Tuesday, 21 October 2008
If aliens came down and told us that there was an infinite source of power on the Earth, one that would not affect the climate or damage the environment at all, would we take it?
The aliens are hypothetical, but the solution already exists -- wind. Unlike photovoltaic solar panels, which require exotic metals that must be mined and shipped around the world, windmills can be made using parts that are available almost anywhere. Many of the parts could be cast or carved if need be, and only the electrical and magnetic pieces would require large manufacturing – an important consideration during the Long Emergency. After the parts are manufactured, wind turbines use no fossil fuels and create no pollution or carbon emissions. And unlike power plants, a sea of wind turbines could never present a target for terrorists.
What happens when the wind is not blowing? Individual wind turbines can not generate energy all the time, but neither can power stations. Modern wind turbines in Ireland, however, can generate decent amounts of electricity 97 percent of the time, better than most power plants. Also, unlike any other form of power, the wind here is highest and generates the most energy during the darker, colder months of the year, when energy demand is at its highest.
The speed of wind and energy available always varies, but towns do not need to depend only on their own wind turbines; all towns are already linked by an electrical grid, and when there is less wind in, say, our village, there will be more in other villages all around. Even if all Ireland were to go still for a while we still have solar power, tidal power, and all our present means still available.
One British newspaper a few years ago actually called for abandoning wind power, saying it was too expensive – reducing one tonne of carbon, it said, cost 77 euros. But 77 euros is a bargain; at that price we could reduce the carbon emissions of every country in the world to zero, stopping climate change in its tracks, for less than one percent of world GDP – a blip in the world market. Or we could take the other choice, let climate change smack us down hard, and -- according to the Stearns Report -- lose five to 20 percent of our global GDP per year. The last 20 percent drop was called the Great Depression.
The same newspaper also said that, instead of building windmills, we should make homes more energy-efficient. But we are not faced with a choice between wind and efficiency, any more than we have to choose between eating healthy foods and exercising -- doing more of one encourages the other.
They can be used in most areas of the world, but the American Midwest, hit hard by a credit crunch and rising gas prices, has the potential to be a Saudi Arabia of energy. Ireland's famously windswept coasts could also suppply massive amounts of power to populous Europe.
Right now, Ireland imports nearly 90 percent of its fuel supply and relies on oil for up to 60 percent of fuel alone -- completely vulnerable to the unreliable oil market. Ireland and most other countries generate power at giant plants, using some kind of fossil fuel and generating massive pollution, and then must send the electricity across hundreds of kilometers of dangerous power lines, losing most of the electricity in the process. With wind, however, every town could become self-reliant, as they were in the past, but now connected to the rest of the planet.
If we are to use more wind, we need to be realistic about a few limitations. Some people who bought the new satellite-dish-sized windmills for their home have been disappointed to find that it does not furnish enough electricity to power a home. This is a new infrastructure we must build in place of the old one, not a minor attachment we can install like a weather vane.
Second, wind turbines provide electricity, not fossil fuels. For people, and especially North Americans, to keep moving we would need electric rails. The light rail commuter lines that have been mainly sold as a transit solution for hip urban neighbourhoods needs to replace every motorway in Nebraska – not just so that Nebraskans can go on holiday, but so that the world’s breadbasket can keep supplying grain to the majority of the world’s seven billion people that live in the Third World and are already hungry or close to it. More on that in a few days.
Thirdly, we should not invest in wind farms because they are the latest hot commodity, or because they will gush forth energy like a new oil well. They take several years to pay for themselves, and their power may cost more than oil at the moment. We should invest in wind power because it is the thing that can preserve our internet servers, with all their accumulated human knowledge; our trains, that can carry the aforementioned grain across a continent; and our global communications network that will allow our local communities to remain part of a global community. Wind is the most likely thing to preserve civilization, and we need to start building the infrastructure for it immediately.
Top photo: Tournafulla wind farm in County Limerick. (public domain)
Bottom photo: Twilight as seen from a train to Cork, Ireland. (me)