Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Eco-Modernism's Omission

In some ways, spending most of my existence advocating for the construction of a relatively small number of wind turbines and solar farms (on a global scale, anyway) is nice. I don't think we ought to take an axe to existing power stations (not yet, anyway), nor do I spend my days proclaiming that current wind and solar technology can power the entire universe (not without other things, anyway).

Still, we need to think about what happens once we've won (we will) the battle to see a percentage of Australian energy demand met by readily deployable zero-carbon machines. The 'Eco-Modernist' manifesto (not the kitchen people) outlines a philosophical super-structure they hope might support this next step:

"We affirm one long-standing environmental ideal, that humanity must shrink its impacts on the environment to make more room for nature, while we reject another, that human societies must harmonize with nature to avoid economic and ecological collapse"

Things are getting a little intense


The authors nominate nuclear power as the ideal technology for a zero-carbon future. Their justification follows: 

"Transitioning to a world powered by zero-carbon energy sources will require energy technologies that are power dense and capable of scaling to many tens of terawatts to power a growing human economy. 
Most forms of renewable energy are, unfortunately, incapable of doing so. The scale of land use and other environmental impacts necessary to power the world on biofuels or many other renewables are such that we doubt they provide a sound pathway to a zero-carbon low-footprint future"

This is familiar, to me. The land usage of wind energy seems to be a favourite of nuclear power advocates - the idea that wind and solar energy shouldn't exist, should exist less or should be limited in their existence, because they chew up more units of land, per MWh of energy output.

The graphic below, made by the UK DECC, comes up a lot. Like, a lot


It's weird: the calculations assume that each wind turbine has a diameter of ~624 metres (as I calculated here).

The Eco-Modernist Manifesto doesn't cite any figures, but the general principle of energy intensity seems to be something that will drive people to accept weird and wild assumptions - such as the assumption that any spot of ground within a polygonal distribution around a wind farm is utterly unusable (it's farmland. You can use it for farmy things).

A wind farm in the Netherlands failing to obey the infographic's weird maths

A Microsoft Paint illustration of what's going on. Here's what they say can't be used, due to the presence of a wind farm:



And here's what's actually unsuable, due to the presence of a wind farm:


The focus on 'energy density' in the manifesto reminds me immediately of this whole boundary-vs-pad-diameter issue. The idea has merit, but clinging to it too feverishly has its downfalls. Wind farms don't get treated fairly, for instance. Query the miscalculation, and it's defended. There's some motivator behind this, and I suspect it's driven by an intense focus on intensity.

Where yo wind farms at? 



The document doesn't mention wind power. It doesn't mention a raft of other technologies, but..it does mention solar power, following on from the previous quote above:

"High-efficiency solar cells produced from earth-abundant materials are an exception and have the potential to provide many tens of terawatts on a few percent of the Earth’s surface. Present-day solar technologies will require substantial innovation to meet this standard and the development of cheap energy storage technologies that are capable of dealing with highly variable energy generation at large scales."

That renewable technologies are dismissed as 'incapable', with the pointed exception of solar, strongly suggests wind power was left out with conscious intent. The authors insist this isn't the case, and one of the authors of the document, Mike Shellenberger, took the time to expand on this:








I get his point. But if I were sitting atop a keyboard with a draft of this document plastered on my screen, I'd dedicate some serious words to outlining the importance of existing and readily-deployable energy technologies, and explain why the technology I advocate for serves as a benefit to these other things.

Without that, it just looks like a list of reasons why we should build more nuclear power stations, rather than a list of reasons why we should decarbonise our energy mix.

The authors are faced with a tricky conundrum, here. In discussing renewables, they have to choose between triggering the adrenal glands of those who really like renewable energy (like me), or triggering the adrenal glands of those who truly hate renewable energy (like this weird dude).

They've seemingly opted for neither here, not digging in to the benefits and shortfalls of current technology, but focusing solely on their stated necessity of nuclear technology.

I'm fond of technological solutions to big, horrible, weird, terrible problems. Wind and solar are well-loved by the public (mostly sort of), as long as they're built with community engagement and ownership at the forefront of developer's minds. They rely on fuels that vary in availability over time, but this means only that we can't replace the entire grid with them - it doesn't mean we can replace some energy output with them. Better yet, we can do this right now. You can't replace the world's energy technology with nuclear, either. It feels weird that this manifesto - a call for technological prowess being deployed through an unforgiving dedication to natural protection, basically excludes these technologies from mention, let alone both mentioning them and advocating for their urgent deployment.

Some nice people at the Energy Collective outline this quite well:

"Indeed, for a group of authors who have oft-decried “energy technology tribalism” and chastised those who omit nuclear energy from their vision of a low-carbon future, it is striking to see wind and “other renewables” cast aside in this otherwise expansive vision of the future"

You should read it. They're on-point (random side note - I got in to a late-night Twitter argument with one of the authors late one night because I'd just ingested an inhuman quantity of flu medication and I was trying to distract myself from writing.....sorry, Robert, I reckon you're alright, don't take anything Codeine-Ketan says for granted, hey).

I'd take it a step further than the Energy Collective people. By pointedly excluding wind power, and by 'incapable'ing' the entire span of renewable energy technology, they've alienated a rather large chunk of people who would have otherwise been keenly receptive to their message.

Drop the hate


There's still a sizable faction of nuclear power supporters who truly hate renewable energy. I've learned to recognise the difference between a level-headed assertion, and an assertion born of fury and disgust and animosity that's been held for too long.

I feel that sometimes, this is driven not by their view that renewable energy is insufficient for worldwide, rapid decarbonisation, but by a visceral loathing for 'traditional' environmentalists: essentially, the green movement. The Eco-Modernist Manifesto isn't really part of this world. It's more linked to people who are actually quite nice, and who are either a little skeptical of renewables, or genuine supporters. But I'm not sure we can consider one world without the other.

You can't ignore these nuclear-supporting renewable-loathers. Tweet about a wind turbine and you're suddenly sodden with a torrent of tweeps screaming THORIUM at you.

Dennis Jensen, a West-Australian senator, supports nuclear power and thinks denying climate science is the same as being Albert Einstein. Senator Sean Edwards is a vocal advocate for nuclear power in SA, but also thinks the wind industry ought to cease to exist. Patrick Moore supports nuclear, and also thinks carbon dioxide is plant food. A broad selection of nuclear advocates on Twitter dedicate most of their time to propagating weird myths about renewable energy. It's not a representative sample, but it's a noticeable one.



I enjoy my self-contained rectangle of advocacy. I think we can built more wind and solar projects in Australia, and swipe a big chunk out of our emissions. In doing this, I draw the ire of a bunch of really very angry nuclear advocates, despite the fact I'm not really talking about nuclear power when I advocate for this. Despite my very enjoyable interactions with nuclear advocates who seem to be great people, I'm also faced with a sizable quantity of humans who really, really hate renewable energy.

Angry tweets about wind farms aren't in the manifesto, and they shouldn't be. But if the manifesto took a slightly more bullish approach to supporting the short-term deployment of whatever cost-effective technology we have to decarbonise right now, would it tame the passions of this second, angrier crowd? Maybe.

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I think there's a lot to be said about the fact the manifesto creates criteria to which nuclear power is the only answer, despite the fact global decarbonisation will necessitate a mix of technologies. If it was a 'nuclear power manifesto', sure, you don't need to mention other stuff. But it's a decarbonisation manifesto, so the omission of other technology is significant.

It suggests the balance needs to be tweaked, if their goal really is a globe on which people use lots of clean energy.


Update 22/04/2015 14:48 - I forgot to mention, Australia has lots of land; great for zero-carbon energy sources that are less intense, but well-supported by the public, and by businesses.....

5 comments:

  1. And not to mention offshore wind that actually improve marine ecosystems - how much LAND they take?

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  2. Each turbine requires massive excavation for tonnes of concrete and steel foundations. Each one must be connected to a grid of cables. It's not like they just arrive from heaven, and all this adds to the ecological impact. Of course if we had infinite areas of windy farmland, but much of the best suited land on the East coast of Australia is heavily inhabited, so it's not ever going to be used for large scale wind. If you look at the land mass required to replace even half the thermal plant in Australia, given the capacity factor of wind is around 30%, it is simply enormous, and the inputs colossal.

    What nuclear proponents argue is that the energy inputs to build nuclear for the energy returned is vastly higher than either wind or solar. It's hard to argue against this: a 50-60yr lifetime @ over 90% capacity factor versus a 25yr lifetime at 30% capacity factor.

    Wind turbines have their place, but integrating more and more intermittent sources of non-synchronous generators has limits.

    The argument is not that wind has no place, but it is not ever going to reduce our need for fossil fuels enough to make the significant cuts we need. If our electricity in Australia produces near 900g of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour, and France has produced 70g for three decades, then we need to realise the scale of what is needed cannot be achieved with wind or solar alone.

    We need to reduce emissions by over 90%, and none of the proposals for massive expenditure on renewables comes anywhere even close to that many many decades out.

    So, we've got a climate emergency or we haven't? If we have, wind ain't ever going to fix it.

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    Replies
    1. Hello Chrispy Dog,

      I don't argue in this piece that wind should be the only technology deployed to combat carbon emissions. If I'm mistaken, can you point out where I said that?

      Thanks,
      Ketan

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    2. It seems to me that your approach is to take every criticism of the severe limitations of wind generation on a large scale and try to prove it's some kind of denialism.

      I understand your attachment to your employer's business model, which is to build uneconomic generators which attract huge subsidies to ensure their profit, but are you deluding yourself that you don't actually give out the impression constantly that wind energy will be a big part of solving emissions problems?

      It's arguable that they can't be, that their footprint, both physical and in EROI terms make scaling them up to significant proportions of the grid very problematic, but you never quite seem to be telling this side of the story.

      It's your job. I get that.

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