- 27 Oct 17
Storms have been afoot, with devastating consequences in parts of Ireland. Step back, however, and they illustrate the extraordinary power of the wind. So why is Ireland not a world leader in wind-generated power?
It is difficult to know where to start! We have hurricanes and floods and catastrophic wildfires in California. We have Brexit, the abortion debate and the rise of the far right on our Eastern European flank. We have the tracker mortgage scandal. And we have the thuggery of Harvey Weinstein. The witching season is nigh, the darkness draws in around us and we are encouraged to fantasise about evils and scary things of many stripes. Jasus, with what’s going on in the real world the scary world seems downright tame.
Recently, as we here on Hog Heights tucked into one of our fabled suppers, we mused over terms that might encapsulate these strange times. Many were called but few were chosen. Our favourite was the German term sturm und drang.
We like it for two reasons. For a start, it means tumult or turmoil and it translates literally as storm and stress. But sturm und drang was also a style or movement in German literature and music in the late 18th century, one characterised, according to dictionary.com, “by impetuosity of manner, exaltation of individual sensibility and intuitive perception, opposition to established forms of society and thought, and extreme nationalism.”
The sturm und drang movement emerged in opposition to French neo-classicism and its emphasis on the rational and ordered. Wikipedia’s entry adds that it “came to be associated with literature, drama or music aimed at shocking the audience or imbuing them with extremes of emotion.” The lead character in a typical play, poem or novel is driven to extreme action by revenge and greed, rather than the pursuit of truth or honour. There is an anti-aristocratic tone and a tendency to romanticise that which is humble, natural or intensely real.
How fitting is all of that for our times? It covers Trump and his cohorts, the so-called alt-right and extreme nationalists, the wolves of Wall Street, the irrationality and dismissal of science by climate change deniers, the narcissism of social media, the anti-elitism of the media and the left. It captures the lot.
But it wasn’t just about opposition to the rational. It was a consequence of the rise of the middle class, hence the anti-aristo tone. Sturm und drang artists and authors explored depression and violence, and they favoured the melodramatic and sensational. In ways they were precursors of post-modern leakage between celebrity, melodrama and news.
Visual artists of the movement painted storms and shipwrecks, marvelling at the terror and majesty of natural forces. They also went for disturbing visions: the writer and politician Johann Wolfgang Goethe is said to have admired paintings capable of “giving the viewer a good fright.”
Speaking of which, Goethe’s own book The Sorrows of Young Werther influenced the later Romantic period and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in particular, thus linking them with the modern Americanised Hallowe’en. In fairness, neither he nor she turned an ancient pagan harvest festival into the gory mess we now have on our hands, but their preoccupations laid its foundations.
So, the sturm und drang movement would have appreciated, if not enjoyed, our recent weather. Two massive storms already and it’s only October. Brace yourselves for more!
The damage has been considerable, especially from Ophelia. That a national disaster committee coordinated the response was good. But did RTÉ need to have rolling 24 hour coverage, even when little was happening? There wasn’t any overkill in the management of things, but by jaysus were we overkilled with being told how everything was being coordinated. Ostentatious is the word. Whoever was responsible took a leaf out of the sturm und drang playbook.
When it all died down we could reflect on the sheer power unleashed by Ophelia. It reminded everyone of the wind’s extraordinary potential towards constructive ends. Current calculations are that if we just nailed down 2% of the wind’s energy we’d provide most of the planet’s energy needs. Beat that.
Writing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers Anna Possner and Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution of Science in Stanford University concluded: “On an annual mean basis, the wind power available in the North Atlantic could be sufficient to power the world.” A farm to do this would need to be very large indeed, but the point stands.
Furthermore, it’s no longer fanciful, either technically or economically. In the UK, the price of a megawatt-hour from wind is £57.50. That’s 60% of the cost for a nuclear power station. In other words, they’re not just low carbon, they’re also cheap, aided by having been pushed offshore, which allowed bigger ones to be built without planning issues.
So, what of Ireland, one of the windiest countries on earth? Why aren’t we on the case? Sadly, it’s a pretty safe bet that we’ll be behind the curve. We’ll talk about renewables, of course, but will anything be done? Look at how slow we are with infrastructural development. In this, as in so much, we’ll just look to others to harness the wind and we’ll buy the power they generate. As we do with nuclear, which, of course, we wouldn’t allow on our own sainted soil. We don’t even like it nearby and complain about Sellafield all the time. But we buy it in nuclear-powered electricity from the UK.
We’re no better when it comes to floodwaters. We prefer to wail and bail. We won’t allow high-rise buildings so we build out, onto the natural flood plains. Then, when the inevitable happens, we try to engineer the problem away instead of forestalling the floods by, for example, ensuring that there is sufficient forestry in strategic locations to slow water flows and by encouraging other natural solutions such as the introduction of beavers, as is being done in the Forest of Dean in the UK. Beavers build small dams that hold water at higher altitudes. Simple. Effective.
And, shouldn’t we be harvesting water too? As we’ve often said up here on Hog Heights, as we talk of sturm und drang, feed the trolls, listen to the howling gales and swig our filtered water, we should be selling this stuff to the Arabs…