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Book Review: A Delight, If You Like Horror Stories

Andrew Montford, GWPF

Peter Henderson’s new book on the ecological impacts of different forms of energy generation is a series of horror stories, but a delight in many ways: a practical handbook  that reviews briefly, in clear and straightforward language, the environmental issues associated with keeping the lights on. Along the way, Henderson puts to bed the absurd idea that renewables are “green”; like traditional forms of power generation they have impacts on the environment, and sometimes very serious ones.

For example, batteries are meant to be a pillar of the electrification of the economy, allowing us to deal with the wildly fluctuating output of windfarms, at least for a few hours. It all sounds wonderful until you see what the Chemetall Foote lithium mine in Colorado looks like. Then the idea that lithium-ion batteries are in any way “green” disappears quicker than the output from a wind turbine.

The Chemetall Foote lithium mine in Nevada (Doc Searls, Flickr, under CC licence)

The almost comical inefficiency of renewables is also noted, and I smiled when reading Henderson’s straight-faced observation that a 1-GW biomass fuelled power station would probably require 1000 square kilometres of agricultural land to keep it supplied with wood.

There are endless surprises. On the subject of biomass, I’d never thought of the potential problems with crop rotation. Is it actually sustainable to keep growing willow in the same place year after year? And who knew of the impact of wind turbines on insects (or the impact of insects on wind turbines)? Apparently, so many bugs get squished on the turbine blades that their output can be halved in some places. It’s not exactly mankind and nature in perfect harmony, is it? Still, given the appalling effects of wind turbines on bats, at least insect populations will get some relief.

The book’s also covers more traditional ways of generating electricity, and there in-depth coverage of steam turbines. There is also separate consideration of shale gas extraction. There is no hiding of the risks of fracking – water and air pollution are the main ones – but – and in keeping with the rest of the book – there is none of the hysteria about fracking that characterises the public debate. The non-partisan reader will therefore likely come away with an overwhelming urge to shrug their shoulders, and rightly so.

At one point, I did rather feel that Henderson dented his credibility by citing a paper from the “Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League” for concerns about energy-from-waste plants, but this appears to be an aberration, and I suppose he could argue that he was just attempting to say what people are worrying about.

But this is not a book that fits easily into either the green or the sceptic camp. Henderson, an ecologist at the University of Oxford, comes over as thoughtful and cautious. While arguing for energy efficiency and careful consideration of the risks of whatever technology is used. As he say in drawing his conclusions, “the enthusiasm for wind turbines is a little like our previous enthusiasm for DDT”.  Sceptics might well raise an eyebrow at the much-hyped problems of DDT, but the point that campaigners tend to get overenthusiastic about new technologies is a sound one. Henderson could just as easily have picked any other renewable technology that has been hyped over the last twenty years.

Ecological Effects of Electricity Generation, Storage and Use is an authoritative work, and one that I will keep close at hand in the future.

Peter Henderson. Ecological Effects of Electricity Generation, Storage and Use. CABI Books, 2018.