Blowing in the wind
Why wind? As a giant wind-farm opens in Scotland, it should be obvious that wind power is not the future of energy supply in Britain or anywhere else. Wind-turbines are expensive and inefficient, they ruin the landscape, they are noisy when they work (which isn't very often) and they kill birds. In Taiwan, noise pollution from a wind farm has been held responsible for the death of four hundred goats. The amount of electricity they generate, even now, is negligible. It is said that the vast new Eaglesham Moor plant could potentially power the whole of Glasgow - but that is only when it is operating at full capacity, which even in a country as windy as Scotland is not even half the time.
Even as the new plant opens, plans are announced to expand it still further (although it already covers 55 sq. km), while over in Shetland an even more elaborate wind-power scheme is attracting increasing opposition. A BBC report quotes Professor David MacKay of Cambridge, who said that a "100-fold increase" in wind farms in Britain would be necessary to achieve the government target of a complete decarbonisation of our electricity supply system by 2030. The only other alternative to carbon generation he mentioned was nuclear power - itself an outdated and non-renewable technology that brings with it its own problems.
The wind turbine has become a synedoche for environmentally sustainable power generation. Ed Miliband, the absurdly-titled secretary of state "for climate change" (shouldn't that be the secretary of state against climate change?) said recently that opposing the damn things should be "socially unacceptable... like driving through a zebra crossing". Why? Because opposing wind-farms, in his mind, isn't simply opposition to one particular form of energy production, but opposition to the principle of renewable energy in general. This is nonsense. It is opposition to the most obtrusive, least efficient and most expensive type of renewable energy. James Lovelock, responding to Miliband's chilling statement of eco-authoritarianism, put it rather well:
If wind energy were the one practical and affordable answer to global warming then I would grit my teeth at the loss of the countryside and accept it. But I know that windfarms are no answer to global warming in northern Europe....
Global warming is real and deadly and we have to do our best to counter it but we must not be led astray by the special pleading of an industry made rich by over-generous subsidies paid for by your taxes and one that is bound to fail to deliver.
In Germany, Lovelock reminds us, "despite more than 17,000 wind turbines across Germany the nation is emitting more CO2 than before it built them". With only 17% efficiency, the wind farms have to be supplemented by more conventional (carbon-emitting) sources of energy generation which themselves are prevented from operating at their maximum efficiency because they are working in tandem with the turbines.
Germany is becoming dangerously over-reliant on wind power, a path Britain and even the US look set to follow. Indeed, the National Audit Office calculated in 2005 that wind was the most expensive way to fund carbon emission reductions in Britain. It gave a figure of £70-£140 a tonne of carbon saved - even more than the figure for Germany. Needless to say, such findings have failed to make much impact on the drive for wind-power in either country.
It's not as though there aren't alternatives. There are far more efficient and less environmentally damaging technologies available and soon-to-be available. Tidal and wave generation offers far more power without the inherent unreliability of the wind. Best of all, they are hidden. The plants may cost more to build than wind-farms but, being more efficient, will save money over the long term. Geothermal energy may be even better. This taps directly into the inexhaustible energy of the earth itself, and (technicalities aside) consists of little more than a hole in the ground. It has almost no environmental costs. Looking further ahead, but not too much further, a more reliable source of wind-power - and one far less destructive of the environment - may be had by tapping into the jet stream of the upper atmosphere. Then there is carbon capture, which would enable the substantial surviving reserves of coal to be exploited at little or no environmental cost.
Some of these options are being explored, but the need to do something right now - to demonstrate steady progress towards ambitious targets - means that resources are concentrated disproportionately towards the dead-end of wind power. Long-term, this will mean that the targets are less likely to be met. Certainly, they will be difficult to meet without massive expense, waste and disruption. An alternative strategy of investing in the truly sustainable technologies of the future, would produce less immediate progress but, once in place, the gains would be real and lasting. Today's wind power is a stop-gap, but the damage it does to the environment will be irreversible.
So why is the government, the environmental movement and so much of the public discourse wedded to this wholly irrational strategy? Clearly, money has a great deal to do with it. On the time-honoured principle of throwing good money after bad the huge resources, both private and public, already "invested" in wind power must be justified by being increased. Figures released to Parliament in 2007 show subsidies rising to over £1 bn by 2012. Diverting resources into other types of renewable energy would mean writing off substantial sums, which would be embarrassing all round. Better to keep on wasting the money. Wind power was first on the scene, which means that it now supports an entire industry of designers, propagandists and assorted experts. With lavish subsidies on offer, it is in the interest of power companies to exaggerate wind power's potential. Wind farms - even if built in the wrong place - represent jobs and money today, while other potential energy sources represent jobs and money tomorrow.
The late Stephen Jay Gould, in an essay about the "evolution" of the QWERTY keyboard, pointed out that the conventional layout has survived, despite its relative inefficiency, because a series of historical accidents led to its becoming the first widely adopted design. It wasn't better than rival designs - in fact it was a whole lot worse. But once it was established, it proved impossible to dislodge, and we are still stuck with a layout invented in the days when typewriters more closely resembled the Gutenburg printing press than today's laptops. Incumbancy is a powerful advantage. As Gould wrote, using another example,
Suboptimal politicians often prevail nearly forever once they gain office and grab the reins of privilege, patronage and visibility. Mammals waited 100 million years to become the dominant animals on land and only got a chance because dinosaurs succumbed during a mass extinction.
The turbines now have the wind in their sails. Wind power occupies a niche that could be filled by a more efficient and less environmentally deleterious technology. There it has become largely self-sustaining. There's something else, too. Wind turbines are highly visible. Building wind-farms is a statement about the commitment of society to an environmentally sound future. They make their supporters feel morally superior to their opponents, who can be dismissed as selfish Nimbys. The uglier the wind farms are, the more they ruin the environment, the better: for their very unattractiveness draws attention to the sacrifice that they represent. They are Gaia's temples. The clacking of their sails is like a prayer offered up to Nature to forgive our environmental sins. It's mad.