Wind Energy Hurts the Climate More than Oil

Ok, my title is a lie, but what’s surprising is that it’s only a half life. I went with sensationalism to try and get people to read this, but I have been thinking about this a long time and I think this is really interesting and something no one thinks about, so try it out.

How should we get energy in the next 100 years of human history? That’s a question that has concerned environmentalist, security experts, and entrepreneurs for at least several decades now, and a common approach is to look for energy that has no harm side-effects when it is used or stored. Hence, oil has been rightly criticized for creating pollutants like CO2 when used, whereas energy sources like solar power, wind power, and tidal power have been celebrated for generating energy without all the mess. One thing that has not gotten attention though is the way in which the latter technologies might hurt the circulation of energy on earth – something that may have dangerous environmental consequences of its own.

The main issue I want to raise is applicable to many kinds of renewable technologies, but its worth considering the way the problem comes up in a specific case: say in the generation of wind power. To generate wind power, you have to take energy out of the air, and when you do that, the wind doesn’t blow as hard. This seems like an innocuous result until you realize that the cycle of air around the earth is one that many climactic feedback systems are maintained. Air has to move around a lot in very complex but systematic ways in order for temperatures to stay even and predictable.

These climate scientists have argued just that, showing that to generate appreciable amounts of energy through wind turbines risks slowing down the circulation I mentioned, which might have the same effect as doubling the CO2 in the atmosphere.

And notice that this problem generalizes and might become an issue for all sorts of “clean” energy. Tidal power may slow the ocean’s circulation if used in large amounts, and solar power may prevent the heating up of large patches of land, again changing global equilibrium.

I’m not trying to argue that oil is somehow better than these forms of energy, but only to note that oil does have one advantage, which is that the energy locked inside petroleum does not serve any climatological purpose. Yes, burning it has side effects, but the actual energy in oil is environmentally inert, it does not serve the earth’s purpose. Clean energy on the other hand gets rid of harmful side effects, but when we take energy from the wind and the tides, we are taking it from the earth, which was using it to do things (if you don’t mind my anthropomorphization). So clean energy gets rid of the side effects of oil, but might more directly intervene in the climate system.

Most likely, the amount of energy we would need from say, wind, would not really do anything to the earth’s overall climate patterns, but we should look at this carefully, because the human race would look really stupid if we gave up oil in an fit of environmental consciousness only to have our new source of energy more directly damage environmental equilibrium.


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