Report: Updating wind farms would bring cheap power boost

Repowering UK onshore wind farms as they reach the end of their scheduled operating lives would be a highly cost-effective way to increase generation of cheap, low-carbon electricity, a report finds.

Delabole Wind Farm By Good Energy

Delabole Wind Farm in North Cornwall was repowered between 2009 and 2011. Image: Good Energy, creative commons licence

Conversely, allowing them to close would lose some of the UK’s best and most productive sites for wind energy, finds the study by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU).

Upgrading wind farms that will reach the end of scheduled operation in the next five years with the latest and most efficient turbines would increase the UK’s generating capacity by more than 1.3 gigawatts (GW) compared with a scenario in which turbines are taken down at the end of their lives.

This would yield more than 3 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity per year, enough to power nearly 800,000 homes. It would save consumers more than £77 million per year on energy bills, compared to generating the same amount of electricity from gas-fired power stations, and help put the country back on track to meeting climate change targets. The electricity would be significantly cheaper than that from current onshore wind farms, which received more generous support at a time when less-developed technology needed higher subsidies.

Report author Dr Jonathan Marshall, ECIU Energy Analyst, said that with onshore wind the cheapest source of new electricity generation, repowering is a cost-effective way to secure new capacity:

“Britain installed its first wind farms during the early 1990s when the technology was in its infancy, and the electricity generated was significantly more expensive than that from fossil fuels,” he said.

“The industry has developed rapidly, however, and modern turbines generate vastly more power than older ones at costs competitive with coal and gas fired generation, especially when located onshore.

“It makes sense to repower sites of the earliest wind farms, which tend to be in locations that have the best wind resource. Existing infrastructure including network connections can also be reused or upgraded at costs lower than for new sites.”

Analysis of a database of onshore wind farms across England, Scotland and Wales shows that there are close to 60 projects with over 750 turbines that will reach their 20th anniversary within the next five years. These include some of the country’s best sites for wind energy. Failing to stimulate repowering risks these sites closing.

Repowering could also benefit local communities through payments from developers, with a potential pay-out of more than £100 million from this first wave of projects, more than 80% of which would flow into rural regions.

Commenting, Simon Clarke, Conservative MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, said:

“Upgrading our oldest wind farms with the latest technology would deliver a big boost of clean power to the grid at a time when wind is already making a record contribution, while delivering cash for the communities that have hosted these sites for years.

“It would also provide a market for the newly re-invigorated British steel industry, cut greenhouse gas emissions faster and, given that repowering is the cheapest way for us to expand electricity generation, reduce bills for businesses and consumers.

“For those worried about the 1% of UK gas imports that come from Mr Putin, these upgrades would also reduce our reliance on imported fuel by the equivalent of two gas-fired power stations; and if we don’t allow developers to repower them, we may lose them for good.”

Two-thirds of the total lifetime spend on UK onshore wind projects remains in the UK, therefore a repowering programme could also lead to benefits spread across the economy, including steel production. 

The report, Repower to the people: How upgrading the UK’s old onshore wind fleet can cut carbon, reduce bills and support local communities, is available here.