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Can I tell you about my problem with wind?

Westmill_turbines_4Let me make a confession. Ever since I saw the 1979 film starring the late Leonard Rossiter as the French ‘flatulist’ La Petomane I have considered the passing of wind to be artistic. La Petomane was the stage name of Joseph Pujol, a Parisian who made his living from his ability to draw wind into his bottom and then blow it out. His party (or should I say farty) piece was O Sole Mio. I’ll pass on sharing what happened when I tried to emulate his rendition. It’s simply too embarrassing.

But wind power, albeit of a different nature, is today very much back in vogue. Micro generation is affordable, thanks to government ‘feed in tariffs’. This means that the two 5kw turbines sited in my garden earn their owner enough to give his company sufficient return to attract city investment. I on the other hand get free electricity when the wind blows. I reckon my bills have halved since they were installed.

But ever since interviewing someone involved with community wind generation I have had a problem. Oddly, it’s a problem more than adequately illustrated by my own rather lacklustre attempts to fart musically. You see, stood side by side, I and Joseph Pujol would have looked pretty much the same. We’d occupy the same sized space and more significantly, both eat and drink similar amounts of food and drink.

But the fact of the matter is that Pujol would generate a lot more energy. By comparison, he’d beat me pants down in the productivity stakes. An impresario feeding us both would enjoy greater ticket sales from Pujol’s wind solos than from my wet and squeaky output. Yet we’d both eat the same number of baked beans.

Which brings me to my point. I recently interviewed someone involved with community wind generation. Her organisation raises capital and installs those giant masts, atop which sit gracefully turning large wind turbines. She pointed out a stunning fact of which I, and I suspect you too, are blissfully unaware. Those large masts too often carry a turbine that only generates 25% of what could be achieved by a larger machine on the same sized mast.

Why would anyone do something so seemingly idiotic? Well the government feed-in tariff for a 500kWH turbine is 17.5p per kWH. A more realistic 2.5MW turbine on the same sized mast would only attract 9.5p per kWH; around half the income. So power generators are battling to win planning consent. Perhaps they’re upsetting people who don’t like turbines near their homes. And crucially, they need five times as many masts as are really needed, because the government scheme penalises those who do the logical thing.

The dilemma is of course the simple point that without government incentive, wind generation would be unviable. That is until growing demand reduces the cost of those turbines. That in my view will come sooner than many think. But it will be too late for those who’ve installed boy sized turbines on man sized masts.

So what’s the solution? Well it seems to me that government needs to take a longer term view. It needs to work with the wind industry to align feed-in tariffs with the actual equipment and operating costs. Both sides want the same thing, so why the mismatch? I wonder what Pujol would have said? I suspect something many would find rude!

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