We Blew It

AJ’s editor on the backlash to Andrew Nikiforuk’s recent column about wind energy’s limitations.

In the August/September issue of A\J [38:5, In Defence of Science], energy reporter Andrew Nikiforuk wrote a column that rubbed a number of our readers the wrong way. The executive directors of Environmental Defence and the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment responded with a joint letter that picked apart a number of Nikiforuk’s points.

In the August/September issue of A\J [38:5, In Defence of Science], energy reporter Andrew Nikiforuk wrote a column that rubbed a number of our readers the wrong way. The executive directors of Environmental Defence and the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment responded with a joint letter that picked apart a number of Nikiforuk’s points. (We published that letter in issue 38:6, as well as a brief news piece about the ever-escalating battle over wind turbines in Ontario’s Prince Edward County.)

Three other replies to Nikiforuk also landed in my inbox after 38:5 hit newsstands. One came from perennial A\J contributor Jeri Parrent, who alludes to a few other complexities of the turbine farm debate. Parrent writes that “the problem with wind power is the places that are currently being selected to place the turbines are creating huge problems for the actual inhabitants of the area,” which can “sully the touristic potential through light pollution of dark sky areas like the Bruce Peninsula [in Ontario], where some of the most important bird migrations happen, and where the land narrows to such a degree that the turbines can be seen from everywhere.”

Although there’s certainly a diversity of opinion about whether or not turbines are an eyesore, Parrent says that “a big part of the issue for many people is the lack of appreciation of the negative effects that do plague individuals living too close to them,” such as the death of the birds. She also takes issue with the “inappropriate locations that are being chosen, not to mention that many of the companies that are also installing the turbines are foreign corporations – so, like with the tar sands, the end result is that profit is not being passed to Canadian companies, but rather to multinationals.”

Responding more directly to Nikiforuk, a Toronto-based home renovator named Peter Shepherd passed on a few pieces of counter-opinion. One article comes from the excellent ThinkProgress blog by American writer and editor Joe Romm, and another was a Science Daily piece that claims “large-scale high altitude wind power generation is unlikely to substantially affect climate.”

Shepherd also relayed a couple of excerpts written by University of Toronto Geography professor Danny Harvey. One offers some basic background, and a much higher estimate of the planet’s wind generation capacity than Nikiforuk cited. “There is a downward flux of kinetic energy to the earth’s surface,” writes Harvey, which “sets an ultimate constraint on how much energy can be extracted from the wind. Over the entire land surface area, this ultimate constraint is about 200 – 300 TW.”  

The second Harvey excerpt explains that we don’t really know how large-scale wind farms would modify local weather systems, and that larger atmospheric conditions and factors are more important in any case. “Over a period of 100 years, the reduced regional climate warming due to avoided CO2 emissions would be several times larger than the warming effect in regions where wind farms induce warming, but initially, the direct warming effect of the wind farms would dominate. This is because the effect on temperature of a given installation of wind farms is a one-time effect, whereas the CO2 buildup associated with sustained electricity production from fossil fuels is cumulative.”

Lastly (but absolutely not least), A\J editorial board member Susan Holtz submitted an extensive rebuttal to Nikiforuk’s position, which appears in its entirety below. Please keep reading, and weigh in on the discussion with a comment (no blowhards, please).

October 9, 2012

To the Editor:

The rant about wind energy by Andrew Nikiforuk, “Blown Out of Proportion,” provides yet another example of how information can be manipulated to serve an agenda, though it’s kind of ironic in an Alternatives issue about truth-telling and lies. It’s hard to tell whether Nikiforuk’s writing is just that of a natural contrarian or whether he’s part of the wind turbine opposition. But in the current context of a furious public debate about wind energy in which misinformation is endlessly repeated, his rhetorical strategies should be examined and his assertions tested.

Mislabelling and falsely describing environmentalist positions

One of the oldest tricks in the book is to incorrectly describe your opponents and their position and condemn them on that basis. Saying that “many environmentalists have blindly championed industrial wind farms as a sort of utopian power source,” and calling environmentalist beliefs about wind energy “an urban bubble” is hardly accurate, especially since – at least in my part of Ontario – many wind energy supporters are local farmers, and many opponents are ex-big-city retirees who don’t want the views altered in their “little piece of paradise.”

More significantly, Nikiforuk asserts that to environmentalists, it’s an “uncomfortable truth” that “wind power is an intermittent and limited source of energy, and developing it on an industrial scale would require complex power grids…” In fact, environmentalist advocates for renewable energy have always known this. One of the earliest and most detailed studies of renewable-oriented energy futures was the Canadian Soft Energy Path Study, with results first published in Alternatives, as a matter of fact.

The popular version of that study, Life After Oil (Robert Bott, David Brooks, John Robinson; Hurtig Publishers: Edmonton, 1983) points out [pg. 92] that a “problem with both wind and photovoltaics is their vulnerability to sudden shutdowns; for this reason, we limit use of either to no more than 15 per cent of any given system’s capacity, with no more than 20 per cent to come from the two together.” This is typical for the many subsequent environmentally oriented studies exploring renewable energy futures. And grid upgrades, incidentally, are an ongoing necessity for greater flexibility and more efficiency in electricity production and use, as well as for more employment of renewables.

“The straw man” argument – exaggerating scenarios

Another classic rhetorical strategy is the “straw man” (or “straw person”) argument, in which an opponent’s position is greatly exaggerated or presented without appropriate context, and thus appears impossible or ridiculous. In this case, Nikiforuk describes a scenario involving the installation of 4 TW of wind power “on the global grid,” and says that it would require “a massive industrial farm covering two million square kilometers – or about one quarter of the United States’ land mass.”

Well, of course there is no global grid and there won’t be any single massive wind farm to feed into it, either. There are many grids with wind turbines in countries and regions around the world (including the continent of Antarctica, which amazingly has more installed wind capacity than Jordan, Indonesia or Peru).

Assuming Nikiforuk’s land-use calculation is correct, you’d nevertheless think that the appropriate context for the land required for 4 TW of global installed wind capacity would not be a quarter of the US, but rather the global land surface, which is about 148 million square kilometers – thus, something like 1.3 per cent of the planet’s land surface area. By comparison, agriculture – including both crops and pasture – takes up around 40 per cent of the Earth’s land surface, and wind turbines can certainly be used in conjunction with many types of farming.

But how big is Nikiforuk’s hypothetical 4 TW of installed wind capacity anyway? In energy terms, 4 TW is the same as 4 million MW or 4000 GW. At the end of 2011, after a decade of rapid growth, there were about 239,000 MW (239 GW) of installed wind capacity worldwide. Wind capacity would have to grow by more than 16 times to reach 4 TW. Recent estimates of global installed wind capacity by 2020 are about 1000 GW by 2020, around a quarter of Nikiforuk’s 4 TW scenario.

Nikiforuk also states that his 4 TW wind scenario would cost $16-trillion. That seems high, according to my research, but as for trillion-dollar price tags, welcome to the world of energy costs. According to a Forbes article this August, a new GE nuclear plant of 1000 MW costs around $7-billion. Thus, 4 TW of new installed nuclear capacity would cost in the neighbourhood of $28-trillion. In fact, most commentators on energy economics put the real costs of electricity produced by new nuclear, wind and natural gas facilities as roughly comparable. Producing electricity isn’t very cheap.       

What’s missing? — Leaving out significant information

Another rhetorical twist is to present unfamiliar information as if it were a damning condemnation, leaving out important facts to better contextualize it. Yes, as Nikiforuk states, some modelling studies based on supersized wind farms and a recent study of large Texas wind farms show local or even regional climate effects, such as nighttime warming from the Texas turbines of 0.72˚C. (However, pushing down the higher, naturally warmer layer of air to be lower at night because of the turbines’ rotation is precisely what citrus growers in Florida want to happen when they hire helicopters to hover over their plantations if an untimely frost is threatened.)

What’s left out is the fact – well-known to geographers, planners and meteorologists – that all significant land use change, such as deforestation and urbanization, has local climate effects. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) even has a website about the so-called Urban Heat Island Effect. The EPA notes on its site that a city of a million people increases its annual mean temperature by 1˚ to 3˚C above adjacent rural areas. Its evening temperatures can be as much as 12˚C higher than nearby rural areas.

Nikiforuk cites a 2004 study by University of Calgary scientist David Keith, and summarizes it by saying “…2 TW of power from the world’s wind could have a demonstrable affect [sic] on global climate…”  What the authors of that study actually said in their introductory paragraph, and what Nikiforuk didn’t include, was that, “Although large-scale effects are observed, wind power has a negligible effect on global mean surface temperature, and it would deliver enormous global benefits by reducing emissions of CO2  and air pollutants.”

Nikiforuk’s conclusion, that “society needs to rethink the role and promise of industrial wind power,” is simply unsupported by the facts he presents. He misrepresents the proposed role of wind energy, its supporters’ understanding of its limitations and its actual constraints. Despite Nikiforuk’s invocation of Garrett Harding’s insightful dictum that we can never do only one thing – that is, there are always unintended consequences to our actions and these are sometimes serious – “Blown Out of Proportion” is indeed an appropriate title for the piece.

– Susan Holtz, Bloomfield, Ontario

Eric is the founder and executive director of Night\Shift, downtown Kitchener’s nocturnal adventure festival, and he helped craft the rebranding of A\J as its editor-in-chief (2012-2014). He has a dusty Bachelor of History from uWaterloo and has worked as a journalist in Canada since 2000, holding editing positions with up! Magazine (WestJet Airlines’ in-flight publication), AdbustersReader’s Digest and other publications, and contributing as a writer to Canadian GeographicMaisonneuveCanada’s HistorySwerveSaturday Night and others. He also used to curate a blog about great Canadian record cover art at lpwtf.tumblr.com.