Surprise, surprise: Wind turbines do lower carbon emissions

Counter-intuitive thinking is counter-intuitive for a reason.

Climate sceptics have long made the counter-intuitive claim that wind turbines don't actually reduce carbon emissions, but data analysed by the Guardian's environment blog suggests that as well as being counter-intuitive, it's just plain false.

The claim the Guardian's Chris Goodall and Mark Lynas investigated relies on the fact that wind power fluctuates with the weather. As a result, when the windspeed drops, gas power stations have to be spun up to provide electricity instead. It has to be gas, because other low-carbon sources of energy either have the same fluctuations as wind, or, like nuclear power, essentially can't be turned off.

The sceptics argue that the need to rapidly turn on the gas generators means that a type of power station known as a "gas-fired open cycle turbine" (OCGT) has to be used. Their key point is that these turbines, which are capable of being put into use extremely quickly, are less efficient than another type of gas generator, a "combined cycle gas turbine" (CCGT). The need to pick up the slack left by wind power, they say, means that so many of these inefficient turbines are used that carbon emissions actually go up compared to the scenario where all the electricity is generated with the more efficient CCGT type.

The Guardian's blog contains a lot of stats taken straight from the National Grid, all of which confirm the intuitive beliefs: wind power replaces fossil fuels. But for the specific claim that it still results in higher carbon emissions, the operative paragraph is the following:

Their arguments are not borne out by current statistics, however. If the sceptics were right, the recent windy conditions would have seen considerable use of less-efficient OCGT as wind input to the grid ramped up and down. In actual fact, during the entire June-September period, OCGTs and equally dirty oil-fired stations produced less than one hundredth of one percent of all UK electricity. In total they operated for a grand total of just nine half hour periods in the first 19 days of the month – and these periods had nothing to do with changing windspeeds.

In other words, the mechanism the sceptics suggested might be at work isn't. The authors go into greater detail about why that is, as well. In essence, it comes down to the fact that wind power isn't actually all that unpredictable. It comes and goes, but we usually have a good few hours warning about when it's going to die down; and it's spread throughout the country, allowing even more flattening of the peaks and troughs in supply.

The bigger reason for having to suddenly spin up big generators isn't sudden drops in supply, but sudden peaks in demand. Take, for example, a World Cup match, where England have made it through to sudden death penalties. The National Grid know there will be a spike in power consumption the minute the match ends, as people get up to put the kettle on – but they can't know when that spike will be until mere seconds before it actually happens. That sort of load will always be problematic to supply with renewables – but it's not much less problematic to supply with fossil fuel either.

Wind turbines. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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Vote Leave have won two referendums. Can they win a third?

The Remain campaign will hope that it is third-time unlucky for Vote Leave's tried-and-tested approach.

Vote Leave have launched a new campaign today, offering a £50m prize if you can guess the winner of every game at the Euros this summer. They’ve chosen the £50m figure as that is the sum that Vote Leave say the United Kingdom send to the European Union every day.

If you wanted to sum up Vote Leave’s approach to the In-Out referendum in a single gimmick, this is surely it, as it is deceitful – and effective. The £50m figure is a double deception – it’s well in excess of what Britain actually pays, and your chances of winning are so small they can only be viewed through an electron microscope. Saying that “the UK pays £50m to the EU” is like saying “I paid £10 for breakfast at Gregg’s this morning” – yes, I paid with a £10 note, but I got £8 back.  The true figure is closer to £26,000 a day.

But the depressing truth is that this sort of fact-free campaigning works – and has worked before. It’s the same strategy that Matthew Elliott, the head of Vote Leave, deployed to devastating effect, when he was head of the No to AV campaign, and that Dominic Cummings, head of strategy at Vote Leave, used when he was in charge of the anti-North East Assembly campaign: focus on costs, often highly-inflated ones, and repeat, over and over again.

This competition is a great vessel for that message, too, with the potential to reach anyone who has at least one Facebook friend with an interest in betting or football, i.e. everyone. And as my colleague Kirsty Styles revealed yesterday, this latest campaign is just one in a series of Internet-based, factually dubious campaigns and adverts being used by Vote Leave on the Internet.

The difficulty for the opponents of No2AV was, as one alumni of that campaign reflected recently, “how do you repudiate it without repeating it?”. A row over whether the United Kingdom sends £50m or £26,000 – itself £1,000 higher than the average British salary – helps the Leave campaign whichever way it ends up.

Neither Yes to Fairer Votes or supporters of a devolved assembly for the North East ever found a defence against the Elliott-Cummings approach. Time is running out for Britain Stronger In Europe to prevent them completing the hattrick. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.