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Farms and fields ... or fuel?

Renewable energy is not as 'green' as environmentliasts like to claim. So why are we overlooking its impacts?

The Ecologist, April 2008

On a bare and blustery moor in the Outer Hebrides , the future is being played out. The Isle of Lewis, home to the ancient Callanish standing stones, to golden eagles and Atlantic salmon, to blackhouses and crofts, is rarely at the centre of anything. But it is currently the focus of a battle which not only has enormous local significance, but is an indicator of a developing global conflict whose significance environmentalists have perhaps not yet fully grasped.

The battle is over a wind farm – potentially the world’s biggest – which two powerful corporations want to build on moorland in the north of the island. The sheer scale of this open air industrial structure would be unprecedented. 181 vast white turbines, 140 metres high, would be visible from dozens of miles away. If dropped onto London , it would stretch from the new Olympic Park in the east end right down to Hampton Court in the west.

The Lewis wind farm is supported by some local people, by the developers, by the European Commission – and by many, though by no means all, environmentalists. The contemporary green narrative, in which climate change not only takes centre stage but crowds out virtually every other concern, makes it clear why. The world needs to slash greenhouse gas emissions deeply and rapidly, we are told – by as much as 80% within fifteen years – to prevent the climate ‘tipping’ over into a condition where runaway global warming is a serious possibility. Action is imperative. Renewable energy projects must be brought online fast; they must be big and bold and ambitious and they must help us to phase out fossil fuels. Oppose this, and you are at best a short-sighted ‘nimby’ and at worst a stooge of the petrochemical interests who are destroying the planet for profit.

On Lewis, though, many people do oppose it. At least 13,000 islanders and outside supporters at the last count, including a majority of Lewis’s population. And since each Lewis crofter stands to gain financially if the wind farm (or ‘wind factory’ as they prefer to call it) goes ahead – every crofter would earn £2000 a year in rent, paid by the wind farm’s owners – this is quite remarkable.

The reason becomes clear in the islanders’ words. ‘We’ve been brought up to respect and love the moor ever since we were tiny’, Catriona Campbell, a local school teacher, told the Guardian recently. ‘It’s a piece of ground which means so much to us. It’s just part of us.’ Covering the moor with huge turbines, access roads and pylons would, she said, ‘just break my heart.’

In other words, this is not about the money. Neither is it about short-sighted selfishness, anti-environmentalism or any of the other things that local objectors to such schemes are regularly accused of. The battle of Lewis is not the easily-told story of greens versus anti-green reactionaries. It is more complex, and more interesting, than that. The question that hovers above it all is currently echoing around the world, and will only grow louder: in the fight against climate change, will the environment have to be destroyed to save the environment? Can the end justify the means? This is the first skirmish in what, as the search for climate-friendly energy really gets going, will become a global war. A war for space; a war for land.

Energy realities

For the last two centuries, humanity has relied for its energy on what the author Thom Hartmann elegantly calls ‘ancient sunlight’: fossil fuels, formed millions of years ago from decaying plant and animal matter and now transformed into a power source like no other. The industrial revolution, world war, global agriculture, the human population explosion, massive material prosperity, unprecedented technological advancement: all depend utterly on fossil fuels. Without them, there would be no modern world.

But fossil fuels, as we now know, also cause climate change. Therefore we need to wean ourselves off them, and fast. We need to move instead towards ‘renewable’ energy sources: power harnessed from wind, waves, fuel crops and the sunlight of today rather than of the Jurassic. It sounds like a simple technological and political concern: how to manage the transition and how to get it done fast enough. But it is more than that.

Because fossil fuels have two major advantages over any other form of energy yet discovered. Firstly, they are compact and powerful. Secondly, they are underground. They are dirty, dangerous and, it turns out, environmentally disastrous: but they are also intensive, rather than extensive, and their power far outweighs anything that renewables are able to give us. The biologist Jeffrey Dukes has famously calculated that, in just one year, humanity burns fossil fuels that took four centuries to create. Replacing such power with power derived from just one year’s sunlight – and wind, and wave power and other renewable sources – is a big ask indeed. It may be an impossible one.

From biofuels to wind farms, hydroelectricity to solar panels, virtually every renewable energy source we know of needs a vast amount of the planet’s surface to operate from. It’s often said that one of the advantages of renewable energy is that it will end the era of conflicts over oil. But the age of renewables will replace them with a new generation of conflicts. Our need for land to produce energy will begin to compete with other needs – for land to grow food, for example, or the need of other species for space to exist. For decades, our energy has been cheap, easy and largely invisible. We flick a switch and the lights come on; we turn the key and the car starts, and apart from the odd power station and the lines of pylons, we don’t see the work that goes into it.

All of this is about to change, and the impacts will be far-reaching. Producing enough renewable energy to keep the ever-growing global economy on its feet will require the industrialising of vast areas of farmland, wilderness, forest, desert, river and ocean all over the world. It will require us to ‘farm’ energy on a vast scale. The conflicts that will be caused by this huge push for ‘green’ energy will make the fight over the Lewis wind farm look like a teddy bear’s picnic.


The most obvious current example of this developing conflict is in the increasingly bitter battle over biofuels. When the idea of growing crops for energy first reared its head, environmentalists got quite excited. It sounded green, clean and renewable – just the kind of thing that should be promoted. Major NGOs spent years campaigning for government to promote biofuels. Only when they started to take off did many greens realise their mistake.

Biofuels, as the Ecologist has catalogued extensively, are a looming disaster. The amount of land that would be needed to grow enough fuel to support even the world’s existing transport fleet would require more planets than we currently possess. What the biofuels revolution has actually done is set up a competition between biofuel crops and the alternative uses of the land they are grown on. Within 15 years, for example, 98% of the rainforests of Indonesia and Malaysia will be no more. Illegal logging has been going on there for decades, but the demand for palm oil to make biofuels for our cars has accelerated it. According to Friends of the Earth, palm oil plantations were responsible for almost 90% of rainforest destruction in Malaysia between 1985 and 2000. Meanwhile, in Brazil , forests are falling in the Amazon, to be replaced by enormous plantations of sugar cane, another source of biofuels.

In addition to the tragedy that is the end of the great rainforests, biofuels are also taking over agricultural lands previously used for growing food crops. In the US, for example, maize grown to produce ethanol now makes up a sixth of the nation’s corn crop, covering 11 million acres of land – and even this only meets 3% of the country’s demand for transport fuel. The amount of maize needed to fill the tank of a Range Rover with ethanol fuel would feed a person for a whole year. Fill your tank every two weeks and you have taken enough food out of circulation to feed a hungry village. Sure enough, at the end of last year, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation issued a warning that food prices had risen an unprecedented 40% in 2007, leaving 37 countries facing food crises and many of the poor unable to afford to eat. Biofuels eating into croplands, they said, was one of the culprits.

Ironically, it now seems that biofuels don’t even do what they were intended to: new research has revealed that, once the ‘carbon cost’ of clearing land for biofuels is taken into account, virtually every biofuel crop actually produces more emissions than the fuel it replaces. It seems it is too late to burst the bubble now though. Trees grown for biofuels, and GM biofuel crops, are in the pipeline, and earlier this year the European Union – usually so keen to burnish its green credentials – pushed ahead with a disastrous directive requiring its member states to replace 10% of the petrol used in their cars with biofuels, giving a huge boost to the industry and helping put more pressure on land across the world.

The war for wind and sun

While biofuels are the most obvious current example of the conflict over land use set up by our pursuit of renewable energy, they are far from being the only one. Wind farms like those on Lewis – which will become more numerous as governments across the world set ambitious targets for wind energy generation – will also spark conflicts. In the case of wind power, the conflicts are more likely to be about aesthetics than about food production, but they will be no less bitterly fought for it.

The UK, which is said to have one of the best ‘reserves’ of wind energy in the world, is also one of Europe’s most densely-populated and industrialised countries, in which silence, wild beauty and open space is at a premium. A wind farm, whatever its carbon footprint, is inescapably an industrial structure, and industrialising rural, wild, beautiful or open land will always be – and should be – unpopular. Wind power currently provides less than 1% of Britain’s energy, but the government wants 15% of all the UK’s energy to come from renewables by 2015, and wind power is to ‘make the main contribution.’

Advocates of wind power are currently excited about the potential of vast windfarms in the north sea and around Britain ’s coasts, which they hope will be less unpopular than those on land. Wherever they are sited, though, it will mean a lot of turbines. It has been calculated that 2 million 1 megawatt turbines would be needed just to replace the world’s coal-fired power stations. Yet even the enormous Lewis project contains only 180 turbines, and will generate just 600 MW of that required 2 million.

But wind power is peanuts compared with what, currently, is by far the biggest source of renewable energy in the world: hydroelectric power, drawn from large dams. Hydropower produces 60% of the planet’s renewable energy, and much of it is enormously controversial. Large dams, as the Ecologist has exhaustively demonstrated in the past, are a disaster on many levels: they involve the flooding of vast areas of land; they often require the forcible eviction of entire populations; and those in tropical countries actually produce greenhouse gases, through the rotting of vegetation in their flooded reservoirs.

There are currently 17 major hydroelectric plants under construction worldwide. 12 are in China , where the colonisation of land by dam projects is well-attested and impossible to resist. The largest, the Three Gorges Dam, across the Yangtze River , will be the largest hydroelectric project in the world when completed. It will create a reservoir over 400 miles long, displacing a staggering 2.3 million people from their homes, destroying wetlands that are one of the last homes of the endangered Siberian crane and submerging 1300 archaeological sites.

The Three Gorges Dam is an extreme case, of course. But in more ‘enlightened’ democratic and supposedly environmentally-aware nations, big hydropower is also enjoying a resurgence – and climate change is the excuse. In the US, for example, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger recently proposed the construction of two new dams and a canal, the first in 30 years, to tackle ‘the impact of global warming’ on the state’s dwindling water supply. He is opposed by the Democratic party and several local conservation groups, but is determined to spend $5 billion on the schemes. Both those supporting the dam and those opposing it claim to be the true greens. Schwarzenegger and his allies say they must ‘protect the environment’ by ensuing that California has enough water to survive the coming impacts of climate change – not only for its people but for its plant and animal life. Sierra Club California , meanwhile, along with other local conservation groups, says the dams are useless. Existing reservoirs are inefficient as it is, they say, and the State’s water problems can better be solved by conservation measures, not by dams which will destroy more than they protect.

Meanwhile, closer to home, a similar scenario is being played out with the proposed construction of a barrage across the river Severn . On paper, this sounds like an impeccable piece of green technology: a huge barrage would be built from the coast of South Wales across to Weston-Super-Mare . As sea water passed through at high tide it would be trapped by sluice gates and held until the tide receded. It would then be released, driving turbines which, according to its supporters, could generate 5% or more of Britain ’s electricity: more than all of our nuclear power stations combined. The government says its contribution to tackling climate change could be ‘breathtaking’. The Sustainable Development Commission, headed by Jonathon Porritt, is in favour, though only if strict criteria protecting the local environment are applied.

But the small print is revealing. The barrage would have devastating impacts on the tidal flats of the river Severn, destroying the habitats of wading birds and the wider environment, The RSPB says it would ‘destroy an irreplaceable national treasure’. Friends of the Earth, of which Porritt was once Executive Director, dismisses the scheme as ‘ a hugely expensive, environmentally damaging and legally questionable mega-project.’ The scene is set for Britain ’s first battle over its very own hydropower mega project.

Which way will the wind blow?

The lesson to be learned from all this is a sobering one. Renewable energy technologies as we currently know them are incapable of providing anything like the amount of power we have come to expect from fossil fuels. Even if technologies improve, which they will undoubtedly do, they will not do so fast enough or cheaply enough to prevent the growing conflicts over land which the spread of large-scale renewables is already provoking.

Friends of the Earth perhaps put their finger on the heart of the problem when they use the phrase ‘mega projects.’ While the principle of renewable energy in itself is not a problem, it would doubtless be useful for some in the green movement to be a little more sober in their breathless advocacy of renewables – because green technologies can sometimes have a distinctly un-green downside. And green technologies – any technologies – on this sort of scale are going to be undemocratic, top-down, unaccountable and, potentially, very destructive indeed.

Scale, in the end, is all. We are moving from the age of fossil fuels into the age of renewables. The technologies are different, but the politics, and the power structures, are the same. If we simply substitute one set of destructive mega projects (open cast mines, oil patches, nuclear power stations) with another (wind factories, big dams, biofuel monocultures) then, even if we manage to prevent disastrous climate change, we will have created a century’s-worth of new environmental problems. Even the most benign of technologies, when scaled up too far, can be destructive. The EU, for example, is currently deciding whether to spend £5 billion on a string of giant solar power stations along the Mediterranean coast of North Africa , which would supply Europe with up to a sixth of its energy – by industrialising parts of the pristine ecosystems of the Sahara .

This is as much a problem about social justice as it is about environmental health. Renewable energy projects on this scale exist to provide the global consumer class, whose ranks swell every day, with the profligate levels of energy to which they have become accustomed. And those who suffer from these mega-projects are usually the marginalised. The forest dwelling people; the small farmers; the hungry, whose hunger will increase as croplands are used to grow petrol not food; the communities displaced by dams, plantations or even solar arrays. Not to mention the myriad of other species for whom our rush for green gold could be fatal, and very final.

We are engaged in this mad scrabble to meet our energy ‘needs’ because we cannot conceive of making do with less than we have. We regard energy as our right, and we are in denial. Denial that the age of cheap energy is coming to an end, and denial – which some environmentalists are guilty of colluding in – that renewables, however inhuman their scale, simply cannot fill the gap.

The reality seems to be that we have a choice. We can accelerate the destruction of the natural environment worldwide in a desperate attempt to provide ‘green’ energy to prop up our destructive lifestyles; or we can accept that we are going to have to make do with less energy, start reducing our demand for it and ensure that any renewable projects we do promote are human-scale and accountable to those they are intended to provide for. If we can’t, or won’t, make the latter choice it may be that nature, so close to breaking point already, will make it for us.