Politics & Policy

Wind Turbines Are Climate-Change Scarecrows

It’s basic math: Renewable energy isn’t enough to rein in CO2 emissions.

For years, the wind-energy sector and renewable-energy advocates have repeatedly claimed that wind turbines are essential to the fight against carbon dioxide emissions and catastrophic climate change. Here’s the reality: Wind turbines are nothing more than climate-change scarecrows.

The proliferation of wind turbines over the past few years has not, and will not, result in statistically significant reductions in global carbon dioxide emissions. That point can easily be proven with a bit of simple math, which I’ll do in a moment.

Before we look at the numbers, allow me to bolster my thesis by pointing you to an open letter issued recently by some of the world’s top climate scientists. Although the language they used was not as blunt as what I’m using here, they made a similar point. That is, if the world’s policymakers and environmentalists are serious about addressing climate change, then they must admit that renewable energy simply cannot meet the world’s soaring demand for energy at prices that consumers can afford.

The letter, which was clearly aimed at anti-nuclear environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, was signed by James Hansen, a former NASA scientist; Kerry Emanuel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Tom Wigley of the University of Adelaide in Australia; and Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution. The letter says that while renewables “like wind and solar and biomass” are growing, those sources “cannot scale up fast enough to deliver cheap and reliable power at the scale the global economy requires.” It went on, saying that “in the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power.”

The four concluded their epistle by saying that if environmental activists have “real concern about risks from climate change,” then they should begin “calling for the development and deployment of advanced nuclear energy.”

Frances Beinecke of the NRDC offered a predictable response to the letter, telling The Associated Press that nuclear is not a “panacea.” She added that “the better path is to clean up our power plants and invest in efficiency and renewable energy.”

Ah yes, efficiency and renewables — the two-legged stool upon which the Green Left has been trying to balance its untenable energy policies for decades. Never mind that even as energy efficiency has increased dramatically, energy demand has been soaring. Global energy use has nearly doubled since 1982, according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy. As for non-hydro renewable energy, despite decades of hefty subsidies and in some cases, mandates, it now provides about 2 percent of the 250 million barrels of oil-equivalent energy (from all sources) that is being consumed globally every day.

The hard truth is that renewable energy cannot even keep pace with soaring global energy demand, much less replace significant quantities of hydrocarbons. That’s not an opinion. It’s basic math.

Last year, all of the wind turbines on the planet provided about 2.4 million barrels of oil equivalent per day to the global economy. That sounds like a lot until you compare wind’s contribution with that of the world’s fastest-growing source of energy: coal. In 2012, global coal use increased by about 2 million barrels of oil equivalent per day. Thus, just to keep pace with the growth in coal usage, we’d have to nearly replicate the entire global fleet of wind turbines — some 285,000 megawatts of capacity — and we’d have to do so every year.

The same is true for solar energy. I’m bullish on solar. I have 3,200 watts of solar panels on the roof of my home in Austin, Texas. (Yes, I got a big subsidy to install them.) The rapidly declining cost of photovoltaic panels is encouraging. But last year, all of the world’s solar installations contributed just 400,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day to the global economy. Thus, just to keep pace with the growth in coal usage, we’d have to install about five times the world’s existing solar capacity — which totaled about 100,000 megawatts in 2012 — and we’d have to do so every year.

Now let’s look at carbon dioxide emissions. In 2012, the American Wind Energy Association claims, wind energy reduced U.S. carbon dioxide emissions by 80 million tons. Again, that sounds significant. But consider this: Last year, global emissions of that gas totaled 34.5 billion tons. Thus, the 60,000 megawatts of U.S. wind-generation capacity reduced global carbon dioxide emissions by about two-tenths of 1 percent.

To make the point even clearer, let’s look at the history of carbon dioxide emissions. Since 1982, global carbon dioxide emissions have been increasing by an average of about 500 million tons per year.

If we take the American Wind Energy Association’s claim that 60,000 megawatts of wind-energy capacity can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by about 80 million tons per year, then simple math shows that if we wanted to stop the growth in global carbon dioxide emissions by using wind energy alone, we would have to install about 375,000 megawatts of new wind-energy capacity every year. If we assume each turbine has a capacity of two megawatts, that would mean installing 187,500 wind turbines every year, or nearly 500 every day.

How much land would all those wind turbines require? Again, the math is straightforward. The power density of wind energy is 1 watt per square meter [PDF]. Therefore, merely halting the growth in carbon dioxide emissions with wind energy would require covering a land area of about 375 billion square meters or 375,000 square kilometers — an area the size of Germany — and we would have to do so every year.

What would that mean on a daily basis? Using wind alone to stop the growth in carbon dioxide emissions would require us to cover about 1,000 square kilometers with wind turbines — a land area about 17 times the size of Manhattan Island — and we would have to do so every day. Given the ongoing backlash against the wind industry that is already underway here in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Australia, the silliness of such a proposal is obvious.

The punch line here is equally obvious: If we are going to agree that carbon dioxide is a problem, then we must embrace the technologies that are most effective at reducing our production of that gas. As Hansen, Wigley, and their colleagues point out, that means nuclear. And while the climate scientists don’t mention methane, we are also going to have to use lots of natural gas, as that’s the only other fuel that can supplant significant amounts of coal. 

Over the past few years, the U.S. and other countries have been subsidizing the paving of vast areas of the countryside with 500-foot-high bird– and bat-killing whirligigs that are nothing more than climate talismans. Wind turbines are not going to stop changes in the earth’s climate. Instead, they are token gestures — giant steel scarecrows — that are deceiving the public into thinking that we as a society are doing something to avert the possibility of catastrophic climate change.

Robert Bryce is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His fifth book, Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper: Innovating toward a Greener, Richer World, will be published next May.

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