Gone With the Wind

Scarlett dreams of a future when Tara will be lit with cheap, reliable sparks –
instead of candles and kero lamps. Oh, to dream.


Gone with the wind farm
Australian Financial Review
Paul Comrie-Thomson
4 October 2013

One thousand new wind turbines a week or 52,000 a year would be needed just to keep pace with India and China’s coal burn.

So, where to now in the climate debate?

Dieter Helm, CBE, is eminently qualified to write about climate policy but seriously challenges current climate thinking.  Consider his background.  A professor of energy policy, University of Oxford, and fellow in economics at New College, Oxford, he is also a member of the economic advisory committee to the British Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, and chair of the natural capital committee.

Helm was also a special adviser to the European Energy Commissioner.

He is unequivocal that global warming is a serious problem.  He advocates a carbon tax.

But in his 2012 publication The Carbon Crunch Helm details how the global chatter on climate over the past decade has refused to acknowledge three basic facts: the immensity of China’s (and India’s) coal-burning, the inadequacy of all current renewable technologies, and Europe’s refusal to accept its increasing carbon consumption.

First to China, where more than a quarter of the world’s coal-fired stations are found.  Helm estimates Chinese expansion plans for the rest of the decade will bring two coal-fired power plants on stream every week.  And India is likely to add at least one new power station a week over the same period.

Three coal-fired plants a week; this, says Dieter Helm, is the reality about coal that climate policy can no longer deny.

Fiddling while coal burns

While coal burns, Europe just fiddles about.  The Europeans trumpet their initiatives on wind power.  But the stark reality, says Helm, is that it would require 1000 new wind turbines a week or 52,000 a year just to keep pace with India and China’s coal burn.

Add to this number the sheer scale of the land that current wind technology requires. Here is one estimate – on offshore wind capacity – from David MacKay, chief scientific adviser to the British Department of Energy and Climate Change.

Consider a strip of turbines four kilometres wide put all the way around the 3000-kilometre coastline of Britain.  It would look awesome but wouldn’t do the job because those thousands of square kilometres of turbines would deliver only 16 kilowatt-hours a day per person. (In simple language, this equates to less than half the energy used by the average car driver each day.)

European rhetoric denies this reality.  Furthermore, says Helm, Europe’s claim to be “cutting emissions” is false.  “Once imports of carbon-intensive goods from countries like China are taken into account, Europe’s carbon consumption is going up.”

Connie Hedegaard, the European Commissioner for Climate Action, claims that between 1990 and 2005 carbon emissions in Europe had fallen by 16 per cent while economic growth was 40 per cent and therefore “it is perfectly possible to cut emissions while growing the economy”.

Changing to gas

But, says Dieter Helm, “this is all smoke and mirrors.  No mention of the consumer-driven nature of the growth.  No mention of all the carbon imports which fed that consumption.”

Europe, he concludes, is in denial about carbon consumption that is the importing of carbon emissions. Furthermore, “None of the existing technologies, save perhaps nuclear, has the capacity to provide a substantive impact on emissions to make decarbonisation a realisable objective.”

The carbon problem, he says, will not be crunched with what is available.

So, if we are serious about taking precautionary insurance against a possible catastrophe, Helm recommends a carbon tax and a carbon border tax which, he says, will drive the development of new technologies and, in the interim, encourage a transition from coal to gas because, “Gas for electricity generation turns out to be about half as polluting as coal.”

Robert Bryce, of Austin, Texas, would agree. The author of four books on the politics of energy, he says, “I come from the liberal left but when it comes to energy, I’m a liberal who got mugged by the laws of thermodynamics”. In his book Power Hungry, he proposes N2N – natural gas to nuclear – as the fuels of the future.

Super-battery power

Like Helm he is dismissive of current “green” technologies. But he has a tantalising suggestion about solar power.

“The problem with solar power is that it is intermittent.  We need a large-scale, compact, affordable battery system that can store large amounts of electricity.

“So I propose the super-battery prize: ten billion dollars to any outfit that can come up with a super-battery that is compact, affordable and safe [and] that can store multiple megawatt-hours of electricity.”

“It would be a game-changer. The super-battery is the silver bullet.”

He would get no argument from Bjorn Lomborg.  In his book Cool It, Lomborg argues we have to find a way to make green energy so cheap everyone will want to use it.  And right now we could get all of the world’s energy from solar cells taking up very little space (the equivalent of 2.6 per cent of the area of the Sahara).  We don’t, however, because it is horrendously expensive.

But, Lomborg argues, solar could be cost-competitive by 2050.  What is needed is a commitment of 0.05 per cent of world gross domestic product to research non-carbon-emitting technologies, with everything on the table: renewables, nuclear energy, fusion, carbon storage, conservation and “searching for new and more exotic opportunities”.

Reasons for optimism

French writer and philosopher Pascal Bruckner welcomes exotic opportunities but warns there is an ideological (or should we say “religious”) impediment to such a search.

He cites Emile  by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “Man, seek no longer the cause of the evil; you yourself are the cause. There is no evil other than the evil you do or suffer, and both of them come from you.”

To which Bruckner replies, au contraire, “We may be at the dawn of an unheard-of revival of architecture, building construction, industry and agriculture (here we might mention, more or less at random, the invention of solar-powered ships and aeroplanes, solar-thermal power stations, small submarine nuclear power stations) etc.”

Such a rhetorical flourish should be invigorating, unless you assume that humanity can change climate negatively by the use of fossil fuels but cannot potentially change climate positively with new technology.

This denial of possible futures is not a scientific hypothesis.  It is a statement of faith for those who revel in the exquisite agony of the Apocalypse.  But if we reject feeling good about feeling bad, Helm asks us to imagine what might be out there after the transition to gas.

“The good news is that there is every reason to believe that major technology trends in communication, batteries, electrification of transport and new generation technologies will probably transform both the demand and supply sides of the energy markets and provide low-carbon options.”

But to achieve this we have to cease being blinded by the rhetoric about the capacity of current technology.

“Rather than devote so many scarce resources to things like offshore wind, it would be better to divert funds into R&D, and it is much better to do this on an international scale.”

So we have a choice.  We can follow the lead of Yvo de Boer, the former United Nations chief climate negotiator, who said before the release of the latest IPCC report, “It is going to scare the wits out of everyone”.

Or we can affirm, “The old is gone, the new is here,” and get stuck into it.

Paul Comrie-Thomson is a former senior editor of   Rolling Stone magazine in Australia and former co-presenter of  Counterpoint on ABC radio. The Carbon Crunch – How we’re getting climate change wrong – and how to fix it, by Dieter Helm, Yale University Press, 2012. Power Hungry: the myths of green energy and the real fuels of the future, by Robert Bryce, Public Affairs Books, 2011. Cool It: the sceptical environmentalist’s guide to global warming, by Bjorn Lomborg, Marshall Cavendish, 2007. The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse, by Pascal Bruckner, Polity Press, 2013.
Australian Financial Review

STT notes a few key arguments in the piece above – points going to what Australia’s energy future might look like.

First, wind power doesn’t even register on the renewable future radar.  The authors quoted clearly have no time for wind power – but identify gas and/or nuclear power as the only realistic generation sources – if reducing CO2 emissions is what you’re after.

As STT followers are acutely aware, wind power was a technology that was redundant before it began.  It is delivered at crazy, random intervals – and over 100 times a year, it isn’t delivered at all.

That means the true cost of wind power must be taken to include the exorbitant costs of peaking power AND the INCREASE in CO2 emissions that results from using fast-start-up fossil fuel generation sources as back-up, including banks of diesel generators.

Next, the future of ANY intermittent power source – be it wind power or solar – is dependent on “blue sky” energy storage systems.  Currently, no such system exists.

That’s not to say that sometime in the next Century or so, a cost effective method of storing electricity might be found.  But don’t hold your breath.  The chances of such a development are right up there with perpetual motion machines and turning lead into gold.

In the meantime, transitioning to gas has appeal because it leads to roughly a 50% reduction in CO2 emissions compared with coal on a MW for MW basis.  However, that measure is based on using gas thermal (gas fired boilers) or Combined Cycle Gas Turbines – NOT the highly inefficient Open Cycle Gas Turbines being used in Australia and elsewhere.

OCGTs are used because they can be fired up in a heartbeat whenever wind watts go AWOL – which in Australia occurs over 100 times each year for hours and sometimes days at a stretch.

turbines, transmission and peaking power
Energy Australia’s OCGT peaking power plant at Hallett, SA. It fires up
100s of times each year when the fans next door take a well earned break.


The other point being made – and which provides a strong lesson for Australians – is that the European love affair with giant fans has been nothing more than an insanely expensive sop to greentard ideology.  It had nothing to do with sound energy policy, based on economic, or even environmental principles – it was nothing more than a political “fashion” statement.

The Germans have just woken up to the fact that wind power is intermittent and insanely expensive.  Some 800,000 German families have had their power supplies cut-off simply because they can no longer afford the crippling cost of power.  But the greatest insult is that – for all that suffering – German wind power has not only failed to reduce CO2 emissions – but – has INCREASED them.

What a debacle!  Frankly my dear, even the king of indifference, Rhett Butler – would surely give a damn.


4 thoughts on “Gone With the Wind

  1. Here in the UK – 60,000,000 people squashed into an area smaller than most Australian States – we are being overwhelmed with turbines/solar farms.. All we get is synthetic sympathy – the sort of ” I agree with what you say but……….” – from our MPs. The Cameron Government is pouring billions of our money into the almost wholly foreign owned renewable energy industry. And then it claims that utility companies are ripping off the UK taxpayer who cannot afford both heating and eating !

    England’s countryside has, until Cameron came along, been well protected from construction blight of most kinds. But no longer. Well other than the areas that Cameron and his posh wealthy Chums represent as MPs.

  2. I am certainly not a climate scientist or even an electrician, but I can sure take some MW figures and work out the supply and number of wind turbines it would take to make a difference to emissions in Victoria. I have been saying to deaf ears for 6-7 years that we do not have the wind/land available to hold the many thousands of wind turbines needed to reduce emissions. In that time I never had one letter published outlining the actual output around the world compared to the misleading capacity (perfect wind speed 24/7) that is always used by the wind weasels.

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