I’ve recently been planting trees at a wind farm. Every morning, we’ve had to drive up a forestry road and top a large hill covered in hectare upon hectare of Sitka spruce. At the top of the hill, the spruce forest has been levelled and a giant construction project has taken place. Wind turbines twenty or thirty stories high spin with alarming speed.
Siemens headed the project, receiving the contract to build the turbines to be owned by Scottish and Southern Energy. The resulting moonscape, crisscrossed by individual access roads, reminds me of the areal shots I’ve seen of fracked well pads dotted all over the American and Australian landscapes. Twisted interconnected roads leading nowhere in a bizarre irregular grid pattern. I guess this is the signature of new and upcoming energy extraction projects: each productive unit, whether it be wind turbine or fracking well, is only nominally productive on it’s own when compared to industrial demand and ‘conventional’ power plant outputs.
Turbines only produce about 2 or 3 Mega Watts (MW) of electricity each. Drax, the Yorkshire coal power plant, the largest in Europe produces 3,960MW. You can easily see here that to get into meaningful production ranges you need thousands of these wind turbines. I calculated this hill to be about 7 miles wide taking roughly 30 minutes to drive through from one side to the other at the mandatory 15mph limit. I would estimate there were about 30 to 40 windmills that we could see and they were only on the very top in an area I would guess at about 2 miles wide.
These things were big. I looked up some typical volumes of material for windmills and found this (Imperial tons, not metric tonnes – about half a tonne or 500kg):
“In the GE 1.5-megawatt model, the nacelle alone weighs more than 56 tons, the blade assembly weighs more than 36 tons, and the tower itself weighs about 71 tons — a total weight of 164 tons.
The steel tower is anchored in a platform of more than 1,000 tons of concrete and steel rebar, 30 to 50 feet across and anywhere from 6 to 30 feet deep. Shafts are sometimes driven down farther to help anchor it. Mountain tops must be blasted to create a level area of at least 3 acres.”
This is a huge volume of material by any means. Certainly on the industrial scale. You would need about 88 wind turbines’ concrete bases to produce a chimney the size of Drax’s: 44,000 tonnes of concrete, 260m high.
Cement is made by first mining limestone, crushing it, mixing it with a bit of (mined) clay and then heating it to 1450 centigrade using a fossil fuel, crushing it again and mixing it with a bit of mined gypsum. The heating process is for the purpose of removing some of the carbonate, which comes out as carbon dioxide. Yey! Then you need to mix it with water and mined and crushed rock. There is another added carbon cost to consider: that of transporting all this stuff around the world from where it was produced to the point of use.
Steel is hardly any better. To make steel you need to first mine iron ore, get rid of the overburden (trees, soils, rivers and rock), smelt the ore, which means heat it to 1375 centigrade (to burn off carbon dioxide) and then, strangely, add 2% carbon. Again you have to transport all of this stuff around to processing plants and points of use and then finally melt it down and pour it into moulds for the final shape.
Therefore, the construction of thousands of these turbines has huge costs in terms of mining and carbon dioxide production. And all for only about 20 years of use. Have a look at these points on Wikipedia about mining. My least favourite part of them is the industry’s reduction of things like ecosystems, streams, rivers, forests and soil into one waste product called ‘overburden’, possibly followed by groundwater pollution with heavy metals.
These are the things going through my head as we drive through first mile upon mile of dense monocrop Sitka spruce and then through a brightly lit south facing moonscape, where the trees have been mulched, surrounded by tricorned monoliths. I am told that we are not allowed out of the car to take photos as a blade flew off one at the Whitelee wind farm near Glasgow – another Sitka haven. As if the car is going to give us any safety against a giant steel blade the radius of an acre in length?! We took photos anyway. Bugger the rules!
None of this makes any sense.
Industrial scale wind farms are just as damaging as industrial scale anything. How can we hope to mine thousands of tonnes of limestone, iron ore, coal and petroleum (for the transport of all this stuff), process all of the wastes, pollutants and overburden, and call it sustainable, every twenty years?
What are we doing when we arrive? We have 925 willow and juniper trees, 925 Sitka wood stakes and 925 light green plastic tubes complete with plastic zip ties. We are to descend through a Sitka plantation to a burn running down the hill side surrounded by Sitka. We’re to put them intermixed between 3500 other tubes containing a variety of native broadleaf trees. Great!
We plant Sitka at 2700 trees per hectare, averaging about 2000 trees per day for up to 8 months of the year. 4425 broadleaf trees vs. a block of Sitka some 7 miles across. There are so many deer in this Sitka that the broadleaves will have trouble growing to much height out of the tubes, never mind their offspring’s un-tubed chances. We have planted a dead forest. Once these trees are mature enough to pass away, all that will be left will be the plastic tubes.
None of this makes any sense.
Where are the wolves? Without a top predator, the ecosystem in Scotland is effectively dead, with no hope of natural regeneration of forest. This island is a dead island. Or at least, mortally wounded. These systems are already stressed, diminished and have no hope of becoming primary forest once again.
It must be noted that is natural, primary forest that provides the key ecosystem services upon which life depends. For example:
“Trees clean our atmosphere by intercepting airborne particles, and by absorbing ground-level ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and other greenhouse gases. A single tree can absorb 10 pounds of air pollutants a year, and produce nearly 260 pounds of oxygen- enough to support two people.
Forests provide natural filtration and storage systems that process nearly two-thirds of the water supply in the United States. In their natural and healthy state, riparian forests help to keep the water in streams clear. When you drink a glass of tap water in a New York City restaurant, you’re drinking water that was filtered largely by the forests of upstate New York.”
There must be a better way to exist that to be both pumping the environment full of pollutants, for a wee bit of phone charge, and simultaneously irreversibly stymying our forests’ future. It is forests, not renewables, that represent our best hope for cleaning up the present mess.
I must say here that while it is hard to deny that windmills are certainly far less polluting than coal or nuclear, any arguments for them will inherently accept the premise that electricity must be generated. This forms part of the wider premise that industrial civilization must continue. It is industrial civilization that is the cause of global warming, not to mention the gross inequalities which allowed the 2008 banking crisis and following austerity, the 26 wars the UK was involved in since WWII and up to 350 chemicals found in breast milk. Surely the premise that it must continue is due for review?
Anyway, we could do a lot, given custodian of the land. A lot better than the current profit idiots. There’s a lot you can do on one acre. But that is if you are still fighting over the specs of land available to the average middle class Joe, of which there are, apparently, 1.8 billion on Earth, mostly in Europe, Asia and North America. These people could go for this 1 acre self sufficiency right now under the current rule. Have a look at this plot. Save your pennies middle classers!
Imagine 1.8 billion people planting fruit trees, fire wood trees, keeping milking cows and entering giant vegetable competitions with each other! Imagine the diversity of plants they would grow. After 10 years, each of their patches would have soil more complex and fertile than any artificially fertilised soil. Their work would be easy after this time and they could diversify their activities with all that free time on their hands. Think of the carbon sequestered in that soil!
I know this is a silly example that cuts out the many, many poorer than middle class on Earth – at least 4 billion. But that is because we are still working within the premise that this industrial civilization must continue and we cannot hope for an end to inequality within it. Borders must remain. The poor must remain in order for there to even be profit.
Lets say that we rise up, cut the power cables, demolish Westminster, ban corporations entirely, shut the banks, do away with money, borders, ownership of anything and redistribute the land equally amongst all people. No small task. It sounds mad to one accustomed to being the virtual slave to money. But this is how human communities have existed for the majority of human history. It is in our nature to behave this way. We have been on Earth for about 200,000 years. Humans did not settle on any one area until the end of the last ice age, when sea levels first stabilised and humans developed agriculture. Jared Diamond thinks this was about 11,500 years ago. I would suggest that while bartering had existed before this, money certainly did not.
I suggest in this day and age, it could be suggested to all, that we are all capable of getting on and sharing equally everything, within the limits of this finite planet so as not to damage the biosphere that supports life on Earth.
That would be good for several reasons. Sharing the land, using it to produce food on scales workable by human and animal labour, without fossil fuel assistance, would require most people to partake in the endeavour. Most people therefore, would spend a large amount of time outside co-operating with each other and animals, getting to know them on first name terms, celebrating successes with them, getting fit in the process and eating organic, local food tasting all the more delicious because of the chemical free living soil. With long rotations of forest, 90+ years for Oak, the countryside would be reforested to provide sufficient fuel for stoves and heating (and charcoal for cooling in sunny places). This forest cover would help massively to reduce carbon levels in the atmosphere as well as provide habitat for game and forage such as mushrooms, aiding in the diversity of foods available to this society of egalitarian peasants.
Without borders and without property, if a small community really needed something then others might want to help out where they could in a neighbourly fashion. Fantastic.
I know this idea seems childish. It probably is. It needs fleshing out. But tell me what is more insane? Knowingly standing by defending the system that is destroying the biosphere saying that it is: “the only system possible” or “human nature”?
We must begin to open this up and start getting creative. We are an advanced race of conscious people. Look at all the amazing things our society has created! We are capable of imagining a better way and working together to create it.
What is stopping us is governments, corporations, modern media, the imperative to earn money eating up our creative time and hopelessness. DGR vouch for a resistance movement to form against these forces. They vouch for a movement much like the resistance movement formed by women against sexist voting rights, that used a variety of tactics over and above peacegul protest. They took on the establishment and won a battle against idiocy. I think it’s time we took people like DGR seriously and started resisting this current prevelance of idiocy.
There’s lots of technology that can help us turn the carbon overshoot around out there. See Allan Savory and Geoff Lawton for some ideas. What we need now is the revolt which will allow them to happen.