Articles by Bjorn Lomborg usually include more than a grain of truth. They also contain a mass of gross inaccuracies and misstatements of what others say. His recent article on the economics of wind power is entirely typical.
I have tried to locate the sources for each of his assertions in this piece, focusing on those points at which he used a figure or a range of numbers. I found that in only one paragraph was his source material correctly quoted: the paragraph on the Gordon Hughes paper for the Global Warming Policy Foundation. In all other cases, his statements were not an accurate representation of what the original author(s) said. In some cases the inaccuracies and misstatements were not important. But in others he substantially altered the meaning of the original author or misquoted the text.
There is an almost pathological problem with Lomborg’s writing. He simply doesn’t seem to care about accuracy in the use of data or fair representation of quotations from sources. I have tried to briefly summarise his errors below. His text is in bold. Where I have extracted material directly from his source the words are in italics. My comments are in standard font.
- 1. ‘Using the UK Electricity Generation Costs 2010 update and measuring in cost per produced kilowatt-hour, wind is still 20-200% more expensive than the cheapest fossil-fuel options. And even this is a significant underestimate.’
Contrast this with a direct quote from the source that Lomborg says he has used ‘Onshore wind is the current least cost zero carbon option with a total cost of £94/MWh, which puts it between CCGT and coal. A modest real cost reduction over the next decade means that it is projected to undercut CCGT to be the least cost substantive renewable option.
Bjorn Lomborg is not properly stating the current consensus on the costs of onshore wind in the UK. Sea-based or offshore wind is more expensive than gas or coal but land-based turbines are now only slightly more expensive that fossil fuels plants and the study to which Lomborg refers actually says that wind will become cheaper than (gas) CCGT power stations, usually regarded as the ‘cheapest fossil-fuel option’.
- 2. ‘At the same time, people increasingly protest against the wind farms in their backyards. Local opposition has tripled over the past three years……’
Mr Lomborg’s conclusion mirrors the first sentence in a Guardian article. But the Guardian was mis-stating the results of its research. The percentage of people ‘strongly opposing’ the idea of a local windfarm has risen from 7% to 21%, but the number of people ‘tending to oppose’ has fallen from 9% to 6%, implying that the percentage opposed has risen from 16% to 27%.
Local opposition to onshore windfarms has tripled since 2010, a new Guardian poll reveals, following a series of political and media attacks on the renewable technology. However, a large majority of the British public (60%) remains firmly in favour of wind power, while also opposing the building of new nuclear or coal power plants in their local area. The poll shows that the national debate over wind energy is becoming sharply polarised, with the percentage of Britons strongly supporting the building of a new windfarm in their area going up by 5%, and the percentage strongly against rising by 14%.
- ……and local approval rates for new wind farms have sunk to an all-time low.
This is almost true. Planning permission rejections are on an increasing trend. But last year saw a small rise in the percentage of UK schemes approved from 49% to 54%. (However measured by the amount of capacity, measured in megawatts, Lomborg is right) See Table 4 in
- 4. ‘The UK Carbon Trust estimates that the cost of expanding wind turbines to 40 gigawatts, in order to provide 31% of electricity by 2020, could run as high as £75 billion ($120 billion). And the benefits, in terms of tackling global warming, would be measly: a reduction of just 86 megatons of CO2 per year for two decades.’
Only three mistakes here. One, the Carbon Trust report is only about *offshore* wind not about wind in general. Two, it deals with an estimated need of 29 GW of offshore wind, not 40. Three, 86 million tonnes a year (‘megatons’ in Lomborg’s language) is 17% of the UK’s entire CO2 output, an amount which cannot remotely be described as ‘measly’. (Additionally, the figure of 86 million tonnes a year does not actually appear to be included in the Carbon Trust report).
More important, the Carbon Trust’s report was designed to show how the high cost of offshore wind could be reduced . It says, for example,
The investment required to deliver 29GW of offshore wind can be reduced by 40% – from £75bn to £45bn.
- 5. ‘Whereas wind power, on average, supplies 5% of the UK’s electricity, its share fell to just 0.04% that day.’
Wind power currently supplies much less of the UK’s electricity than Lomborg states. In the very windy month of December 2011, it reached over 5% but typical figures are perhaps half this.
- 6. ‘This is also why simple calculations based on costs per kWh are often grossly misleading, helping to make wind and other intermittent renewables appear to be cheaper than they are. This has been shown in recent reports by KPMG/Mercados and Civitas, an independent think tank.’
(I have removed brackets and a paragraph break).
The Mercados report was disowned by KPMG. Please see http://www.carbonbrief.org/blog/2012/03/not-the-kpmg-report-a-tale-of-two-consultancies for Carbon Brief’s analysis of the position.
The Civitas report was written by Ruth Lea and used figures produced by a single individual who used to work for National Grid. I wrote about the problems with Ruth Lea’s analysis here: http://www.carboncommentary.com/2012/01
- 7. ‘Contrary to what many think, the cost of both onshore and offshore wind power has not been coming down. On the contrary, it has been going up over the past decade. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change acknowledged this in its most recent renewable-energy report.’
The IPCC actually says that wind power costs went up from 2004 to 2009 not that they has increased over the past decade. The rises from 2004to 2009 were largely driven by a mismatch between supply and demand as the rate of wind power installation increased sharply. Since 2009, costs have fallen sharply for the countervailing reason. Moreover, the IPCC report mentioned by Lomborg says that:
Recognizing that the starting year of the forecasts, the methodological approaches used, and the assumed deployment levels vary, these recent studies nonetheless support a range of levelized cost of energy reductions for onshore wind of 10 to 30% by 2020, and for offshore wind of 10 to 40% by 2020.
- ‘Likewise, the UK Energy Research Center laments that wind-power costs have “risen significantly since the mid-2000’s.’
The text from the ERC referred to is solely concerned with *offshore* wind, not onshore. The ERC does not say wind power costs have risen overall. The focus on offshore is clear from the title of the report: ‘Great Expectations: the cost of offshore wind in UK waters – understanding the past and projecting the future’,
Moreover the report is optimistic about future trends in offshore costs, saying that the ‘deployment of offshore wind is more advanced than any other emerging low carbon option, and there is evidence to suggest that a plateau in costs may now have been reached. The report cautions that costs are likely to come down slowly at first, but that material reductions are available if the right incentives are in place’.
- 9. Like the EU, the UK has become enamored with the idea of reducing CO2 through wind technology. But most academic models show that the cheapest way to reduce CO2 by 20% in 2020 would be to switch from coal to cleaner natural gas. The average of the major energy models indicates that, downscaled for the UK, achieving the 20% target would imply a total cost of roughly £95 billion over the coming decade, and £18 billion every year after that.
This is the most damming part of Lomborg’s piece. In the first half he rails against the cost of wind energy, saying in extract 4 above that the cost could be ‘as high as £75 billion’ to achieve a 17% reduction in CO2 output. But in this extract he says that it would be cheaper to use gas power stations to cut CO2 by 20% even though the cost is ‘roughly £95 billion over the coming decade’ and much more thereafter. He doesn’t appear to recognise that his own sources suggest that wind is a highly cost effective means of meeting the UK’s obligations.