Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Something in the Air

There is a proposal to plant a wind farm just up the road in the Lot. I would not be surprised to learn that the Tarn et Garonne is being surveyed for something similar. It seems that having seen off high-tension power lines a few years ago; maybe having done away with fracking; and probably getting a local prison, our quiet corner of France is about to generate a quantity of emotional energy discussing the pros and cons of wind farms. 

These discussions tend to cover a wide range of related topics like comparative methods of generation, safety and security of nuclear waste, fossil fuels and global warming, security of supply of imported fuels, dead birds, noise and being decapitated by 20m razor sharp blades breaking off in high winds and flying into densely populated areas. Discussions are not always conducted with the accuracy and attention to detail that the topic deserves. 

Elegant generators of clean power...

...or death-dealing killing machines.

Somewhere in all this the wind turbine debate loses focus. This blog is an attempt to try and find one.

There seem to be three main thrusts of the debate, aesthetics, environmental issues and economics. Aesthetics are, I contend, a personal matter and not subject to anything as grubby as facts. There is something glorious about  great swathes of countryside untouched by the modern world. But to my shame I also find something attractive about a railway winding its elegant curves through the very same countryside, crossing valleys on splendid viaducts and avoiding hills through cuttings and tunnels. Nor do I find wind turbines as offensive as pylons or McDonald’s. It’s difficult to argue either side of the aesthetic debate convincingly when I don’t even agree with myself….

It could be worse, but I'm not sure how.
The environmental issue is surely a balancing act, after all the whole raison d’ĂȘtre of the things is to save the environment. The question is whether the environmental benefits are worth the environmental price. This is a matter which can be put off for a paragraph or two as we may not even need to go there. 

Which brings us neatly to economics. Do wind turbines make any economic sense? If all the costs of wind farms can be established, a cost benefit analysis would be quite straightforward. If it is unanimously agreed that wind farms are not economical the debate can, and will, end there. But if it can be clearly demonstrated that the things are an economical way to make electricity then the other aesthetic and environmental considerations come centre stage.

Wind Farm or 100% Guaranteed Olympic Sailing Venue?

Funnily enough, the cost is probably the easiest element to be objective about, but after thousands of turbines have been built, there still appears to no general agreement as to whether they are economically viable. 

There are two financial elephants in the room, and they are both asking questions:

1. Are there more economical ways of generating the same amount of power?


2. Who stands to make how much from the construction of wind farms?  

The questions should not really be posed in that order as the answer to the second affects the answer to the first. No private company is going to invest in the building and maintenance of the infrastructure unless it includes an acceptable element of profit. This will affect the cost of the power produced and thus the overall economic viability of wind power. If there is not enough profit the things will not be built by private investors. No government is likely to stump up the cash on a non-profit basis in today’s economic climate of cutting back on social spending and generally telling everyone there is no money. Also, sometime within the timeframe of a wind farm development, there will be an election on the horizon. So that’s a nationalised wind farm blown out of the water. 

The obvious sub-question then is what is an acceptable level of profit for private investors?

This leads to the question of the financial structures behind the energy companies’ deals with government; or, in local French terms, the government’s deals with the Department du Lot; or the Lot’s deal with the Cantons where the wind farms may be built; or the Cantons’ deals with the various Mairies? And the myriad other possible combinations of financial and political arrangements about which mere mortals can only speculate. Personally I would not trust most of them to boil an egg, let alone be transparent about their dealings.

There is not so much wrong with a bit of profit, but the gaz de schiste issue exposed the principal interests of our local licensee as raw greed. It also exposed the damage they were prepared to wreak in order to satisfy their avarice. The jury is still out about the governments motives for sneakily granting the gaz licenses in the first place. Whatever, it will take a considerable degree of transparency to persuade local residents that the same sort of dispicable motives does not lie behind any wind farm proposal.

It always seemed sensible to me that the best way to make a robust case is to argue it with more fact than emotion. Arguing a case with a modicum of emotion can lend your position a degree of passion and conviction, but relying on it exclusively, and refusing to look at the maths will do little to convert the heathen. Therefore, surely, the best debating ground is one where established fact, seasoned with ideological fervour to taste, can be used – and I reckon this has to be the economic case.

As mentioned above, the problem that seems to causes the log jam is an inability to establish the true cost of wind farm generated power, and thus their economic viability, especially compared with the alternatives.

I may not be able to deconstruct the financial deals, and will happily leave that to others better versed in these disciplines. But I should be able to understand the underlying practicalities and apply some comparative logic to decide if wind generated power is an economical option. Indeed we all should be able to have this discussion based on facts rather than the vague and unsubstantiated opinion which seems to have dominated the debates I have heard so far. If wind power can be economical then we can all move onto the other aspects such as aesthetics and the environment. If not we can just move on to the next item on the agenda of life.

And guess what? I have a proposal for establishing some facts – not all the facts, granted, but we have to start somewhere. Read a book. Jane Austen tells a good tale but is a little out of touch with modern-day energy supply and demand. JK Rowling is guaranteed to get a massive readership but is unlikely to thrive in an atmosphere where magic is considered close to cheating. Jeffery Deaver is clever but a brain-chillingly dull read. [That’s enough. _ Ed.]

The book I propose as required reading is David MacKay’s Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air

It is a dispassionate attempt  to discover if it would be possible to maintain an acceptable lifestyle based on renewable energy. It does this by reducing the options to meaningful numbers, rather than vague, emotive adjectives - and it does it in plain English. 

Probably the most attractive aspect of the book is that it applies a common unit to the various ways we generate and consume power. The ‘power per person, per day’ unit makes it easy to visualise the output of various generation sources and our power usage at a human scale - and more importantly it allows us to compare alternatives. Among other things it allows us to make a direct comparison between different methods of generating power. 

More importantly it allows us to do what our American cousins insist on calling 'cool stuff', like comparing the power used by a phone charger left plugged in when we are not using it, and running a car. It turns out that the energy used in leaving the charger plugged in and unused for a year is the equivalent to running your car for a second. This may support your view that chargers should not be left on when not in use or confirm your view that the energy saved is so small your efforts would be better employed elsewhere. Even with the admitted inaccuracies (type of phone charger, size of car, travelling or idling, petrol or diesel etc.) it is probably the nearest we are going to get to a 'fact' to argue that particular case. A ‘fact’ of this sort, one that we can all relate to, can change the conversation from the cul-de-sac of dogma to the open road of imagination, in this case ways to knock the odd second of car use, which must be a step in the right direction.

I am aware that promoting a single treatise on an important topic can be dangerous. We have all witnessed the results of obsessed bigots who wave their chosen tome as justification of their fallacious arguments. It is possible to place too much faith in a single source be it a holy tract, political manifesto, diet book or Wikipedia. But try as I might (and I have tried) I cannot find a bad review of this book. The nearest I found was a specialist who argued some of the minutiae of his specialism. And even he said that his were “minor comments.” adding  “On the whole, this book is an impressive intellectual achievement.” There may be some really bad reviews but I can’t find any.

Go on, read it, I dare you. It may not agree with your preconceptions, but then again it might. And it will give you some facts to argue with.

You can download a 10 page synopsis from:

The whole 2 part book is a free download from:

Or, if you prefer to cuddle up with a real book it is available from all good book stores (and Amazon)

So, that's some of the facts sorted, all I have to do now is decide what I think about the aesthetics of wind turbines, if there is a more efficient way of slicing a goose…

…and the proposal for a Tesco superstore in the Grotte de Roland.

NOTE: For balance, the least-good review I could find is here:

If you find any bad review, share them in the comments box below.

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