The Wild Wild Wind

July 16, 2013

About a year ago Chris Townsend wrote a defence of his opposition to wind farms in the wilderness, a defence notable for its lack of venom and the mindless shrieking about imagined technical issues that infects too much of the opposition to wind power. I unfortunately did not read the article at the time, but came to it late via a tweet last week.

It is so different from much of the bile that pumps from the spout of the Telegraph and the like that it deserves a proper response, even now. To summarise, Townsend argues from a position that has a long history within the environmental movement, dating back to Thoreau and the Transcendalists: that of wilderness being essential for human flourishing. By imposing our own practicalities on the wild – to whit, by concreting it over – we conceal something potentially grander and hence impoverish ourselves. The viewpoint of man is necessarily limited, and by assuming our needs are primary we miss out on manifold other forms of interpretation. An example that Thoreau uses is that of squirrels, which around here are frequently dismissed as tree rats, but from another perspective can be seen as the ‘planters of forests’.

The wilderness allows man to have access to this manifold of interpretation and in contemplating it we are free to grow both intellectually and aesthetically. This approach could be seen as having much in common with Kantian aesthetics, albeit on a much broader scale. By introducing symbols of man’s practicality within the demesne of the wild we break this manifold: an interpretation is forced upon us and shocks us out of our contemplation. Townsend claims that wind turbines play this role, and are an intrusion into the wild.

I wish to argue the opposite, but before I do so we must better understand why the wild is able to play the role that it does. Firstly, it is ostensibly impractical. The wild has no easily perceived use, and only through contemplation and investigation can we see the role it can play. Secondly, it is chaotic. It is not constructed according to a single coherent design, but rather the complex interaction of many forms of life, and forces much larger than life itself. Thirdly, this impractical chaos lends it beauty. The aesthetic of the wild as outlined above is an aesthetic of happenstance and of engagement: beauty lies in the capability of the wild to open new ways of seeing the world.

With the above in tow, it is not clear that man made objects are necessarily excluded from the wild if it can be shown they can manifest the features given above. I claim that wind turbines can. It is frequently claimed by opponents of wind power that they are impractical, being less controllable than the huge coal furnaces they’re more used to getting electricity from. This is true: compared to fossil fuels, wind turbines represent a surrender to nature. But in that surrender there is mystery: they force the user to consider new ways of powering civilisation, ones which are more in line with the forces that determine the shape of the wild. They are chaotic – certainly in output – but in interaction across the country bring a unity of output not of a single design, but of many. In the contemplation of this new world in which the wild moves into civilisation, rather than the other way round, they are certainly beautiful.

The train journey between Carlisle and Edinburgh now goes through what can only be described as a wind farm landscape. It is beautiful. When passing through it, one cannot help but contemplate how our world is changing, and how our very understanding of the previously hermetic worlds of the Wild and the Civilised are changing with it. Thoreau believed that man, through art and literature, could create the wild itself. In placing more of our civilisation in the hands of natural forces, we are bringing the wild home.

For the energy geeks

June 3, 2013

For all those of you with a deep and abiding love of energy policy, over on my business website I’ve put up my first article: How to decarbonise domestic heat on the cheap.

A Paradox of Gluttony

September 7, 2012

Even the cursorily familiar with economics will have heard of the Paradox of Thrift; when people, worried about the future of the economy, save rather than spend, and in doing so ensure that the economy takes a downturn.

The current shale gas boom in the US is an example of a different kind of paradox: a paradox of gluttony, of excessive greed leading to failure. Shale gas has been held up as the saviour of our economy; a new resource we can exploit in order to deliver cheaper energy and hence growth. However, unlike normal booms, no-one whose core business is extracting shale gas is actually making any money.

The reasons for this are pretty clear:

Henry Hub Natural Gas Spot Price Chart

Henry Hub Natural Gas Spot Price data by YCharts

Following the economic crisis, gas prices collapsed due to falling demand. The advent of shale gas has served to keep prices low, to the point where profitability of the sector is collapsing.

Why is this the case? Markets should respond to a price signal like this by decreasing production. Instead, gas production in the US has actually risen over the period.

The reason behind is an astonishing case of induced greed; an example of talking one’s book on an epic scale. The initial flood of investment into shale gas came from several ‘pioneer’ companies such as Chesapeake massively overleveraging themselves in order to snap up shale plays cheaply before the rest of the market caught on to the potential of fracking. Of course, once they’d done so, they had to ensure that the market, in fact, caught on. And so, they engaged in an enormous publicity campaign about the potential of fracking, placing articles in the media, engaging the investment community and generally putting themselves around quite a bit*.

It had an impact. Money flooded into shale exploitation, in the main by buying plays at extortionate rates from ‘pioneer’ companies, who proceeded to make a great deal of money. These plays have now been written down in large part. Nonetheless, the gas continues to flow, as the once greedy  and now worried investors lose money on their assets and demand production continues to extract any possible value, assuming that at some point other people will blink and the price will rise. Of course, if everyone does this, then the price will continue to stay too low for anyone to make any money. This is a paradox of gluttony.

It is difficult to say how long this particular ‘boom’ will last, estimates ranging from six months to several years. Nonetheless, it will eventually end in a squabble of recrimination, litigation and spiking gas prices. The environmentalists will blame the greed of the frackers, the libertarians will blame a quirk of SEC regulations that allowed the likes of Chesapeake to claim that a play is profitable without factoring in the actual cost of drilling, and the Austrians will blame the cheap credit that allowed the initial land grabs in the first place. In the interim before we decide who we’re going to blame, it’d probably be best if people stopped assuming shale gas will be a silver bullet.

*It is interesting to note that Cuadrilla, the company looking to exploit the UK’s Bowland Shale, has recruited Nick Grearly to go round the country extolling the potential of shale gas.