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The greenwash is beginning to peel

Image: Eddi

The amount of electricity we will be able to generate from wind power is going to be a lot less than we bargained for; and ironically, climate change is to blame.  That’s the conclusion of new research published in Nature Geoscience.

Wind strength in the northern hemisphere depends upon the steep temperature gradient between the warm air in the tropics and the freezing air in the Arctic. Climate change has been eroding that temperature gradient in recent years because the Arctic is experiencing the fastest warming.  By 2050, northern hemisphere wind strength will be 10 percent lower than today.  As the study’s lead author Kristopher Karnauskas from Colorado University Boulder explains:

“These decreases in North America occur primarily during the winter season, when those temperature gradients should be strong and drive strong winds…

“Europe is a big question mark.  We have no idea what we’ll see there. That’s almost scary, given that Europe is producing a lot of wind energy already.”

That 10 percent decline in wind strength may not sound like much, but the energy output of a modern turbine is the wind speed to the power of three.  So a 10 percent decline in wind speed translates into a 30 percent decline in power.

In the real world this means that much of the anticipated additional output from the latest – taller– offshore wind turbines (by far our most effective renewable energy technology) is not going to materialise.  Or, to put it another way, the already Herculean task of deploying sufficient wind turbines to replace fossil fuels just got 30 percent harder.

Nor is this the only flaw in the myth of the green future we were promised.  On the other side of the equation is the dramatic increase in demand for electricity required by our attempt to produce a low-carbon “fourth industrial revolution.”  We got a glimpse of this last week when mass media began to report on the electricity consumption of Bitcoin; and especially the blockchain system that underpins it.

Although some doubts have been raised about the method used to calculate Bitcoin’s energy consumption, the broad thrust of the coverage still stands.  As the number of transactions increase, so the energy consumption grows exponentially.  Even if Bitcoin is only using half the energy that has been claimed, that just means that it will require all of the world’s electricity in 2021 instead of 2020.

In any case, Bitcoin is a tiny speck on our energy landscape compared to the proposed “Internet of things” that includes everything from smart fridges to electric cars being added to the global energy and communications grids.

As with Bitcoin, most of the energy consumption of our growing (not so) “Smart grids” takes place out of sight.  This allows us to maintain the illusion of infinite growth without consequences.  But as a Guardian editorial explains:

“Global computing power demand from internet-connected devices, high resolution video streaming, emails, surveillance cameras and a new generation of smart TVs is increasing 20% a year…

“US researchers expect power consumption to triple in the next five years as one billion more people come online in developing countries, and the “internet of things” (IoT), driverless cars, robots, video surveillance and artificial intelligence grows exponentially in rich countries.

“’There will be 8.4bn connected things in 2017, setting the stage for 20.4bn internet of things devices to be deployed by 2020,’ says the leading internet analyst firm Gartner.”

The global communications infrastructure currently consumes 200-300 TWh per year.  If our voracious demand for connectivity continues this could rise to 3,000 TWh by 2025.  That is additional electricity that has to come from somewhere… and I don’t see many current users in a desperate hurry to stop consuming.

The reality, of course, is that energy has become Western societies’ Achilles’ heel.  Simply replacing the coal we currently consume with renewables like wind and solar is already beyond us – nobody who has the money to fund it is prepared to do so.  Meanwhile those renewables that are being deployed are not replacing anything because our demand for energy is accelerating faster than we can deploy renewables.  The result in the UK is that gas is the winner (for now) from the decline of coal.  Ironically, in Germany coal is the winner because renewables were deployed to replace nuclear.

The greenwash myth was that we could continue to grow our fossil fuel based global economy simply by swapping renewables for coal.  The reality is that continuing economic growth is incompatible with a low-carbon future.  Far from weaning us off fossil fuels, digitalisation and the fourth industrial revolution turn out to be even more energy-intensive than the third industrial revolution they purport to replace.  And if that wasn’t enough, it turns out that the renewable energy technologies that were meant to save the day will prove to be far less effective as a result of the climate change that they were supposed to offset.

It is entirely possible to operate a low-carbon economy powered solely by renewable energy.  That, after all, is what humans were doing for millennia.  And that’s the point.  Back in those days there were a lot less of us, we did far fewer things and we consumed a lot less.  Somewhere between that standard of living and the high point of global industrialism is where our actual fourth industrial revolution lies.  It will involve some new technologies because we are not about to unlearn them.  But it will also be very different, a lot less materialistic and physically harder than our current way of life.  That is just how it looks when you peel off the greenwash.

As you made it to the end…

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