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 Images
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What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.