Wind turbines on Sark?

It has been suggested that “renewables” are the way to reduce the cost of electricity on Sark.

How does this claim stack up?Well, first of all, you may wish to ask yourself how “renewables” do in cost terms elsewhere where they have been tried. Why do wind farms and solar installations have to be subsidised by governments and why do such projects stop as soon as the subsidies stop? Since “renewable” energy is touted as being environmentally friendly (more on this below), and, if it is so claimed, cheaper than fossil-fuel generated electricity, why hasn’t it taken the world by storm? Cheaper, better for the environment — what’s not to like? We should all have it! So why don’t we? Could it be because “renewables” are uneconomical, unreliable, and because “renewables” only add to, and don’t reduce in any way, the cost of fossil fuel and nuclear generated power?

But, you might say, Sark is unique. Diesel power on Sark costs 66p per kWh. We can generate electricity with windmills more cheaply than that! It’s a no brainer!

Yes, we can generate electricity more cheaply than at 66p per kWh even using the more expensive renewables.

We can, of course, also generate electricity using diesel more cheaply than 66p per kWh – although I very much doubt that electricity will be as cheap as 66p per kWh if Sark starts spending money on “renewable” infrastructure.
The cost of generation is only one of the costs of delivering electricity, particularly reliable electricity. And I stress reliable. Do you want the lights to come on whenever you press the switch, or only when just the right amount of wind is blowing? If you’re happy with the latter, stick on a wind turbine in your back garden, and see how far you get with it.
Red diesel costs about 60p-70p per litre in Guernsey and a litre of diesel provides about 3-4kWh of electricity. So the (Guernsey) cost of diesel is about 15p-23p per kWh. Add 8p per litre (2-3p/kWh) for the cost of delivering diesel to Sark. Let’s suppose we tried reducing the cost of electricity by using wind turbines. How much could we save? At most a small fraction of these 17p-26p per kWh (in reality, money will not be saved, but costs will only increase, as we explain this further below). All the other costs will, at best, stay the same.
Costs which include first of all and most obviously losses. 17p-26p of diesel will generate you 1kWh of power at the point of the generator. You then have to deliver this electricity to the other side of the island. This means it has to run through cables, which have an electrical resistance and which thus heat up and lose some energy through heat. Once delivered via high voltage cables (high voltage so as to reduce the aforementioned transmission losses), electricity also has to be transformed to a lower voltage at transformer substations. Both the cables and the transformers incur losses. The power station itself also needs equipment which consumes electricity to operate – e.g. pumps to carry the fuel from the tanks to the generators, fans, office equipment etc. and all that also contributes to the losses. Whichever way you generate power, you will incur such losses. Some of these losses are fixed and thus contribute more to the final cost of a kWh of electricity in a small market like Sark.
You then have the cost of maintaining the infrastructure — the grid, the transformers, the diesel generators, etc. and the depreciation of this equipment and the cables, which will eventually have to be replaced. And the cost of the staff who do all these things — there is a minimum amount of staff you need whether you run a large power station or a small one, so this too contributes disproportionately to the cost per kWh. None of these costs will go away if “renewables” are used, indeed a “renewables” infrastructure is less reliable and harder and more expensive to maintain than a diesel-based one and will require more staff to maintain it.
But the biggest cost is reliability. If you have ever been involved in a manufacturing business, you will know that you often have components on the market which are available either as industrial grade, automotive grade, or military grade. The basic specifications of each component grade may be the same, but the automotive one might cost twice as much as the industrial grade one and the military grade one might cost ten times as much. Why? Because if something goes wrong in an armed conflict because a component has failed, people die. If something goes wrong in a car when it is driving at 70mph because a component has failed, it can cause an accident and people can get injured or die. The military and automotive markets have much higher reliability requirement and require a much lower component failure rate, and ensuring such reliability is expensive. Manufacturing companies go through years of so-called “six sigma” programmes where they gradually reduce the rate of component failures from 2% to 1 in 1000 to 1 in 10,000 to one in a million to one in ten million. Each reduction involves learning new things, and identifying (through experience) ever rarer and ever harder to fix failure modes. Much the same is true of running a power station.
Sark has had no island-wide down-time for several years. Electricity supply is more reliable on Sark than it is on Guernsey or Jersey. This kind of a track record is very difficult to achieve — at all — and it costs money. It requires first of all a lot of redundancy. Sark power station has four diesel generators, for example (Guernsey requires nowhere that number per head of population to achieve the required level of reliability). Much of the rest of their equipment will no doubt be similarly backed up. They will have spare parts in stock in order to be able to react quickly if something goes wrong — rather than having to wait 3 weeks for a spare part ordered from England to arrive once it has failed. Which spare parts do they have to have in stock and in what quantities? That will be a part of the know-how of the management, acquired through years of experience of operating this particular power station. The power station will have to operate preventative maintenance: replacing parts of their equipment before they have failed. Which parts must be replaced and when? To achieve optimum reliability, this too requires know-how and experience specific to this particular power station. A skilled power station engineer coming in from the outside would certainly have some of this knowledge, but to achieve the level of downtime as low as Sark currently enjoys, requires specific knowledge of this power station which such a person would not initially have and would have to re-learn over time. In the meantime, reliability would suffer.
The Sark power station reliability goal is 0.99999 uptime (10-5 proportion of downtime). In many small places, a 10-3 proportion of downtime (which could manifest itself as e.g. an 8 hour power failure once a year) or worse is normal and deemed acceptable. How would installing wind turbines affect the main cost centre of providing electricity on Sark, i.e. how would it contribute to reliability and to reducing the cost of providing a reliable power supply? No one seems to be able to quantify that — which should be ringing all sorts of alarm bells. First of all, if the wind doesn’t blow, wind turbines generate no electricity. At all. And if there is too much wind, they also have to be switched off, or they spin too fast and blow up. This one wasn’t switched off during high wind: Who’s to say that we won’t have calm days or that a gale won’t be blowing at times of peak demand? So even if you install wind turbines, you still have to maintain the diesel backup in full. You do not save any of the costs of running the current diesel power station — except at best some cost of some diesel when the wind turbines are turning, and that’s assuming you believe that wind power is cheaper than one generated using diesel. You still have to maintain and replace the diesel generators, the grid, the transformers, and pay the cost of all the spare and redundant parts required to operate the diesel plant at full capacity, you still have to employ all the staff, and some new ones to look after the wind turbines. Furthermore, wind is fickle: it starts and stops, and gusts in unpredictable ways, so the output of wind turbines is highly erratic and variable. Are you going to keep turning the diesel generators up and down all the time to try to match these fluctuations, or, are you better off running the diesel power plant at a constant, most efficient, point all the time?
But, you might say, we can install battery packs to store up wind power, and smooth the fluctuations in that way. Yes. But these battery packs still aren’t sufficient to provide a reliable power all the time. If it’s blowing a gale for 10 days at a stretch in the winter, the wind turbines will be inoperable for many days. How long are the battery packs are going to last? Not long enough to be able to retire any of the diesel power plant’s capacity. Unless you OK with having no electricity in the winter.
Lithium ion battery packs cost about $90 per kWh. It has been suggested that 1100kWh worth of battery packs is sufficient for Sark. But at 1.2 million kWh per year consumption, such battery packs will provide only 8 hours of backup on average, less during peak consumption, which is of no use if a gale is blowing for a week. About 23000kWh (a week’s worth) would cost about $2 million and might do it. Such batteries last for about 2-3 years. In case you thought that “renewables” were clean and renewable and rid you of your dependence on fossil fuels and made you self-sufficient, the truth is that you are replacing your diesel consumable with a Lithium ion battery consumable (or a lower quality lead acid battery consumable), both of which are much more toxic and polluting than burning diesel and are available from far fewer sources than a bit of dirty liquid from underground. And the spare parts are available from fewer sources too.
Samsung Galaxy Note 7 has been banned from airplanes because its battery packs are prone to bursting into flames and exploding. A battery is basically a bomb used in a way which releases its energy slowly. The batteries used in “renewable” installations are of the same kind as those used in mobile devices. If something goes wrong, there will be a big fire and/or a big bang. Of course, nothing should go wrong, if there are skilled and competent people looking after these installations all the time, and they don’t make a mistake. And we have such people skilled and competent in looking after these batteries that we can rely on, don’t we? Who is volunteering to have the batteries installed in their back garden? This is a Tesla electric car whose battery pack has ignited: The toxic fumes being release make the fumes coming out of the Sark incinerator look healthy.
Wind turbines are horrendously noisy and produce sounds which sound like an airplane taking off every few seconds, which can be heard up to 2 miles downwind. You may wish to read the diary of Gail Mair for more details: When their blades turn through sun rays, they also produce a flicker which many people find difficult to tolerate. Property prices near wind turbines invariably fall precipitously, indeed properties immediately adjacent to wind turbines become unsaleable. They are also known to drive away tourists.
Finally, as regards the environmental credentials of wind turbines, you could do worse than listen to Dan Riskin’s “Recent Paper Decent Puzzle” podcast on bats and wind turbines ( Dan is very environmentally aware and cares about the environment. He approaches the subject from a favourable disposition towards renewable energy. Yet the research he discusses demonstrates that wind turbines – even the very small number currently installed – are a very serious threat, even an existential threat, to some species of bats. It is well-known that wind turbines kill a lot of birds, but they also kill bats, and in the case of some species of Canadian migratory bats, according to this podcast, they kill about 2% of the bat population each year, which may exceed the natural natality rate of these bats.
So, eager to put a wind turbine and some battery packs in your back yard yet?
There are only three realistic ways to reduce the cost of electricity: improve the economies of scale by increasing demand, reduce costs, or, compromise reliability.
The first requires economic growth, which is something Chief Pleas have been working against, and the second has been made impossible by Chief Pleas’ meddling in the power station (and by imposing a shipping monopoly which makes it expensive to deliver diesel to Sark). So in effect the price of electricity is high because of the anti-business activities of Chief Pleas as well as the meddling of Chief Pleas in the power station which has increased its overheads in the form of legal fees and having to deal with red tape and regulation. Get off the power station’s back and become more business friendly, and electricity will be cheaper.
The one suggestion we might make to the power station is to change the charging model by increasing the standing charge to reflect the true fixed costs of providing access to a reliable grid and reduce per kWh charge to reflect only the variable costs. And be more relaxed about people who want to use their own solar panels etc.

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