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Farming the wind: The cost on our environment in order to save it

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Bob Brown has been vocal about the environmental threat of wind farms (Image via Wikimedia Commons/YouTube)

While wind farms provide a clean source of energy, producing them can have detrimental effects on the environment, writes Don Owers.

RECENTLY, FORMER GREENS LEADER Bob Brown came out against a plan to install up to 220 wind turbines on Robbins Island off the north-west tip of Tasmania. These would be very large turbines up to 270m high and would have a devastating impact on birdlife. There would also be power lines cutting through 17 private properties via a 60m easement with owners told compulsory land acquisition of part of their property may have to occur if an agreement could not be reached.

Not surprisingly, the Murdoch press jumped in to label him a hypocrite and devoted three front-page stories to highlight the issue. For those opposed to clean energy, the idea that Brown would want to block a wind turbine because of its risk to birds was a gift from heaven. They were joined by some environmentalists and politicians from both sides, something that suggests the environment is not high on political priorities.

This installation is expected to have a generating capacity in the range of 400 to 1000MW and is claimed to be cheaper than hydropower, so many will see it as an issue between either destroying the environment or destroying our climate(and perhaps much more). The sad reality is that it looks increasingly likely that we will be unable to replace all fossil fuels with renewables for several reasons, one being the optimism created by the endless bombardment of techno-utopian propaganda.

We have come to assume that Moore’s law will keep renewable energy technologies halving in cost even as the energy they generate continues to double. This has led to a belief that we can continue with business as usual, a fallacy bolstered by unattainable predictions like green growth and sustainable development.

As a consequence, we often see jubilant statements pointing out that on current projections we will more than meet our 50% renewables powered grid by 2030. In fact, a report by the Green Energy Markets put our renewables at being close to 78% by 2030, meaning that the combined wind, solar and hydro can, on average, produce three-quarters of our current electricity demand.

But demand fluctuates as does renewable power generation, which is intermittent and variable. A wind turbine produces power at or above its annual average rate only 40% of the time, so we will need to provide at least twice the average power, plus even more, for reserves.

Even that is not enough — to reach 100% renewable energy we must replace not just our coal and gas-fired electricity production but all the users of fossil fuels which currently amount to 5767.1PJ of energy usage per year. (The petajoule (PJ) is equal to one quadrillion (1015) joules and 1J/sec is 1 Watt.) So far, we only supply 378.7PJ or 6.7% in renewables. Putting that into power terms, this energy use would require, on average, enough solar, hydro and wind capacity to produce 194.7GW.

All this might be doable except the current energy usage does not take into account the extra energy we will need if we are to become a major producer of hydrogen, which we must do to replace our exports of coal and gas. We also have to provide all the power for electric cars and energy-intensive industries. Then there is an even larger demand for all the embedded energy in the over $300 billion worth of goods we import including the green energy components which we currently pay for largely through the sale of coal, a revenue which will soon collapse.

To get an idea of the magnitude of embedded energy, VW puts it at 24,000kWh for a standard Golf and 40,000kWh for the e-Golf — and Australia imports over 1 million cars every year. A CSIRO report found that the average house contains about 1,000GJ of energy embodied in the materials used in its construction and we build 200,000 every year.

Failure to account for embedded energy creates a false impression of our performance and shifts blame onto China, where much of the manufacturing takes place. Because of terrible Government decisions, we have lost most of our manufacturing capacity leaving us unable to build them ourselves and soon unable to afford to import the PV panels, batteries or wind turbines we need.

It is also disturbing that while 38 projects with more than 2.3GW of new renewable energy capacity entered the market in 2018, most of these were owned by overseas interests including UPC Renewables, the group involved in the Robbins Island proposal. Bob Brown was accused of being xenophobic when he mentioned this but our experiences with gas pricing – our gas sold to us at higher prices than to world customers – should make us wary.

This difficulty of raising funds for essential local projects like renewable energy can be traced directly back to successive Governments’ promotion of the housing industry which saw much of our investment – including that from politicians – squandered on housing projects at the expense of more worthy projects.

Worldwide, the situation isn't any better. The International Energy Agency reports for 2018 show that fossil fuel use is growing at a faster rate than renewable energy-harvesting technologies are being installed. Global energy consumption in 2018 increased at nearly twice the average rate since 2010, one reason being a higher demand for cooling needs in many countries,

Finding a green solution is going to be difficult, the UK's Committee on Climate Change has warned that:

To replace all UK-based vehicles today with electric vehicles (not including the LGV and HGV fleets), assuming they use the most resource-frugal next-generation NMC 811 batteries, would take 207,900 tonnes cobalt, 264,600 tonnes of lithium carbonate (LCE), at least 7,200 tonnes of neodymium and dysprosium, in addition to 2,362,500 tonnes copper. This represents just under two times the total annual world cobalt production, nearly the entire world production of neodymium, three quarters the world’s lithium production and at least half of the world’s copper production during 2018. Even ensuring the annual supply of electric vehicles only, from 2035 as pledged, will require the UK to annually import the equivalent of the entire annual cobalt needs of European industry…

 

There are serious implications for the electrical power generation in the UK needed to recharge these vehicles. Using figures published for current EVs (Nissan Leaf, Renault Zoe), driving 252.5 billion miles uses at least 63 TWh of power. This will demand a 20% increase in UK generated electricity.

 

Challenges of using “green energy” to power electric cars: If wind farms are chosen to generate the power for the projected two billion cars at UK average usage, this requires the equivalent of a further years’ worth of total global copper supply and 10 years’ worth of global neodymium and dysprosium production to build the wind farms.

 

Solar power is also problematic — it is also resource hungry; all the photovoltaic systems currently on the market are reliant on one or more raw materials classed as “critical” or “near critical” by the EU and/or U.S. Department of Energy (high purity silicon, indium, tellurium, gallium) because of their natural scarcity or their recovery as minor-by-products of other commodities. With a capacity factor of only ~10%, the UK would require ~72GW of photovoltaic input to fuel the EV fleet; over five times the current installed capacity. If CdTe-type photovoltaic power is used, that would consume over 30 years of current annual tellurium supply.

 

Both these wind turbine and solar generation options for the added electrical power generation capacity have substantial demands for steel, aluminium, cement and glass.

Put simply, there is not enough Planet Earth left for us to grow our way to sustainability; we are already in overshoot, meaning in seven months humanity has burned through the resources it takes the Earth a full year to replenish. Continue with business as usual and Mother Nature is going to do to us what we did to the dodo and the Tassie Tiger.

The final problem is that very few people – including many of those who protest Government inaction on the environment – are prepared to make the sacrifices required as we are all hooked on consumerism. Nor are our corporations and institutions prepared to forego their power and profits for the greater good.

And, as Bob Brown said, human intelligence is a ‘one-and-only brilliance’, but on ‘the brink of extinction’. He might be wrong, but I would bet my last dollar that the world in 2050 will not have the projected 9.8 billion human inhabitants, draw your own conclusions on how this will occur.

Don Owers is a former marine engineer and teacher at TAFE. Now retired, he cycles, surfs, plants trees and writes angry letters to politicians.

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