Photo by Marcia Ruby

THE GREAT ECOLOGIST Garrett Hardin once noted that in any endeavor, “We can never do merely one thing.” The great wind power boom ably proves his point.

For years now, many environmentalists have blindly championed industrial wind farms as a sort of utopian power source that will energize our cars, decentralize power grids, replace coal-fired plants and generally save the planet from global heating. As a rural Albertan who lives next to more than 1000 wind turbines that were erected with the same careless mindset that typically governs a shale gas play, let me bluntly burst this urban bubble.

Here’s the uncomfortable truth: Wind power is an intermittent and limited source of energy, and developing it on an industrial scale would require complex power grids, which would also change local if not global weather and precipitation patterns.

Let’s deal with the scale issue first. The world currently consumes about 17 terawatts- (TW) of energy per year, mostly in the form of hydrocarbons. To install something like 4 TW of wind power on the global grid would require a massive industrial farm covering two million square kilometers – or about one quarter of the United States’ land mass – with windmills.

Such a megaproject would also cost $16-trillion, but it would provide electricity- only about 25 per cent of the time because of the unreliable nature of wind. To appreciate that cost, consider that the world now spends about $1.5-trillion a year on military ventures.

Many environmentalists also assume that unlimited wind power can be harnessed-, but that’s the subject of heated debate. Right now, wind power accounts for 0.2 per cent of the world’s energy demands. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Biogeochemistry initially calculated that technology could create as much as 68 TW. But they downgraded that sum to be as low as 18 TW after additional modelling showed such large wind extraction rates would have impacts on the climate.

This finding was not new. Climate modelling experiments led by David Keith at the University of Calgary in 2004 found that even wind farms collecting just 2 TW of power from the world’s wind could have a demonstrable affect on global climate by changing the atmosphere’s ability to transport heat and moisture.

Because wind circulates moisture from forests and oceans over the land, Russian physicists Anatassia Makarieva and Victor Gorshkov argue that it maintains critical global water cycles and can’t be slowed or interrupted without dire consequences. Their modelling suggests that massive wind farm factories could steal moisture and actually have the same impact as deforestation on the landscape. As a consequence, they believe that “windmills will never be able to compete in power” with existing hydrological dams. They estimate less than 1 TW can be safely captured.

Recent studies on the impacts of industrial-scale turbine developments suggest the Russians may have a point. In 2012, the science journal Nature reported that large wind farms in west-central Texas have already warmed nighttime temperatures over the course of the last nine years by almost one degree.

But that’s not all. A 2011 computer modelling study determined that a 182,700-square-km wind farm with some 228,375 turbines could provide 20 per cent of US electricity demands, but it would also change hurricane patterns off the coast of Mexico. Another study, from 2010, found that a wind farm occupying 23 per cent of North America would have significant “downstream effects” on cyclones in the North Atlantic. By changing wind patterns, a mega-wind farm could generate some very ugly storm activity.

What the emerging science suggests is that society needs to rethink the role and promise of industrial wind power. It’s a small solution, not a big one. We simply can’t mine wind with the same industrial intensity we use to extract hydrocarbons without creating significant land disturbances and weather impacts.

Hardin warned us first: We can never do merely one thing.

Read reactions to this column in our Backstage at A\J blog.

Andrew Nikiforuk, a Calgary-based journalist, is the author of the national bestseller Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent. His latest book, The Energy of Slaves, looks at how human slavery has shaped our attitudes and values about energy. For more on Andrew visit his website at andrewnikiforuk.com

 

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