Whether as a result of global warming or of the increasing cost of fossil fuels it is increasingly clear that alternative sources of energy are going to be required. Debate increasingly surrounds the appropriate mix of energy sources creating a balance of fossil fuels, renewables and nuclear power. The whole discussion about energy supply creates incredibly high tempers and is a miasma of fact, theory, speculation, assumption and prejudice. Wind power raises additional passions depending on whether or not the person concerned is going to be living within sight of the farms required to produce the energy, or of pylons used to transport it to the consumer.
Wind energy also creates divisions within the environmental movement itself. On one hand there are energy environmentalists or ‘light greens’ and conservation environmentalists or ‘dark greens’. Because wind turbines need to be built in remote areas or at sea, there are concerns, held by conservationists, about the impact that the turbines have on local wildlife and their habitat. Energy campaigners on the other hand tend to both reject the idea that the alleged impact is that significant and also suggest that the potential impact of climate change is a considerably greater threat to habitats.
There is a difficulty for Opposition in any debate on energy which is that there are simply so many alternatives. It makes it very difficult for Opposition to identify one alternative. By contrast, Proposition has the difficulty of tackling the fact that, inevitably, all forms of energy production have strengths and weaknesses and Prop has to be able to defend the weaknesses of one form against the strengths of all of the rest.
Key issues in this debate are the impact of wind farms, consistency of supply, are turbines as environmentally friendly as their supporters claim in terms of the CO2 impact of their construction, and the usefulness of the forms of energy wind can produce. Of all the renewables, wind is, in some ways, perhaps both the most established and certainly the most visible. As a result there is a huge amount of data available. In 2010 installed wind power represented about 195 giga-watts[i] or roughly 2 percent of energy output. Of course that ignores more direct use of wind energy such as sailing ships. It is worth mentioning briefly that all debates on energy have a tragic tendency to conflate the terms ‘energy’ and ‘electricity’. The two are different, or rather, electricity is a small component of energy. This allows proposition to widen the debate - or at least have a little fun.
The installation costs of an entire wind farm are, admittedly, fairly high – although they pale into insignificance compared to an oil station or a nuclear plant – but after that there is almost no associated cost whatsoever. In addition to which farms can be built incrementally; a half completed wind farm is simply one that is half its original size for virtually any other form of power generation it’s an all or nothing proposition[i].
Furthermore, many experts agree that so-called micro-renewables will play an increasingly important role in the energy future of the planet and wind energy is the example par excellence of how this can be done; the most basic homemade windmill can power a generator and wind power predates electricity – offshore and on – by centuries.
The pro-wind lobby always dismisses the externalities of wind power when discussing it. No other form of power requires quite so much space to create so small an amount of energy, an average of between 22.4 and 34.5 hectares per MegaWatt.[i]
In some countries that may be an appropriate use of land but in many others it is simply a waste of space. It is interesting that those countries that have moved toward wind energy – Denmark, Spain, Germany, Portugal and Ireland – are all in Europe. Geographically small nations with economies that can support an interesting experiment and with an infrastructure that allows for diverse additions to their power supplies.
Wind is simply not a serious option for most of the world, it is a rich nation’s toy. In most nations, either where land is a premium or where development costs for the transition between technologies are prohibitive, wind cannot be the solution.
There is little doubt that the current mix of energy provision is simply unsustainable. Fossil fuels are simply too damaging to the environment and nuclear is just too expensive. Wind power is an established technology providing, for example, 21% of electricity in Denmark.[i]
The research is already done and can be made available around the world.
Once externalities are taken into account nuclear energy is the single most expensive way of producing a therm. Clean coal is, frankly, a myth and the trend for oil and gas is constantly upwards in term of price.
Other renewables are embryonic technologies fraught with development costs whereas wind is an established technology already providing a significant share of the energy mix in several developed economies.
No renewable energy is going to provide the sheer quantity and variety of energy needed to power a developed society. Wind suffers from being unreliable – producing either too little or too much – and as a result would be a bad choice to be the core technology.
The basic staple of the energy supply needs to be predictable as well as clean. Wind may well have a useful role providing a surplus that can be tapped in to at times of high demand. However, it is simply not reliable enough to be the mainstay of the energy blend.
It is worth noting that wind energy requires government subsidies which is simply not viable in the long term, people are unlikely to be keen on the idea of paying for their energy twice; once through their power bill and then again in their taxes[i].
The critical, and increasing, issue of a reliance on fossil fuels is that the price is not only increasing but is doing so in an unpredictable manner. Oil and gas in particular are subject to the political whim of some of the world’s most unpredictable regimes. Wind, by contrast, is produced domestically or, where it is exported, is produced in stable European nations.
Given the choice between negotiating with Chavez’s Venezuela or Putin’s Russia for oil and gas or with Belgium or Germany for wind energy is really not a difficult choice.
Critically, in addition, any form of mineral-dependent energy is based on a resource that will deplete – be that coal or uranium. Wind, by contrast, is the ultimate sustainable resource.
The difficulty with wind energy is not whether it will be here in 500 years, it’s whether it will be here next Tuesday. Relying as a long term prospect on something so unreliable is simply building fallibility into the future.
A short term reliance on wind would be risky enough, building it in for the long term would be incredibly dangerous.
This is particularly true in countries where the weather is considerably less reliable that it is in Europe. Not only does wind face the risk of a shortfall but it also risks surges to the network at times of high wind. Denmark which pioneered wind energy in Europe, and remains the largest producer, is compelled to export much of that energy to Norway and Sweden because production frequently outstrips demand. That’s fine if one nation in the region is relying on the technology; if everyone is then the capacity simply isn’t there[i].
Wind will only ever be a useful additional technology to provide extra capacity at time of high demand. We know it to be both unreliable and unpredictable. We know that unreliable technologies are fraught with expensive difficulties. As a result relying on such a technology would be reckless.
To take one example, the only way of building in a capacity for wind into a regular energy network would require the construction of ‘battery capacity’ such as hydro-power. Developing such a capacity would be both hugely expensive and unreliable – it’s useful if the wind fails to blow for a few hours, if the doldrums last for a few days, then everything grinds to a halt.
Nobody disputes that any energy strategy will have to include a shift away from the way much of the developed world depends on energy. Clearly energy conservation must be part of the process, but so should micro-renewables. In both categories wind power is the best available option – cheap to build and easy for small scale energy users to use as an when they need it and when built in the right place is reliable, in the UK wind energy is generating 75-85% of the time.[i] Moreover any worries over reliability can be alleviated by building numerous wind farms over a wide area as the wind is always blowing somewhere.[ii]
Battery capacity is easier to build on a smaller scale and surplus can be exchanged internationally relatively easily. All power supplies require backup[iii]. Power outages apply just as much in the supposedly stable world of fossil fuels; surplus capacity is built into any system.
There are also indirect impacts on local populations of wildlife as a result of the disturbance caused to otherwise remote wildlife communities as a result of the construction and maintenance of wind power sites.
Wind farms impact on migratory routes as they need to be based in areas where there is little human habitation or activity. This is simply humans as a species taking over land which has been the preserve of other creatures which already have few enough areas to live in, away from the voracious implications of human consumption.
Experience teaches us that the natural environment responds to changes in human activity and rebalances itself. By contrast a shift in the entire climate, driven by human activity, would have devastating implications for all species. We know that migration routes can change over time and that, for example, bat colonies can move. However, a shift in climatic process would destroy migration patterns[i] and cause untold damage to wildlife populations.
Dealing with the effects of climate change is not just a responsibility that humanity needs to take on for itself but for all species on the planet. The tiny impact of individual wind farms on local populations is as nothing compared to the catastrophic implications of a significant and mostly unpredictable shift in the climate of the globe.
Realistically, there is a set pot of funding to deal with this energy crisis and it is essential to use on technologies that have long term benefits. Several environmentalists have talked about the difference between ‘bridge’ technologies which can provide a temporary solution and long term, sustainable technologies.
There is a broad agreement that nuclear fills the first category and geo-thermal and tidal powers fulfil the latter. Wind simply doesn’t feature.
Both tidal and geo-thermal are untried technologies and have significant environmental implications in their own right.
It also seems highly unlikely that deploying nuclear as a ‘bridge’ technology would be anything like that, certainly the history of energy production does not suggest that industries are likely to plan for their own extinction in favour of more environmentally sensitive technologies.
This is especially true of nuclear power; it simply is not a short-term technology as the reprocessing and containment schedules are enormous. A decision to use nuclear even for a matter of decades would have implications that would run for longer than the history of human civilization to date.
Wind, by contrast, is a developed technology that has no implications for future generations.