currently being expanded in neoliberal terms, with private capital developing the technologies for profit. For workers, the climate change arguments for wind power are vital and make its development historically progressive, although of course the bourgeoisie will do it in its own way, in its own interests. Whilst some green renewable jobs will be created, the numbers are not great – particularly in the context of the current economic downturn or with previous energy jobs such as mining.
The issue of health and safety illustrates that workers’ control and self-organisation are necessary if wind power is to really develop in the right direction.