A wind farm established in Keady, along the River Trent, is now providing enough energy to power 57,000 homes. Remotely monitored, the wind turbines require very little interaction or maintenance from their crews, and are expected to continue churning out power for decades to come.
Reaching 400 feet high, the 34 turbines are apparently “well behaved,” according to Sam Cunningham, the wind farm’s manager. However, the owner of the farm, British energy firm SSE, have been feeling the squeeze despite their success in recent months. They have invested billions into renewable energy, which has made them the UK’s chief provider of renewable power for years, and privy to government grants and breaks aimed at keeping energy prices low.
However, the UK government have recently begun to dial back the subsidies offered to renewable energy companies since the price of crude oil is so low – with oil at rock-bottom prices, the demand for cheap energy is fulfilled by fossil-fuel companies – and that means that the terms of the groundbreaking Paris Climate Deal may be very difficult to meet.
“The profitability of renewables is lower than a few years back,” according to Bernstein utility analyst Deepa Venkateswaran. “If power prices fall, their revenues fall.”
This has made it trickier to see the future of the Paris deal, in which 195 countries agreed to slash their dependency on fossil fuels and expand their reliance on renewable sources of energy. Even prior to the deal, SSE was blazing the trail for renewable energy, generating 43% of its output renewably. This percentage is likely to shift dramatically this year, as the company closes its last coal-fired power plants.
The sharp drop in energy prices caused by cheap oil and plentiful natural gas has forced them to take a second look at their fossil-fuel plants, however. In SSE’s case in particular, the plummeting gas prices have reduced the price of their primary product – wholesale electricity – by 20%.
“We obviously need to be pragmatic,” said Lee-Ann Fullerton, an SSE spokeswoman. “It’s for government to set the policy and us to get on with delivering.”
Therefore, the company is evolving with the times. For example, next to the wind farm in Keadby is a gas-fired fossil fuels plant used by SSE to generate power from the 1990s until 2013, when the rising gas prices made it a money sink. Now that gas prices are down, the company is bringing the gas plant back into service, and is looking at other formerly decommissioned plants to see if they can be brought back online as well.
As the Conservatives continue to shift focus away from renewable energy, SSE presses on, continuing the three onshore projects they have in development, with plans to build another wind farm offshore in the Moray Firth, a large bay off the northeast of Scotland that could have as many as 84 turbines. These plans come at the same time as a purchase of a 20% share of Laggan-Tormore, a giant gas field near the north coast of Scotland.
Whether SSE will be able to realise its environmentally-sound vision for the future or be forced by economics to resort to cheap fossil fuels in future is not clear – however, it is clear that they have no intention of giving up on wind power just yet.