Menu Close

Don Quixote and the wind turbines

Don Quixote and the wind turbines

By Iain Watt, President EcoNetwork Port Stephens.

According to the Secretary General of the UN Antonio Guterres the world is no longer warming, but it’s boiling.

To put this comment in some perspective, failure to mitigate climate change is considered the top global risk factor in the coming decade (Global Economic Forum). The earth has not been this warm since the end of the last ice age 20,000 years ago. It took around 10,000 years to warm by 3oC after the last ice age. For the following 10,000 years temperatures remained relatively stable apart from the Little Ice Age between 1645 – 1715, caused by lower solar activity (fewer sunspots) coinciding with increased volcanic activity.

However, in the past 200 years global warming has surpassed the rate of warming in the first 10,000 years and is warming at a rate 50 times higher than the natural warming rate during that period. Furthermore, the world has not been this warm since before the previous ice age when global temperatures were 1oC warmer, and sea levels were 10m higher than today.

This past history is a dire warning for the future with temperatures predicted to be 2.7oC warmer by 2100, only 77 years away, well within the lifetime of today’s children and grandchildren, who have little to say about how short sighted policies will impact on their long term future And NASA has been clear that there is no Little Ice Age pending – in fact their predictions are stark and quite the opposite.

Whatever the rhetoric, climate change is real. We are seeing the effects of it all around us, floods, fires, coastal erosion, species extinction! Enough? Climate change is the primary existential threat to life as we know it, well beyond that of war with China or Ukraine, although wars will likely speed up the process. So, when we consider renewable energy transition from known climate harming technologies such as coal and gas, we need to keep the impacts of climate change front and central, and not forget it at the first hurdle.

Closer to home, concerns about the impact of wind farms offshore from Port Stephens are indeed a worry – but they pale into insignificance when considering the alternative.

Yes, wind turbines might impact on whales and seabirds, but only marginally. We underestimate the intelligence of these animals by comparing them with ourselves. It has been documented that whales and seabirds will generally swim or fly around a wind farm, within a range of about 2 -6 km of the installation. While this might impinge on the distance travelled or range of foraging grounds, they cannot swim round or avoid the impacts of climate change.

However, there are clearly environmental issues that will have to be addressed and the Government should ensure that all developers are compliant with environmental requirements. Noise is one such concern. But research indicates that the primary impact from noise is during installation from pile driving and seismic testing. Semi-submersible floating units, as proposed for local installation will not require pile driving, and research indicates that the day to day running of offshore turbines does not cause excessive underwater noise. Certainly, less than the large bulkers and container ships currently utilising these waters.

The ice in the Antarctic has catastrophically failed to form this year and has been declining in extent and thickness over the past decade due to higher seawater temperatures in the Southern Ocean where, driven by climate change, some of the fastest warming seawater temperatures are found. This is devastating for the krill that feed and fatten up on the algae that forms under the sea ice during the winter. Krill delivers a summer feed fest for the whales, seals, and seabirds such as albatross along with the growing demand for krill for pet and aquaculture feed, and to provide the popular Omega 3 oil for creaky old bones, despite there being no supporting evidence for this whatsoever.

Without the krill all these animals are at extreme risk of starvation and the wider implications on the global marine food web are far from clear. Warming seawater is already affecting the foraging habits and ranges of whales, seabirds and seals and may also be a pathway for new marine pathogens that could have wide ranging implications. So, with no real change, we can expect to see some hungry whales and seabirds in the coming years and soon enough none because they will have starved to death waiting for us to be reasonable about our approach to climate change.

Predicting the future is difficult. It is not possible to know by how much emissions will be reduced in the coming years or what the earth’s feedback systems to the warming temperatures will be, but we are at a critical point in planetary history. Of course, it might already be too late, we may have already passed that inconceivable tipping point, but assuming we haven’t yet, then we have some hard and serious questions to ask about how we move forward in the current climate.

  1. Can we reduce our electricity consumption sufficiently to meet the internationally agreed commitment to avoid exceeding the predicted 1.5oC tipping point. To do so, we would need to turnoff our air conditioners, fridges, freezers, TVs, games, and find an alternative for the hospitals and our EVs. This proposition is unlikely to succeed. We are addicted to 24:7 electricity, and besides somebody else should do that first, such as China or Somalia – because as many claim, “it’s not our responsibility when others are being so irresponsible”.
  2. Do we want to re-develop a manufacturing base that employs people and creates a bit of a circular economy, or would we rather stick to the current model (while we can) of digging up the dirt, shipping it out and have other countries do the manufacturing. The easiest solution generally is to vote for no change, usually driven by fear and apathy, even if it leads to catastrophe.
  3. But if we don’t want renewable energy, but we do want a manufacturing capacity and we don’t want to reduce our energy consumption then we had better decide how to produce the necessary energy if not with renewable systems. There are a few options:
    1. Essentially, do nothing, continue with coal and gas, that has worked for the past 200 years, not without consequences, but why change now, it still seems to work?
    2. Or we could go with small modular nuclear units (SNMU). They sound so cute they must be safe. But there are a few problems. These units are not the same type used on nuclear submarines or aircraft carriers – which would struggle to power a small town. For SMNUs to meet our energy needs it will require a proliferation of these cute wee units across the country. This would generate vast quantities of nuclear waste and there is still no solution to cracking that nut some 80 years after production of the first nuclear waste, other than burying it – out of sight out of mind. And critically these units don’t yet exist and are not expected to be online until 2030 – 35.
    3. Another option is of course to develop land-based windfarms – inland away from the coast. But we can be sure most land will be claimed by someone, vacant land close to population hubs is a rare commodity. Land based wind farms would likely require long and expensive transmission lines to link with the population hubs (which bring their own problems). Presumably, industry considered this option uneconomic, and that the consumer would not be willing to pay the additional costs. However, there are proposed land-based projects, currently struggling for approval largely due to community pressure – perhaps in the end it is all simply a case of “not in my back yard”.

This is all very depressing, but we know what the problem is, and we know exactly what the solution is, we just need to get serious about addressing it. Check the facts for yourself and take responsibility for your own decisions based on your own understanding rather than accepting the rhetoric of others that often appears to be aimed at polarising communities.

Published: 7 Sep 2023