Wind farms paid to switch off as households cut back on energy use

Wind farms were paid to switch off on Tuesday evening at the same time households were asked to turn their lights off to save energy.

Between 4.30pm and 6pm on Tuesday, wind farms were paid about £65,000 to stop producing enough electricity to power 50,000 homes for a day, according to data from the UK Wind Curtailment Monitor.

At the same time, households were being asked to switch off their devices to help save electricity, amid concerns from National Grid ESO, the legally separate part of the National Grid which balances supply and demand, that it would not have sufficient energy supply.

In the end, these concerns were not realised. However, the grid operator said that payments to wind farms to switch off were likely to occur in the future, even as the country was forced to turn off devices to stop blackouts.

Over the course of Monday and Tuesday, as the country faced strains in energy supply, wind farms were paid more than £1 million to stop producing enough electricity to power 360,000 homes for a day.

A lack of infrastructure to carry electricity from wind farms, which are mainly located offshore and in Scotland, means that National Grid ESO regularly asks them to stop producing to avoid overwhelming the local grid.

The cost is borne by billpayers and reached record highs of nearly £1 billion last year, reflecting the growth of wind power, as well as record energy prices.

A spokesman for the National Grid said that bottlenecks in the system meant it could not always get the electricity where it was needed, even when supplies were low.

While the Government has encouraged the development of wind farms to help cut carbon emissions in recent decades, it has failed to put adequate investment on the infrastructure needed to transport or store the electricity.

The system was described as “unsustainable” by a top government energy adviser and raises doubts about the pace of wind power development in the UK.

Sir Dieter Helm, a professor of economic policy at the University of Oxford, and an energy adviser to the Government, said it was “obviously not a sustainable position”.

He said: “It is a consequence of developing wind on a site-by-site basis with no economic incentives to build in the right places and the failure to develop the grid in an integrated and coordinated way.”

In 2022, consumers paid £215 million to turn wind farms off, and £717 million to buy gas-powered electricity to make up the difference, according to UK Wind Curtailment Monitor data.

The National Grid forecasts that levels of curtailment will increase fourfold by 2030, with costs forecast to reach £2.5 billion a year.

The majority of curtailment is from wind farms in and off the coast of Scotland, which has seen a boom in turbine construction, but is geographically just a fraction of the UK’s electricity demand.

The National Grid estimates that as much as £16 billion of investment in transmission infrastructure will be needed to keep pace with the development of onshore wind over the next 20 years, including hundreds of miles of new power lines and cables across the country.

Adam Berman, the deputy policy director of Energy UK, a trade body, said that paying wind farms to switch off was “the price that we pay for running the most efficient electricity system that we can”.

“Because at the moment there is still a mismatch between network and transmission infrastructure, and generation infrastructure,” he said.

Mr Berman said that the Government needed to prioritise infrastructure, including energy storage, power lines and the development of onshore wind in southern England.

However, he said “slowing down the rate of increase [of wind power] is not the way to go”, despite the majority of planned new wind power expected to be north of the border.

The Government has set the target of decarbonising the power system by 2035 and becoming a net exporter of electricity by 2040.

A consultation this year could see rules around onshore wind development in England relaxed, but industry figures have also warned that we need to double the rate of offshore wind turbines to meet our targets.

Sam Hall, the director of the Conservative Environment Network, said: “This issue underlines the importance of reforming Ofgem’s remit to speed up new grid infrastructure and of deploying more energy storage, so we can use all of our offshore wind power and don’t have to pay generators to curtail.

“Cheap wind power is lowering people’s bills overall, but we will not feel the full benefit until we start harnessing all our wind capacity.”