TCS Daily

Tilting at Windmills

By Waldemar Ingdahl - August 19, 2003 12:00 AM

Sometimes environmental issues are not as clear as you might think -- or as green activists want them to be.


Norges Naturvernforbund (Friends of the Earth Norway, the country's largest environmental campaign group) is criticizing plans to build a wind farm of 40 turbines, more than 100 meters high, on the island of Sleneset in the northern Norwegian commune of Nordland. "Wind turbines can be placed almost anywhere, but not here," says Gaute Dahl, chairman of the local committee in Nordland. "This plan should be stopped before it even gets to the drawing board." Quite a surprise to those of us who are accustomed to hearing environmentalists solidly back the increased use of wind power. Believe it or not, Naturvernforbund in Nordland may have some good points about wind power -- and perhaps Brussels should pay attention.


Norway is not a member state of the European Union, but the EU is currently putting forward plans to boost wind power as a favored source of energy. In fact, it is becoming big business indeed. To meet the proposed targets for producing power from wind, we are not discussing single windmills any more, but the kind of massive farm that is planned on Sleneset.


Wind power is a much dispersed power source. It gives a comparatively small amount of energy in relation to its volume. Energy has to be concentrated from a large surface. The force of the winds in the area must be just right, not too weak (or it does not produce enough) and not too strong (the wind mill shuts down). Therefore, those few areas that have winds that meet these conditions must be developed extensively. Even the windmills themselves are still not that efficient. A medieval windmill had an energy efficiency of 17 percent, while a modern one  is barely 50 percent -- with some of percentage lost in the storage of energy.


It is interesting to note that in the 30 years that wind power has been discussed there have been very few scientific inquires into the environmental consequences of a massive development of it. Naturvernforbundet in Nordland are justified in their concerns about damages to bird life (they get hacked by the windmill's rotor blades), especially for large predators like eagles. Bats tend to get disoriented, and we do not know much about how it affects marine wildlife (both fish and mammals). Some research shows that it disrupts television, radio, and radar signals. Since windmills have to be placed where the wind conditions are right they could well be placed in populated areas, and then the windmills' sound level, casting of shadow, and rather unsightly appearance should be considered too.


In these days when the precautionary principle is applied to so many things, halting projects that cannot be proved to be completely without harm, it is surprising that it is not applied to wind power. Should not the development of wind power be considered too risky?


From its humble beginnings in 10th century Persia, and through its development by the Dane Paul la Cour in 1890, the modern discussion of wind power started in the 1970s with the rise of environmentalism. The environmentalists saw hydroelectric power as too damaging. Fossil fuels were also dangerous to the environment, they said, and what was in some circles an initially positive view of nuclear power also changed. That left only solar and wind power, the so-called "renewable" energy sources.


It is important to remember that many of the wind power visionaries back in those days had quite strict ideals of a decentralized, small scale and self-sufficient society in mind when considering wind power. They did not have the ambition to provide the energy demands of a modern industrialized society, and certainly not those of the information society. Wind power was envisioned with this in mind; and from that somewhat medieval point of approach this alternative was realistic.


This connects wind power to the main force behind its popularity with environment policy makers -- its sustainability, according to the view that nature strives for a stable state of balance without changes, especially not man-made ones. In this view solar power and wind power are sustainable, but not much else.


But from its centralized vision, according to an abstract sustainability and renewability, it in fact forgets about the real environment. Without large sums of government subsidies the wind power industry would not exist, since it is too inefficient. In the wake of the Kyoto Protocol the subsidies have increased, since it is said that the development and switch to wind power would reduce the emission of CO2. But a far more cost-efficient way to reduce CO2 emissions would be to reduce them in Eastern Europe.


This is not the view of modern ecology, where nature is seen as a dynamic system, often with quite radical changes. Nature cannot "strive" for goals such as balance; it is an impersonal system that lacks easily discerned patterns. Thus human evaluation is important, since we cannot deduce an environmental policy from some intrinsic value of nature. The values of fishermen, friends of nature, and the inhabitants of the developed areas should be considered too. Wind power is not conceived from this point of view.

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