Another Whitehall SNAFU: maintenance costs to sky-rocket as the negatives of offshore wind power bubble to the surface

offshoreturdThe rusty white elephant leaves the room….to pollute our oceans. What a mess this is.

There is a private ‘arbitration’ case going through an English arbitration court at the moment. The 1996 Act passed to enable such things is basically a way to free up Court time taken up by complex technical disputes….and, dare I say it, keep prying eyes away from what’s going on. It involves two very large supply organisations. And from the sidelines, DEFRA is looking on with a growing sense of anxiety.

Britain blasted into offshore wind farms, and then upped the pace of it after being put on the naughty step by Brussels for not turning the entire country into a fart-recycling plant. In their haste to do Master’s bidding, the Mandarins of Whitehall called in some structural engineers, who gave them (on the whole) some sound advice about the height increase and structural bulwarking necessary for ocean use. But our fine men from the Ministry didn’t ask a metals expert to comment. Had they done so, they might have been reminded about something: steel and salt water are not the best of friends.

Cast your net widely enough, and you will find a lot of stuff going through the arbitration Courts about wind farms. Setting aside the mountain range of data showing that the damn things are noisy, unsightly, insanely unreliable as a form of generation – and can never pay back – some of the intrinsic problems within this entire madcap project do tend to raise the eyebrows somewhat.

In May this year, the developer of the giant Greater Gabbard offshore wind farm GGOWL finally resolved the long-running contractual dispute with engineering firm Fluor Ltd over concerns relating to the foundations of turbines. Out of 140 turbines, 52 – that’s 35% – had faulty foundations. That’s a bit of a drawback in the offshore business.

In Canada, propeller-supplier Windstream is in  dispute with Liberal Government there over its proposed 300-megawatt wind project in eastern Lake Ontario, off Wolfe Island. The case is expected to cost the taxpayer £200m ‘and perhaps three times as much as that’. The dispute is basically about energy shortfalls in practice, and the slow speed of project development.

In March – despite the growing evidence of lacklustre performance and high maintenance/replacement costs – the Government decided to massively upweight the Walney Offshire farm. This also, of course, gave its fab new Green Investment Bank its first participation as lender to a large project refinancing. Note the word ‘re’ there: Walney needs another £250m of investment capital in order to increase the output from a generative form which is hopelessly inefficient and horribly expensive.

Britain now has the two biggest wind farms in the world. But in a hot, largely windless spell such as the one we’re experiencing now, they will of course produce, um, diddly-squat. Just the sort of cutting-edge 21st century, constantly reliable electricity generation system we need….with the rest of it owned privately by French company EDF. Oh to be British in 2013.

But very few people have cottoned on to the maintenance cost of these, the only type of ‘farm’ in the world that produces barely enough to keep body and soul together outside of hurricane conditions. They’re bad enough on land; but when the Mandarins ‘equip’ turbines for sea use by calculating structural requirement alone – making little allowance for saltwater erosion of the structure – things can quickly become critical. And this appears to be happening right now.

A source close to the matter comments:

“When UK Wind Farms started going offshore, much of the same mast technology (and where and how it is attached to the base) that was used on land, was just scaled up for the bigger ones out at sea.  The sea and spray has already proved considerably more corrosive than was anticipated, which will either lead to massive additional maintenance costs, or a much shorter life for these offshore wind farms.  In either case, it will do no good at all to the viable economics of generating electricity from offshore wind farms.”

Metal experts are giving evidence to the latest piece of arbitration about offshore in London this week. This is what I have been able to dig up thus far about the case: corrosion protection is always the last step during a turbine production process. The early versions for the North Sea are woefully under-protected (thanks to Sir Humphrey) and the second wave was skimped – thanks to the EU: with the dash to get our renewable numbers up, pressure was, it seems, applied to the paint process to make up for lost time.

At that time, the Environment Secretary was none other than….Ed Miliband. As it happens, I actually attended the key Commons debate with partners in crime Anna Raccoon and Old Holborn. Mr Miliband told the media at the time that “opposition to wind farms is socially unacceptable” – another bit of classic New Labour pc assertion.

The Secretary of State concerned today, badger-gassing Owen Paterson, is in no doubt at all about inland viability. He told Farmer’s Weekly last year that such developments don’t work because “there is no wind there”. Owen didn’t get where he is today without knowing a flaw when he sees one.

“I don’t personally think that inland wind farms are effective at reducing carbon,” he continued, “I don’t even think they are effective at producing energy.” Not sure about the first one there myself (not even sure it’s relevant) but he is spot on with his second observation.

So presumably then, he is more amenable to the idea of offshore…..we have to assume this, otherwise why triple the size of Walney? Yes? Er, no actually. Even where there is wind, says Mr Paterson now, nearly a year on, they’re all “a complete scam”.

Is the correct answer. But we’re building more of them. And Owen’s judgement is, even at that level, only a fraction of the real ecological problem here.

Read what follows and weep.

The term ‘blue carbon’ is relatively unheard-of, but its environmental importance is unrivalled. Blue carbon stores are the peatlands of the sea—natural carbon ‘sinks’ that absorb and store millions of tonnes of carbon. Every day, 22 million metric tonnes of CO2 is absorbed by the oceans. An estimated 55% of all carbon in the atmosphere which becomes sequestered in natural systems is cycled into our seas. Blue carbon ecosystems, which include seagrass meadows, kelp forests, saltmarshes and mangrove swamps, store up to 70% of the carbon permanently in the sea, and Scottish waters are home to over 20% of all seagrass meadows in north-west Europe.

Despite their importance, around 2-7% of global blue carbon sinks are lost annually. The rate of loss can be four times that of rainforests. Building massive turbines near such resources exacerbates the damage  – and releases huge amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.

Now speaking for myself here, I am sceptical about the role of CO2 as the key issue around climate change, and what climate change will or won’t do. I’m tired of the pointless, mud-slinging two-sets-of-looneys debate going on – and like most people I’m not sceptical so much as agnostic: I just don’t know what it all means because the ecosphere as a subject is more complex than sub-atomic physics.

But my hunch at the moment is that oceans and how they change are key to a better understanding of what happens. So here we have a project designed to generate electricity cost-effectively and reduce carbon dioxide output, opposition to which is described by the now Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition as “socially unacceptable”. Not only was he arrogantly wrong about that, the thing he set in motion fails to achieve its first objective, and works diametrically against its second goal.

Meanwhile, it’s all a bit arse and elbow over there at Defra: and once these corrosion cases start to leak out, Mr Paterson is going to have a crisis on his hands to make Bovine TB seem like a walk in the park by comparison.

This is a cock-up of potentially massive proportions. We have an Environment Secretary talking out of both sides of his mouth to appease the LibDem Nettle beer brewers, investing vast amounts on offshore wind farms which don’t work, have an inbuilt corrosion problem thanks to the Mandarins, disturb allegedly important marine ecology, and desecrate world heritage sites. For example, the Dorset Jurassic Coast’s world heritage status is under threat thanks to the proposed 333-turbine Navitus Bay Wind Park.

But the main UXB worrying sapper Paterson this morning, I’d wager, is the corrosion scandal. It is shaping up to be one of the worst cases of shambolic Whitehall amateurism in many a long year. There are 25 major offshore wind farms currently operational, ten under construction, and ten more in planning. That’s 2,337 turbine already rotting away in the sea, and possibly also built with dodgy foundations. Another 4,000+ are planned to be up and running (or not, depending on the weather) by 2018.

In 2012, TOTAL wind-powered generation – 19.4 TW·h of energy –  contributed just 5.3% to the UK’s electricity requirement. The most optimistic forecasters expect the total to reach no more than 11% after all the planned work has gone ahead – if it does, given Owen Patercake’s shall we say somewhat equivocal attitude to them. The Offshore turbines at the moment produce….drumroll….just 0.4% of our output.

The investment in wind power costs the UK £120 billion per year. Despite a number of badly-informed and enthusiastic rather than empirical goes at alternative energy sourcing, Defra reported in 2009 that the UK’s carbon footprint was actually 20% greater than in 1990. This is all clearly terrific value for money, then. Certainly puts Draper Osborne’s fabric-f**king £18bn of cuts into perspective.

Meanwhile, 2,337 turbines are already out there….rusting away at an alarming rate. The Scottish Government recently accused Westminster of creating “a vast, rusty electricity station in the North Sea”. But I doubt if they really know the full extent of the problem.

Metal experts are giving evidence to the latest piece of arbitration court argey-bargey about offshore in London this week. Top marks go to the first MSM hack who works out who’s involved, where it is, and the size of repair/write-off problem now facing Defra.

£120bn a year to achieve nothing beyond a generation share in single figure percentages. Over 6000 turbines round our cost producing, at best, perhaps 2.5% of our energy requirements. This is Whitehall incompetence, this is Westminister fudge and muddle, but chiefly this is our money.

In my unaligned disrespect for all things Westminster and Whitehall, I am reminded yet again that all of us are unemployed, short of money, stuck in traffic jams, sticking garbage in 47 boxes, and paying arbitrarily high taxes because daft ideas based on bent evidence were put into action, and then screwed up bigtime. Be it Defra, theDfT, the NHS, Labour, Tory, town hall or Whitehall the ruling class in this country are, almost entirely, devoted worshippers at the penis of Onan.

Yes, it turned out to be true after all: wanking makes you blind.

Last night at The Slog: Serving up small-fry paedophiles while the sharks swim happily unmolested in the sea