TechTalk: Criticism can be healthy, but stick to the facts

A recent article in scientific journal Nature on the rapidly melting Arctic warned of an "economic time bomb" in a region that is pivotal to the functioning of the earth's systems, including oceans and the climate.

The authors of "Vast cost of Arctic change" suggest that accelerated release of methane — a powerful greenhouse gas — from thawing permafrost beneath Russia's East Siberian Sea alone comes with a global price tag of around $60 trillion. This figure - close to the size of the world economy's at $70 trillion in 2012 — is beyond imagination, but the actual total costs of climate change triggered by the melting Arctic are much higher, the scientists warned.

The "methane pulse" contributes to faster advancing global mean temperatures, feared to be rising above what is considered a dangerous, unstable +2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Some direct effects expected from accelerated climate change are more frequent extreme weather occurrences, poorer health and lower agricultural production, largely borne by developing countries. A predicted time scale between 15 and 35 years depends on the extent and effectiveness of mitigating actions.

This gloomy forecast contrasts sharply with mainstream economic discussions assuming that opening up the Arctic region will show largely beneficial effects. These include an expected exploration opportunity for 30% of the world's undiscovered gas and 13% of its oil, while new polar shipping routes could open up increased regional trade. In the short term, oil and gas, mining and the shipping industries could become the biggest drivers and beneficiaries of Arctic economic development. Based on current trends, expected cumulative investments in the "high-risk-high-reward" Arctic environment over the next decade could reach $100 billion or more. However, this potential gain is dwarfed by anticipated climate-change related costs.

It is not hard to see parallels between the highly complex Arctic situation and ongoing resistance to the spread of wind power. Arctic oil-and-gas-exploration proponents and wind critics share a single focus on the short term while failing to consider a wider scope and the real longer-term interests at stake.

This summer a Dutch emeritus physics professor criticised a newspaper letter to the editor that was positive about wind energy and described wind turbines as landscape art, arguing that local wind potential is grossly overestimated and inferior to solar.Photovoltaic modules could generate more than 100kWh annually per square metre, he said, set against a maximum 20kWh per square metre for wind power, given that turbines need to be placed far apart.Against nuclear power, the physicist claimed that around 1,500 turbines, each with an 80-metre rotor diameter, would be needed to match the output of a single nuclear plant.

However, despite the professor's claim to be free of any bias and reliance on verifiable facts, a definition of essential variables and system boundaries was absent in his wind versus solar and nuclear comparisons. Ignoring such fundamentals allows preferred outcomes and conclusions for any comparative calculation.

Key considerations

Missing wind system variables were turbine size, hub height, average wind speed, turbine interspacing, and specific power rating (W/m2). Missing system boundaries were wind farm size and layout. If, for instance larger wind turbines are put in single lines it allows efficient land use and can often be combined with existing infrastructure such as canals or roads. With such optimised line arrangements, the generating potential for turbines can easily go up to around 160kWh/m2 and more, eight times higher than the maximum suggested above. Such favourable figures do not include the fact that a wind turbine's physical footprint is largely limited to foundations and access roads, which together only account for a few percent of total land area. This, in turn, offers expanded dual land use options through combining wind turbines with livestock and/or growing crops.

I am convinced that there is no such a thing as one ultimate renewable-energy solution for everything. Given the huge challenges to meet even minimal renewable and sustainability objectives, all available and feasible clean energy and efficiency-enhancing alternatives, including wind, must be utilised.

The right to criticise is of great value in this discussion. But critics attempting to discredit wind power by presenting false economics can be unprofessional as well as annoying. If respected academics exploit their independent academic statue for similar purposes, this is worse as they purposely ignore the scientific principles and standards they normally cherish.

Eize de Vries is Windpower Monthly's technology and market trends consultant

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