Monday, February 9, 2015

Wind Power or Hot Air?

Naive and under-informed as I am, I have always had a soft spot for wind power. What could be cleaner? The wind blows, the turbines spin, and voilĂ : free electricity. Well, maybe I'm not that naive, but I am caught by surprise to discover the complexity of the Viking wind power proposal, which just won approval from the UK's supreme court to proceed with its massive installation on the Shetland Islands.

At first glance it seems like a natural idea: land-based on the thinly populated main island of the Shetlands, with maximal exposure to North Atlantic winds, the massive (32,000 acres) collection of giant structures (109 turbines at heights up to 145 meters) could serve as many as 175,000 homes, possibly making it the largest wind power producer in the world.

Legal challenges were focused on protection of an endangered bird species, but a glance at the website of Sustainable Shetlands makes it clear that far more substantial problems accompany the project. One is longevity: the life-span of the farm is estimated at 25 years. This raises questions of payback: to build it, massive investment in construction facilities and roads will consume resources, including carbon fuels. More seriously, the farm is to be located on peat bogs, massive carbon sinks whose CO2 will be released by excavations to create a large deficit of clean energy benefit before the first turbine turns. To balance the equation, Viking Energy and its parent corporation, the large UK energy company SSE, make comparison with fossil fuel-produced energy, a false comparison which overlooks the actual composition of competing energy supplies. Once factors including alternative hydrology estimates, transmission costs from the island to the mainland, and other variables are included, Sustainable Shetlands estimates the 'carbon payback' could take 67 years, much more than the farm's anticipated lifespan.

Who's right? More expert opinion than mine would have to answer that. I can understand Sustainable Shetlands' resistance on aesthetic grounds--the turbines will dominate the low-lying landscape--and ecological ones--disrupting extensive bird and other animal habitats, as well as the peat itself is a heavy price. On the other hand, not building 'sustainable' projects on this scale has its price as well. Can we get this right while there is still time? That's one of the big questions along the road to Paris.

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