October 2, 2004

Global warming and wind power

The primary argument of most advocates of wind power is that it will reduce the emission of "greenhouse" gases (particularly carbon dioxide (CO2)) that cause global warming. A few opponents of the proposed giant wind-power facilities therefore deny or diminish the possibility of a human contribution to climate change. There still remain the undeniable pollution from burning fossil fuels and the environmental and social costs of drilling and mining and transport, but it is global warming that is the crisis driving most support for industrial wind power. Every ill effect of wind-turbine installations is countered that it would be much worse if we let global warming continue. It is assumed to be unarguably obvious that wind power reduces CO2 and other emissions. They mock the argument that conservation and efficiency are much more effective. And anyone who denies global warming or our role in it is referred to the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Does the IPCC support wind power?

In the paper, "Summary for Policymakers. Climate Change 2001: Mitigation. A Report of Working Group III of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change," they state, "Hundreds of technologies and practices for end-use energy efficiency in buildings, transport and manufacturing industries account for more than half of this potential [greenhouse gas emission reductions in the 2010 to 2020 timeframe]" (p. 5).

In Table SPM.1 (p. 7), energy supply and conversion represent only 7%-19% of potential emission reductions by 2020. That category includes fuel switching to natural gas and nuclear, CO2 capture and storage, and improved power station efficiencies as well as renewables. Efficiency improvements in building, transport, and industry account for 51%-92%.

Tables from the full report show wind's small contribution: potentially mitigating 2.0%-4.3% of projected carbon emissions from electricity generation by 2020, or about 0.7%-1.4% of carbon from all energy use. Its actual contribution is projected to be much less, i.e., theoretically reducing atmospheric CO2 by less than 5 1,000ths of a percent.

That projected amount of wind power represents up to more than a million megawatts of installed capacity, more than 20 times the amount already connected (and causing trouble) worldwide. It also requires the construction of an equal amount of dedicated backup generators to cover the fluctuations of wind-generated power and hundreds of miles of new high-voltage transmission lines, particularly as the preferred sites for wind facilities are far from areas of high demand.

That's a lot of environmental destruction for almost nothing. The push for wind power is a distraction from seriously addressing the problems of our energy use.