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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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.