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Tilting at wind farms: Humans can secure a future through economic contraction, not growth

The article that appeared in the Day on Oct. 30, (“New London, labor and environmental leaders tout offshore wind’s potential”) claims that the wind farm projects will deliver “a regional economic boom through clean energy.”

The promotion of wind-generated electrical power as clean is selling 21st Century “snake oil” because it fails to comport with reality. Considering the energy expended "cradle-to-grave" for extracting raw materials; transporting, manufacturing, assembling and installing the turbines; the infrastructure and cabling and its eventual disassembly and deconstruction — wind energy is not clean. These projects require almost as much energy to produce and eventually remove as the electricity they deliver.

Net energy and life cycle carbon dioxide emission analyses on wind-generated electrical power plants reveals low-energy payback, which is the amount of electrical energy produced over the lifetime of the power plant divided by the total amount of energy required to procure and transport materials, build, operate and maintain, and decommission the power plants.

This means that the energy investment for the generated gigawatt-hours is high and lifetime net energy is low. There is no escaping that the construction process requires the investment of fossil fuels, which produce greenhouse gases. The developer, public officials and proponents do not consider this factor.

The CO2 emissions for each wind power plant from the life-cycle energy data range from 9 to 20 tons of CO2 per gigawatt-hour of electricity generated. As a result, wind-generated electricity is operationally cleaner than fossil fuel power plants but not clean over the project’s life. Nonetheless, the developer should determine the pay back ratio for the project so the public knows the realities.

Energy and the economy

Economic growth is fueled by the necessity for financial profit to pay off debt, which is perpetual in credit oriented financial systems. Growth for the sake of growth remains the global credo. It is presented as the panacea that can solve any of the world's problems: poverty, inequality, sustainability, you name it. Left-wing and right-wing policies only differ on how to achieve it.

There is almost no understanding of the relation of economic growth to energy/resource availability, including debt increases that occur in an attempt to continue growth with lower payback ratios attributed to higher cost fuels. Today’s world civilization, with over 7 billion people, is facing the early end of a relatively short economic epoch dependent in all ways, directly or indirectly, on finite fossil fuels.

The primary energy source, including the context for all other energy systems, as well as nearly all modern transportation and food supplies, is oil. At the present rate of one billion barrels extracted and consumed every 11 days, there cannot be more than 40 years left in the oil age.

The U.S. is somewhat buffered by our fracking boom for oil and natural gas resulting in low-cost gas — for as long as that lasts. But make no mistake; the future of growth economics is grim.

On the input side of the economy, key material resources are limited, and many are peaking including oil and phosphorus. On the output side, humanity is trespassing planetary boundaries. Climate change is the evidence of the limited assimilative capacity of ecosystems. It is the planet saying: “Enough is enough!”

No magic bullet

Faith in technological solutions to address this dilemma has become religious. The problem is that economic growth cannot be decoupled from the consumption of energy and raw materials. It is simple: economic growth is not compatible with environmental sustainability. Increases in the Gross Domestic Product lead to increases in material and energy use and therefore to environmental/ecological unsustainability.

Technology and market-based solutions, including wind farms, are not magic bullets. There is no magic bullet.

The central question then becomes, how can human society manage its economy without growth?

The answer, which few want to face, is that total (global) consumption of materials and energy must be reduced through a “Degrowth Strategy,” also known as economic contraction. That will require significant reductions in the world’s population and in per capita consumption by the wealthiest nations.

To avoid a dystopian future those should be the goals, however unlikely such scenarios may seem.

Robert Fromer is a former resident of New London and an occasional contributor to The Day on environmental issues. He lives in Windsor.



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