Friday, 6 August 2010

Tilting at Windmills. Or not.

The other day, we were off by train to Dundee for a day-trip. We were struck by the new view of massive onshore wind turbines to the east of Laurenckirk, visible for many miles rotating lazily in the breeze. The prospect to the west is an uniterrupted view of the high peaks and moors around the Cairn o' Mount, the view to the east was... different.

We weren't quite sure how we felt about this, and so had to take a little time to think. The contrast between the views to our left and right was pronounced. As the train journey progressed, though, we put our views, (literal and metaphorical) into context:

We realised that the landscape is covered by the cruft of successive layers of human networks: Field systems and animal ranges; drainage ditches, canals and altered river courses; successive generations of byway, causeway, turnpike, trunk road and motorway; railways and disused railways; telegraph/telephone poles and wires; our hiltops host radar stations, the microwave relay network and television masts; electricity transmission pylons are ubiquitous. And on and on. This has been going on since pre-history. Why do we automatically assume that this, today, is the limit of human intervention in the lanscape which we should allow? Why do we think that this is the inviolate untouchable Scotland which should be preserved for posterity? It is not.

Our perception of Scotland's "natural beauty" is a self-imposed illusion; every facet of the Scottish landscape (with the exception of the high moors and peaks) has been subject to human intervention and modification for centuries. When in history did any 'ideal' Scotland exist? What were the prevailing social conditions at that time?

So, when we examine our feelings when we saw these new windpower generators, we can see that any assertion that people might make that windfarms put Scotlands natural beauty at risk does not stand up to scrutiny.

We live in an energy-hungry society - that is not about to change - and there is no such thing as a 'pretty' power station. Some might see stark and austere utilitarian beauty in the Torness nuclear reactor, Boddam gas plant or the Longannet coal station, but we're quite sure that very few would want to be neighbour to new electricity generation if these were the source.

And there's the rub. At present our insatiable hunger for energy requires generation sources with a lot of, em, 'grunt'. All of the many many hydro stations accross the highlands, all of the capital sunk into their construction and operation, all of the human resources, all of the flooding of the glens (greatly lamented at the time) only adds up to an electricity generating capacity equal to just over two-thirds of the Longannet coal-fired station (one power station, on one site). Our entire hydro capacity adds up to a total generating capability round about the same as that of the Boddam gas station. Of which there is only one, on one site. The total combined hydro capacity is, similarly, about the same as that of one nuclear power station.

To help everyone have a good think about that, we'll write it again - all of the impressive hydro power we have (of which Scotland is rightly proud), pales into insignificance when compared directly with real, capital sources of electricity generation.

Now, as we all know, there are difficulties with the carbon-intensity, filth and pollution associated with coal generation (best, easiest, cheapest possible source of electricity though it is). No one would seriously suggest that we build additional coal capacity at this time. Moreover, we don't want to have to import our coal power source across the Atlantic from South America where it is dug by child-slave labour, and the profits from which prop up criminal gangs and repressive political regimes. Or do we? It might be our only choice, peak coal isn't due until about 2060.

The picture with gas is not much better. We still have some domestic gas supplies left in our sector of the North Sea, but not much. In 1999 we became a nett gas importer, dependent upon Norwegian and Russian gas. Russia has lots of gas (peak due 2030), but is a capricious and grasping supplier. We also import liquified natural gas from Quatar. We compete in auctions with other western countries to secure these supplies. Some suggest we pay a higher geopoltical price than is justified.

What about nuclear? While the UK has a virtual infinitude of uranium and plutonium, there are political difficulties associated with nuclear power stations, and the Scottish Govt. has ruled out building any new capacity. In any case, it takes about 10 years to build a new station from scratch.

In Aberdeen, we are said to be the 'Energy Hub' for new marine renewable technology. Here at Other Aberdeen we so dearly wish that that truly were the case. There is said to be 'great promise' for these new techologies. But 'promise' is all that it is, no-one really knows, because commercial scale wave and tidal plants offshore have not yet been demonstrated. They remain, at present 'unobtanium', that is - in the realm of wishful thinking. Optimistically, we might be able to develop a demonstration plant in the next 5 years or so, and move to commercial hookup within 15 years. But compared with the sheer grunt avaialbe from premier sources like coal, gas or nukes, it's very much a 'sunday league' contender. For instance, the Severn Barrage study concluded that the most capital-intense mega-engineered barrage possible between Cardiff and Weston would produce about the same amount of electricity as one coal fired or nuclear station. And that's the best possible location for a tidal barrage in the whole wide world.

Where does that leave us? It leaves us staring into a big hole and cursing the Scottish Government for ruling out nuclear power, that's where. We are in the bottleneck now, and we have painted ourselves into a corner (please excuse the mixed metaphor). But all this discussion is moot, it's already too late to build new nuclear stations, (worldwide, the heavy forging capacity needed to manufacture reactor pressure-vessels simply is not up to demand from even India and the Far East over the next 25 years) and renewables simply aren't up to the job of sustaining our lifestyles in their current state in the face of the onrushing generating gap and fossil-fuel bottleneck.

Wind power may soften the blow to our lifestyles to some small extent. Something is better than nothing. Regrettably, there's no alternative.

The emotionally charged invective we see so often from anti-windpower campaigners is simply the very first sign of the bridle beginning to chafe as it is placed around our collective neck. There's a lot more to come. The wind turbines are the visible harbinger of this stricture which we'll live under throughout all our tomorrows. That's the only reason why people hate them - they want to shoot the messenger.


Julie said...

When we are sitting under a cold & frosty high pressure come winter and the turbines are not turning because there is no wind, what use is wind power then?

Other Aberdeen said...

Indeed, Julie. But no-one is suggesting that wind power should be our only source of electricity, are they?

Let's be clear. There is *no way* that any renewable resource currently available or in development can support anything like the levels of electricity consumption we currently enjoy. We've already said this.

Rather, the questions we should be asking are:

What use is Boddam (gas) should gas prove too expensive in monetary or political terms?

And what use will Longannet be, when its coal is mined by Columbian child-slaves and the cost of carbon credits renders its electricity affordable only by the super-rich?

And what use will nuclear power be when we shall have no new stations because of the irrational fears of the electorate.

And what use is deepwater wind or tidal power, when they don't yet exist on commercial scales? What will those 'commercial' scales be? Will they even approach the output levels of a coal station? Unfortunately, that's not possible.

Anonymous said...

We ended up taking a drive up to the wind farm purely by chance earlier in the year as it turns out my Dad used to live on the farm when he was just a lad.