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22 October 2014

Wind power briefly overtakes nuclear in the UK, thanks to storms

Another milestone in wind power generation does nothing to reverse the government's scepticism over its potential.

By Ian Steadman

Whenever a large storm hits the UK – as happened on Tuesday, with the remnants of Hurricane Gonzalo bringing a wet and blustery start to the week – it gives wind power a nice kick upwards. Across a 24-hour period on 21 October, according to the National Grid, 14.2 per cent of electricity generation came from wind. As the BBC reports, since 13.2 per cent came from nuclear, that meant that “spinning blades produced more energy than splitting atoms”.

It’s a nice line, and – along with breaking the 20 per cent of total power generation mark on 19 October – it should form part of an ongoing narrative about that inevitable success of wind power in the United Kingdom. However, it isn’t.

The first is simply that a storm like that experienced yesterday isn’t a typical day for wind generation, which normally hovers around six per cent on average. There was also the added dent in nuclear’s normal output, with eight of the 15 reactors in the UK offline for various maintenance and refuelling reasons.

The second reason is that the coalition government remains fairly uniformly sceptical of wind power. A significant part of the Conservative party’s rural vote objects to wind turbines on aesthetic grounds, which works just fine for politicians who see easy economic gains to be had from fracking or the construction of new, large nuclear reactors (and who also remain more sceptical of the reality of climate change than not). The Tories have said that they would end subsidies for onshore wind farms if they win the election in 2015, a move which critics have said would “kill” onshore wind.

While there are undoubtedly some question marks over just how much wind should play a role in power generation in the UK – for example, it’s no good having bursts of wind energy if there’s nowhere to store it for when there isn’t any wind – it’s still ridiculous to see the nation with one of the world’s highest-rated potentials for wind energy generation run away from it for short-term political gain.

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(As a footnote, this site lets you see how much of the UK is being powered by each kind of power type, in real-time, which is cool.)

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