February 26, 2013
By Matt Palmer
Woody Allen once said, “Time is natures way of keeping everything from happening at once.” Wouldn’t it be amazing if we knew everything at the same time, that the answers to our biggest problems presented themselves in ways that made them seem, well, obvious. Are we in this situation now with regards to the grand energy challenges before us? The world still needs oil so for many building oil sands operations seems obvious, while for others the obvious thing is building a lot more wind farms.
For the past many years, the dominant narrative about energy said that fossil fuels are dirty and alternative energy sources like wind, solar, hydro, are clean and perhaps benign. (this used to be a standard line) But life is never so simple. Energy sources like oil absolutely have negative impacts (social, environmental, political, economic), but to only focus on the negative fails to credit the tremendous good that has resulted from our ability to harness energy and by-products (i.e. like petrochemicals) that are the building blocks for our modern global society. Quickly take a moment and plan out what you could do this weekend that would in absolutely no way have anything to do with oil or fossil fuels. (Did you end up naked in a forest foraging for berries?)
Conversely, to see alternative energy sources like wind and solar as solutions without negative environmental impacts (or social, political, economic) belies that the natural world exists in a state of yin and yang: for every action introduced into a system there is a reaction.
The following article, “Wind Farms Will Create More Carbon Dioxide” reveals research calling into question a major component of Scotland’s strategy to convert a large portion of their electrical grid to wind energy by building wind farms on non-degraded peatlands. The research suggests that the infrastructure required to build on these peatlands, like roads, along with the permanent siting of the turbines destroys the peatlands ability to absorb CO2.
“The world’s peatlands have four times the amount of carbon than all the world’s rainforests. But they are a Cinderella habitat, completely invisible to decision- makers.”
One typical large peat site just approved in southern Scotland, the Kilgallioch wind farm, includes 43 miles of roads and tracks. Peat only retains its carbon if it is moist, but the roads and tracks block the passage of the water.
The research was commissioned by the Scottish government, a big wind supporter, so the results came as a surprise.
Even the initial version of the calculator found that the carbon cost of a badly sited peat wind farm — on a sloping site, resulting in more drainage of the peat, and without restoration afterwards — was so high that it would take 23 years before it provided any CO2 benefit. The typical life of a wind farm is only 25 years.
The researchers initially believed that well-managed and well-sited peatland wind farms could still cut greenhouse gas emissions, over time, compared to electricity generation overall.
But now they say that the shrinking use of fossil fuels in overall electricity generation has changed the equation, making the comparison less favourable to all peatland wind farms.
When I posted this link on Facebook, a friend reposted and someone on their feed commented that the report was BS and likely has influenced by fossil fuel addicts. It should not come as a surprise that the industrialization of energy, harnessing even clean sources like wind and solar, is going to create some negative environmental impacts. We cannot afford to ignore realities of energy production, distribution, and consumption, no matter what the source, or to ensure that tough questions are being asked, and that foresight is employed in the planning of new energy systems. In this case, the research suggests it is bad policy to build wind farms on peatlands.
The energy challenge before us is ripe with potential potholes ready to surprise us, and throw us off course. After all, it’s not like 150 years ago when oil was discovered that anyone considered the future impacts of harnessing the power within oil. How can we make better choices, smarter plans that will ensure more of the world’s 7 billion people have access to affordable, reliable energy?
No matter what choices we make, we will have to deal with the costs. This is true whether we choose oil sands, shale gas, coal, wind, solar, nuclear, geothermal, or biomass. Over the coming decades, all of these energy choices will have a place in the mix, and hopefully, new technologies will make the harnessing of each source cleaner, more sustainable, more efficient, and be able to mitigate some of the unintended consequences.
So we cannot let the blowback against different energy sources, like building wind farms on peatlands, lessen our resolve to make the technologies better, or find better locations for these industrial projects. What can we learn from our mistakes and inspire continuous improvement?