Does Norway need wind energy to enable a fossil-free future?
Klassekampen, 19 June 2020
It must have been a beautiful day in spring, now 15 years ago. I drove through the rolling countryside in central Germany, on my way to the forest where I did fieldwork for my Master's thesis. I saw hills covered with meadows, with a row of windmills adorning almost every top. Spinning silently, they heralded a fossil-free future. The fact that the factory chimneys that I saw were only used as makeshift mobile phone masts fitted in perfectly with the optimistic feeling I got: solving the climate problem is really possible, as long as you invest heavily in clean energy such as wind.
How different was my reaction when, on a cold winter day in February last year, I sat on a boat on the Malangsfjord in Northern Norway for work. A colleague pointed to a beautiful mountainous island and told me that a gigantic wind farm was going to be built. Instead of feeling optimistic, I just felt sad. I had seen several wind farms in Northern Norway the year before where pristine mountain peaks had been converted into a road network with some fragments of nature in between. No, placing windmills in the rugged Norwegian countryside is very different from densely populated Germany.
First of all: I am not opposed to wind energy. I can accept the loss of a small piece of nature if we can get CO2 emissions down to zero this way. That's the only way to stop climate change, and that will benefit nature all around the world – not just one peak in Northern Norway. Besides, the benefit for public health, due to the reduction in air pollution, is also important.
And yet, as we sailed through the turbulent fjord, I wondered why it would be necessary to build wind farms so far above the Arctic Circle. These remote windmills are of limited value for the export of electricity to the rest of Europe due to transmission losses. Within Norway, electricity generation is already emission-free due to the almost exclusive use of hydropower. Are all of those new wind turbines only needed because of the extra power demand from electric cars and ferries?
In part, that seems to be correct. The Norwegian government agency NVE calculated a few years ago that the electrification of all road traffic requires about 11 Terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity. Interest group Norwea also states that within a few years wind power will generate – with what has already been built and is now under construction – about 15 TWh of electricity. However, NVE also predicted that it will take about twenty years before all road traffic is electric. Why then all the hurry with even more wind projects?
In the next ten years, a lot of power will be needed for a completely different project, of which the climate gain is at best questionable: the electrification of the offshore oil and gas platforms. These platforms use gas turbines to generate electricity. Partly because of this, the oil and gas industry is responsible for roughly a quarter of Norway's CO2 emissions. Connecting oil platforms to clean energy from land seems like a simple solution to significantly reduce Norway's emissions and to comply with the Paris Agreement. The Norwegian oil company Equinor expects that around 10 TWh of land power will be needed to make this happen, and that's not possible without wind turbines.
The climate benefits of electrifying the off-shore industry are minimal
Unfortunately, the climate gain is minimal, if not an accounting trick. It is certainly possible to make oil production carbon neutral, but roughly 90% of the emissions occur when it is consumed. Because this mainly takes place outside the borders of Norway, it is not included in the national emissions. On paper, this will reduce national emissions, while CO2 emissions abroad will continue as usual. In fact, the gas that was needed for the turbines will be used for something else, such as an increase in the export. In that case, there will be little to no effect by the removal of gas turbines from the oil platforms on the increase in the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere.
So the question is: are the windmills necessary to make a fossil-free future possible? Or are they being used to make Norway appear clean, when in reality this amounts to a greenwashing of the oil and gas industry? When wind energy makes emission-free transportation possible, I can understand that well. When the Norwegian offshore industry is used to build offshore wind farms all over the world, then I not only understand, but even welcome it.
But when the same windmills are used to maintain the energy of the past, at the expense of the climate and precious nature areas, then nature loses not once but twice. And that is incomprehensible.
This text originally appeared in Klassekampen on 19 June 2020