Mar 2006

Wind power

Hallo folks. Sorry I’ve been a bit quiet this week (I promise, by the way, never to use this blog’s title as a jokey excuse for lackadaisical productivity… y’know, some kind of crass remark like “Well what did you expect from the QUIET road, eh? eh?”). I’ve had one of those weeks where you think to yourself on Friday afternoon, “Haaaang on a second; wasn’t it Sunday just now? What in the name of god happened to the week?”

My great fear is that I’ll be lying on my deathbed and I’ll think “Haaaang on a second; wasn’t I sixteen years old just now? What in the name of god happened to the last fifty years?” Something tells me though, just as the light finally fades forever, we all think that.

So what have I been thinking about this week?

Well, I was going to write something about how publicly listed corporations, through having a legal obligation to maximise the return for their investors, are forces for evil in the world. It’s a common theme in my writing, and this week the thought was sparked off by reading about Body Shop being taken over by L’Oreal. However the impetus was mollified (for this week) by reading Merrick’s excellent piece on the subject. So on that subject… “what he said!”

And talking about Merrick, you should probably read Iceland: Greenpeace’s Shameful Silence for news of a new spin on an old environmental issue… hydroelectricity and the uses to which we put this so-called, self-styled “green” energy.

Which brings me onto the topic of today’s sermon… wind power. Y’know, I’m scared witless that someone’s going to discover some great environmental problem with wind power. Turns out that wind-turbines slow down the earth’s rotation… killing all the bees or something. In my view, that’ll be the final message from this planet that we’re just not wanted anymore.

Oh, and those of you who object to the things on aesthetic grounds can piss off. Sorry, but there you have it. I think they look lovely. But then, I think power pylons look lovely too… and I don’t hear anyone objecting to them as long as they can watch Big Fricking Brother on Satellite Television! So when the wind-farm protesters start demanding the removal of the pylons (starting with the ones connecting up their towns), I’ll start listening to their objections about aesthetics.

And no, the “bird deaths” thing doesn’t wash either. Clearly there will be certain areas where a wind farm would be particularly destructive to migrating birds (Altamont in San Francisco turned out to be one such area), and they should be avoided. But then you hear about a wind farm located – many would say foolishly –

… at the San Gorgonio Pass […] near Palm Springs. A 1986 study found that 69 million birds flew though the San Gorgonio Pass during the Spring and Fall migrations. During both migrating seasons, only 38 dead birds were found during that typical year, representing only 0.00006% of the migrating population.

There will be those who say that 38 dead birds is 38 too many. But when you do put that number into perspective, it becomes a no-brainer. I have to wonder where the people who say “38 is too many” stand on the issue of the 130 million killed by power lines in the US alone each year? Or the estimated 1 billion globally that die simply from colliding with glass windows? Do they still drive cars despite the 70 million or so birds that are killed by US automobiles each year?

And let’s not forget the toll from those oil spills and other fossil-fuel pollutants that gets replaced by the wind farms. Mike Sagrillo (from whom I stole all the stats, read his article) points out that even the heavily criticised Altamont farm would need to operate for up to 1,000 years to kill as many birds as one oil tanker spillage.

There are huge issues with wind power of course. It’s inefficient when compared with fossil fuels (but it does pass all the ERoEI tests… in simple terms, wind farms produce more energy than it takes to manufacture and maintain them). It’s not an “always-on” energy source. But frankly, we’re going to have to start understanding that the way we treat energy usage has to change.

And here’s my proposition (or part of it)… I’m concentrating here on Ireland and Northern Europe… other parts of the world will need other solutions. It’s all about localisation.

Simply put; we need a two-tier electricity grid.

The first tier is for essential services. Hospitals obviously. Plus public transportation. Also I propose some kind of facility which would provide – among other things – refrigeration for the local community, plus other non-essential but useful electricity services (charge points for mobile phones and laptop computers; that sort of thing). This tier will be kept going – using a combination of tidal, existing hydro, sustainable biomass, and batteries charged during times of “wind surplus”. Which in northwest Europe will be pretty frequently.

The second tier is for the rest of us. Once there’s more electricity in the system than is required for essentials, then – for those not in a position to have their own small home wind-turbine (tens of thousands of which will be feeding their own surplus into the grid during windy days) – lights and televisions can start coming on across the country.

It will require a huge investment in infrastructure, but we’ve probably still got a few years of cheap oil left if we decide to manage it sensibly. And it will require a huge shift in attitude, a huge change in lifestyle, a revolutionary approach to the next two decades. Maybe I’ve been reading too much Orwell of late, but as he would say; there’s no question that we have the physical tools at our disposal… all it requires – and I use the word ‘political’ in its broadest sense here – is the political will.

Posted in: Opinion