Last week we discussed the British government’s ataxic plan to ban “gas boilers”, hybrid devices that heat both your tap water and your house, and to instead require mass adoption of “heat pumps” that are basically two-way AC units that can compress refrigerant outside to use the external air as a “heat sink” in summer, and compress it inside to use the internal air as a heat sink in winter. Which is pretty clever in conception if dubious economically. And, it now turns out, environmentally. The German Federal Environment Agency or Umweltbundesamt says the refrigerants themselves are a significant hazard to public health and the environment. It seems that, as so often, malevolent spirits lurk in the details and instead of one technology being all good and another all bad, there are pluses and minuses. As is also true, alas, of massive wind farms that not only eat up vast amounts of natural space and chop up the birds but, in pulling energy from the air, change the environment in unforeseen ways.
That wind farms wreck the landscape is fairly well established except among green campaigners who used to protest against industry wrecking the landscape. Now they argue that it’s a tradeoff worth making and, who knows, some of them might even find the things attractive avatars of an elegant, high-tech green future in harmony with nature. (Others think they seem to have marched right out of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds). Likewise wind farms’ tendency to chew up birds and bats is downplayed by hard core alternative energy fanatics but widely recognized by most normal people as a drawback. Indeed, were they not clad in the armor of climate they would almost certainly be illegal on those grounds.
Now another regrettable feature has turned up, one with a wide range of implications. It turns out that in sucking the energy out of wind in order to pump it into the grid or batteries, it sucks the energy out of wind. Which makes the next wind farm over less useful since a series of wind farms placed in sequence will “luff” one another, reducing their effectiveness as one expands their footprint. Or as a EurekAlert! Press release puts it, “wind speeds at the downstream windfarm are significantly slowed down.” Blast. Or lack of it. For dozens of kilometers, sometimes as much as a hundred.
It gets worse. At least it might. The researchers in question have so far focused on “the extent to which the wind farms influence each other” but “intend to investigate in the near future what influence the reduced wind speeds have on life in the sea. Wind and waves mix the sea. This changes the salt and oxygen content of the water, its temperature and the amount of nutrients in certain water depths.” And just possibly the change is bad.
Or not. We don’t know. It could be trivial. It might even increase biodiversity. We work from facts to theories not from a priori assumptions that, for instance, all impacts of man-made climate change are bad and all impacts of steps to mitigate it good. But on that basis we insist that someone has to check, and report honestly, and take the findings into account when making balanced decisions.
By the same token it is of course possible that despite the issue of pollutants, heat pumps remain a good choice, either using current technology, some readily available substitute or some new and better refrigerant. But we’d be more convinced it is a better technology if people were inclined to choose it for themselves instead of being forced to by the green central planners. Still, to suggest that the discovery of one negative aspect invalidates the entire approach would be to succumb to the very utopian thought pattern we are in the middle of critiquing. But it is also possible that as things stand, and for the foreseeable future, this approach is on balance bad for the environment.
That judgement, again, would depend on the overall costs and benefits of heat pumps, and here we refer to the entire range of environmental and economic impacts, compared to the overall cost/benefit balances of the technology they aim to replace. And so it is conceivable that, for instance, heat pumps are better than coal-fired forced-water central heating but not the natural gas kind. (Likewise in Australia, where the Labour Party in particular is being torn asunder by tensions between its working-class base and urban greens over fossil fuels, it might be that natural gas is good even to climate alarmists if it displaces goal; it seems to have played a major role in reducing American emissions via the fracking environmentalists love to hate.)
It is also conceivable that the British are just weird to heat their homes with water and they should all get forced-air furnaces like normal people (i.e. “us”). And it is also possible that everyone should use electric heat from nuclear plants.
One defect does not make a failed technology. But all technologies have both drawbacks and advantages. And it’s even possible that not everyone should do the same thing. Diversity is much praised rhetorically by people who seem to have little use for it in practice. But we at CDN are genuinely in favour across a massive range of issues. (Though not when it comes to eating eggplant. Seriously, people.)
One more point about the heat pumps. According to that German study, European law mandates that “the use of climate-damaging fluorinated refrigerants and blowing agents must be significantly reduced in the European Union by 2030. Fluorinated gases are often replaced by short-lived fluorinated substances with lower Global Warming Potentials. However, these substances form trifluoroacetic acid (TFA) as a degradation product…. TFA concentrations have risen sharply since the 1990s. TFA is highly mobile, classified as hazardous to water and penetrates into groundwater and drinking water.” So there was actually a tradeoff between two environmental goals both of which to proponents at least are desirable. But alas, in the real world all utilities cannot be maximized simultaneously.