Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

AdChoices
Margaret Wente

Margaret Wente

MARGARET WENTE

Renewables are not enough Add to ...

All over Ontario, giant wind turbines are sprouting up across the rural landscape and ruining people’s lives. Ordinary people are trying to fight them off in court, but they don’t have a chance. The multinational wind industry has a lot more money than they do. The law is on Big Wind’s side. So is Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government, which has pledged to triple the number of wind and solar generators and stick taxpayers with the bill.

But the fundamental problem with Big Wind is much bigger than its cost and unreliability. The problem is that today’s renewable energy technologies won’t save us from the effects of climate change – and we’re wasting our time by trying.

That’s the conclusion Google has reached. Google has invested many years and significant resources in tackling the world’s climate and energy problems. Its biggest initiative was called RE<C (Renewable Energy Cheaper Than Coal), a massive effort to find renewable energy sources that could compete in cost with coal.

Last week, Ross Koningstein and David Fork, two of the engineers at the heart of the RE<C project, published an article describing what they learned, and why Google threw in the towel. “We had shared the attitude of many stalwart environmentalists,” they wrote. “We felt that with steady improvements to today’s renewable energy technologies, our society could stave off catastrophic climate change. We now know that to be a false hope.”

The trouble is, the problem is just too big. Even the best-case scenarios would not achieve anything like the reductions needed to stabilize carbon emissions at a level that many scientists think is necessary to stave off climate change. Nor would they affect the high level of atmospheric carbon dioxide that already exists. “If all power plants and industrial facilities switch over to zero-carbon energy sources right now, we’ll still be left with a ruinous amount of CO2 in the atmosphere,” they write.

So, are we doomed? They don’t think so. They’re engineers, and engineers are optimistic and ambitious by nature. What we need, they argue, are new technologies that are truly disruptive. We don’t know what they are yet. But our aim should be to deploy significant resources to attain energy innovation at Google speed. “Fortunately, new discoveries are changing the way we think about physics, nanotechnology and biology all the time. While humanity is currently on a trajectory to severe climate change, this disaster can be averted if researchers aim for goals that seem nearly impossible.”

Google’s engineers are right. No matter what you believe about the potential influence of increased emissions on the planet, the math doesn’t lie. Even drastic changes in emissions and human behaviour won’t change the math enough to change the climate calculations any time soon.

This point has been made before, most notably by the University of Manitoba’s Vaclav Smil, who is Bill Gates’s favourite polymath. But it’s widely ignored in climate debates. The truth is that unless we develop revolutionary new energy technologies, all the climate pacts and pipeline protests in the world are just so much posturing. And the substantial premium we pay for wind power is just money in the pockets of rich wind developers.

If you believe climate change is a serious threat to humanity, there are only two ways out. One is what you could call the Naomi Klein way – abandon the materialistic way of life, repudiate capitalism and hope that a dawning global consciousness (or, failing that, a global carbon dictatorship) will lead humanity to the light. Alternatively, we could bet on scientists, engineers and human ingenuity.

Which way is more likely to succeed? You be the judge.

Report Typo/Error

Follow us on Twitter: @GlobeDebate

In the know

The Globe Recommends

loading

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular