Newspaper reporting not what it was – London Array and Waterloo & City Line

A non-story about the Waterloo & City Line
I’m increasingly fed up with the diminishing quality of press reporting, even in hitherto respectable newspapers. It seems that reporting has now descended to the point where it is mere repeating of exuberant press releases coupled with the addition of ‘background’ information, imperfectly retrieved from Wikipedia. Reporters frequently have so little subject knowledge that he, or she, is quite untroubled by the self-evident misinformation being pumped out as they rush to file their copy before embarking on the next horror.
Take the following non-story from the Evening Standard, attributed to well-seasoned hack, Dick Murray, who really should know better; he has written some good stuff in the past.
The headline announces: ‘Tube link not used for 70 years to reopen for Olympics to ease congestion’. What secret line which has lain fallow for two generations is to be resurrected, I wondered? The only line that came to mind was the link between Latimer Road and Olympia, but that closed in 1940 after being bombed; that was 72 years ago.
It turns out that what this amazing headline is all about is simply running the Waterloo & City Line on Sundays; I don’t think the people in the daily scrimmage at Waterloo would describe it as ‘a tube link not used for 70 years’! I think if a newspaper needs a sensational headline it should be able to find something more interesting than this. The subeditors don’t come out of it very well either (supposing in these days of electronic copy there still are such people), for the line was described as having opened in 1989 (just 23 years ago, making disuse for 70 years impossible), but nobody picked the error up. It actually opened in 1898. Never mind, nobody cares. Mind you after readers pointed this out, the error was quietly removed from the later electronic editions, together with the comments that drew attention to it. Incidentally, the line was last used regularly on Sundays in 1947, which was 65 years ago, not 70.

Offshore Wind Farm Reporter out of his Depth
The latest irritation is the description of the ‘London Array’ where the Business Editor (for we no longer have anyone called a reporter) managed to retype a press notice and get it in Friday’s paper. The report states that ‘175 turbines comprising the first phase will generate 630MW of power, enough for 470,000 homes’. He then states that the energy so produced will cost £140 per MWh ‘which is one of the most expensive forms of energy’.  Observing that this was more than domestic customers pay, I got my calculator out.
The London Array is a surprisingly vast wind farm built in the Thames estuary and which is about to begin pumping electricity into the grid. It is located well out in the estuary to the south of Colchester and a long way from Boris Johnson’s proposed estuary airport.
The 630MW in the press report comes from multiplying 175 turbines by their rated output of 3.6MW each. Clearly this is rubbish, before we start, and also ignores transmission losses. The industry generally reckons that it is reasonable to assume that offshore wind turbines, on average, will deliver about a third of the maximum rated output, about 215MW. Allowing for some losses it would probably be safe to assume about 200MW available where the electricity can actually be used.
This output equates to 1,752,000MWh (1.75TWh) of electrical energy each year. If we take the average home consumption as 4417kWh we see by dividing the total output by the average consumption, the number of homes that could be supplied is 396,649, say 400,000 in round numbers. This is a little smaller than the stated number in press release but is near enough; it suggests that either the press release wasn’t very clear or the reporter didn’t understand it. In any event he didn’t do the sums, for you don’t get the right answer by using the rated output he quoted.
Since the wind comes ‘free’, how much the energy actually costs is mainly a consequence of over what period of time the construction costs are written off, plus operating costs. Another job for the calculator.
The construction costs are £1.75bn. I estimate finance costs of £100m and operating and maintenance costs of (say) £200m. Over the term this pushes costs up to £2.05bn. Over 20 years (the minimum estimated life suggested by manufacturer Siemens, but not quoted in the Standard article) this equates to an average spend of £102.5m a year. If we distribute 1.75TWh a year to the grid (for I have allowed for the losses in getting it ashore) it seems to me that this means the price per unit must be about 5.9p. This is curiously similar to the notional cost of offshore energy given by consultants Parsons Brinkerhoff for the Academy of Engineering which, although the report is now several years old, is within the same order of magnitude, and some prices have since fallen. It is less than half the price of 14p given in the Evening Standard article. The generating costs are perhaps double that of coal, but if the cost of CO2 emissions (or their avoidance) is taken into account, this somewhat improves the comparison
The Academy of Engineering report makes the valid observation that because wind power is variable, there must be a certain amount of standby plant available, adding about 1.5p to the price of a unit somewhere else in the byzantine distribution chain. One day it might be possible to use batteries to store electrical energy generated on very windy days for a time when wind is weaker, and thus reduce need for standby capacity, but we’re not there yet. I have no comment on whether wind farms are a good thing or not, I merely ask for information to be properly reported.
Anyway, that is the kind of analysis I would expect from a business editor of a major London newspaper title. My advice is to have a calculator handy when reading anything in the press and not to believe anything without checking it. We shouldn’t need to do that.
(Average household consumption from Department of Energy and Climate Change and taken as 4417 kWh per GB household in 2009).

About machorne

I have always lived in London and taken a great interest in its history and ongoing development. This extended into the history of its transport services, about which I have written a number of books - I have spent most of my working life working in the industry and observing changes from within, mostly to the good, but not always so. I continue to write, and have a website with half finished stuff in it so that it is at least available, if not complete. Several new books are in hand. I have many 'works in progress' and some of these can be found on my website; the we address is
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