I ran across two articles this week which demonstrate the saying that ‘there is no such thing as a free lunch’. Of course, that old saw is not just related to commerce. It can also apply to engineering, physics, and ecology. Just about everything has hidden costs, including wind power generation, which is what the articles I read referred to specifically.
One of them reports that wind generated energy now amounts to a worldwide electrical output of 198 gigawatts from installations in 83 countries. This source of ‘green’ energy is having quite a growth spurt after initially suffering due to low efficiencies and high installation costs. Now that the economics of this technology are turning favorable, wind farms seems like a better idea than ever before.
Wind is free after all, and while it may not be persistent or powerful enough to harness everywhere, in those locations suited to it wind power makes sense as an energy alternative to fossil fuels.
Yet, again, there is no free lunch. Even though wind power benefits the environment by reducing carbon emissions from fossil fuels, it takes a toll on some forms of wild life. It’s no surprise that big spinning blades in the air will likely kill birds. They also kill bats, a creature already suffering from the effects of a mysterious disease and one which can not afford more survival pressure. Umair Irfan’s Bats and Birds Face Serious Threats From Growth of Wind Energy points out the danger that wind farms pose to these animals.
The risks posed to bird populations, especially migrating ones, from turbine blades are demonstrable but not fully understood. Even more potentially devastating is the gruesome fate of bats around wind turbines. These flying mammals, with their sonar, may be more capable than birds of avoiding flying head-on into spinning blades, but they are more susceptible to being killed by the low pressure eddies behind the blades. The low pressures can cause delicate vessels and organs inside the bats to burst. They can be killed without even being touched by the turbines.
Harnessing a free energy source while reducing mining and carbon emissions – a big plus. Killing untold numbers of birds and bats – a big minus, but the situation gets even more complicated when you read the second article published this week.
This one, Offshore Wind Farm Promotes Biodiversity, was published by the European Community Reasearch and Development Information Service (CORDIS). While the piece acknowledges the dangers to some sea birds, it points out that underneath the ocean surface the effects seem to be positive. The submerged structures and foundations of the turbines may actually be increasing biodiversity in the immediate area by providing new habitat for mollusks to attach to and colonize. This and the fact that the wind farms are no-fishing zones might be attracting more fish and, in turn, porpoises.
So, where does a cautionary saying like ‘no free lunch’ leave us? It reminds us to look for hidden costs. When we do so it is possible we may also find hidden benefits. Industrialized economies did a thorough job of hiding the environment costs of fossil fuels for decades until global climate change brought them to light. These articles demonstrate that we cannot afford to do the same for the so-called green energies that we install as a remedy. Only scientific study can help us put the facts on the table so that when we reach for our lunch we don’t just blindly grab for the ‘free’ one.