Vertical Axis Wind Turbines & Limits Of Innovation

Credit: Steve Bittinger, FlickrCC

Vertical Axis Wind Turbines (VAWTs) have been around for a while but have found a recent popularity in the literature.  Traditional wind turbines are HAWTs or Horizontal Axis Wind Turbines.  VAWTs are an example of the kind of innovation that many people hope will help us to get to zero fossil fuel emissions by 2050.

VAWT’s are cheaper to build than HAWTs but have more wear and tear (which means more maintenance), are closer to the ground where airspeeds are lower, and are less efficient than HAWTs (30% v 35%).  As a result, VAWTs have a lower ROI.  It seems likely that, until their ROI matches or exceeds the ROI of HAWTs, they will only be used in limited situations where conditions make them preferable to HAWTs.  These are for small energy applications where commercial electricity isn’t available and for densely populated areas where VAWT towers are not practical.

So, HAWTs will not help us get to zero emissions by 2050.  But what about innovation in general?  Many people are placing their hopes in innovation to avoid a climate catastrophe.  They believe that the potential for innovation is unlimited.  This is true in theory, but we are not dealing with theoretical truths when we are discussing the elimination of fossil fuels by 2050.  This time constraint puts some limitations on the potential for innovation to get us to zero emissions.

There are two facts about innovation that must be considered: (1) It takes a while for its impact to be felt and (2) it does not enable us to get around the laws of physics.

With respect to the length of time required for innovation to have a significant impact, consider the fact that it has been 117 years since the development of the vacuum tube, which was the first step in developing the computer which has had such a profound impact on our lives.  But going from the vacuum tube to the modern computer required many other intermediate innovations – like the first computer, the transistor, and the computer chip – to be fully realized.  The problem with counting on innovation to save us from a climate change disaster is that it must happen within the next 30 years.  Even if we factor in urgency, the full realization of the potential of innovations takes many years.

With respect to the laws of physics, electricity is free electrons, and it takes an irreducible amount of energy to free electrons from their atoms.  No innovation will change that fact.  We can find innovations that make our use of electricity more efficient, and we can alter our lifestyles so that we use less energy, but neither is likely to dramatically reduce the amount of energy we consume.  In the end, there is a certain amount of brute force required that innovation cannot change.

And there are two other important factors affecting future consumption of fossil fuels that are sociological rather than technological in nature. They are population management and energy equity.

Population Management:  The main cause of climate change is an uncontrolled growth in the human population made possible by a combination of modern medicine and improved food production thanks to synthetic nitrogen, automated farming, better land management, and, most recently, GMOs.  Our global ethos is that reproduction is a personal decision that should not be regulated.  And regulation is not a simple matter.  When China tried it, a huge unintended consequence occurred – an imbalance of males to females because of female infanticide in a culture that prefers male children.  This has caused social problems that China will wrestle with for decades.  Yet somehow we must limit the human population to a sustainable level if we don’t want to join the lemmings.

Energy Equity:  Energy equity is a future concern which has to do with the disparity in energy use throughout the world.  At 13,000 kilowatt-hours of energy per capita, the US is one of the largest per capita consumers of energy in the world.  Contrast this with India at just 805 kilowatt-hours per capita.  The global average per capita consumption is 3,000 kilowatt-hours.  Italy and the UK are both around 5,000 kilowatt-hours per capita, which is the lowest among developed countries.

The reason energy equity is important is because reducing global emissions to combat climate change will require global cooperation.  The disparity in per capita energy consumption will make it difficult for countries to work together.  Nations with a lower per capita consumption will want to be on a par with nations with a higher per capita consumption.  This means that, to obtain international cooperation, every country should be at around the same per capita consumption level.

If all countries consumed 5,000 kilowatt hours per capita in 2019 (the Italy-UK level), instead of global energy consumption of 184,000 terawatt-hours of energy, the world would have consumed 390,000 terawatt-hours – more than twice as much.  This is going in the wrong direction, yet there is no obvious solution.

Innovation has been and remains the driving force behind advancing technology, but it isn’t an “on-call” capability, and it doesn’t normally have an immediate large-scale impact.  Counting on it to pave a path to zero emissions by 2050 is not a sound strategy.  In fact, it’s not a strategy at all.